Detroit Mayor's Troubles Test A City Short on Good Fortune
Sunday, March 9, 2008
DETROIT -- When Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick settles behind the lectern Tuesday to deliver his annual State of the City address, he is expected to highlight his city's recent makeover, with two gleaming, new skyscrapers downtown and two state-of-the-art sports arenas near the main drag.
But those successes cannot hide a scar that Kilpatrick inflicted on his city: Reports about an extramarital affair with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, sent his administration reeling, with the mayor facing sharp questions about whether he can still govern, while Detroit is on the hook for millions of dollars of taxpayer money over lawsuits sparked by the scandal.
The Wayne County prosecutor is investigating Kilpatrick and Beatty, who has resigned, to determine whether they committed perjury by denying in sworn testimony that they were romantically involved. Kilpatrick is the subject of a separate investigation by the City Council, which wants to know if he tried to cover up the alleged affair with nearly $9 million in taxpayer money.
The crisis has provided rich material for late-night television hosts, who have made Detroit the butt of jokes. But it is no laughing matter in Detroit, where the budget deficit hovers around $100 million, where fire stations have to temporarily close because there is no money to staff them and where the schools are losing 10,000 students each year as families flee to the suburbs.
"It's the sort of thing that makes people who are thinking of starting a business here or moving into a house think twice, no doubt about it," said City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. "I went to Taiwan on a fact-finding trade mission recently, and even people there had heard about it and were cracking jokes.
"I think, in the long run, it's not going to hurt that much," said Cockrel, whose colleagues recently tabled a resolution calling on Kilpatrick to resign. "In the short run, yes, it's a problem. The city of Detroit is a national and international punching bag."
To register his disapproval of the mayor, Cockrel said, he will break with tradition and not share the stage with him during the State of the City speech.
West of Detroit, Chicago continues to thrive. And to the east, Cleveland has experienced a resurrection of sorts. But Detroit's fortunes never seem to change. Once a titan among American cities, the Motor City has experienced a drop in population from about 2 million during its heyday in the 1950s to about 850,000 now.
Cockrel said that outsiders should be focusing on the city's turnaround, not on the scandal. Three new casinos with two full-service hotels pay more than $100 million in taxes and draw tens of thousands of tourists to Detroit, he said. Housing construction is underway in several city quadrants, including downtown, where a few penthouse condos recently sold for $1 million each.
Kilpatrick may rightly claim credit for all of it in Tuesday's speech. Other successes include persuading Quicken Loans, the nation's largest online mortgage lender, to move its 4,000 employees from suburban Livonia to downtown across the street from the Fox Theater; successfully negotiating the $180 million renovation of a historic hotel after years of failed attempts by previous administrations; and overseeing a $2 billion redevelopment project along the Detroit River.
The mayor might also talk about how the NCAA Final Four will be held in the city in 2010, and how the NCAA will bring its hockey championship next year to Detroit, known as "Hockey Town USA."
Kilpatrick is less likely to mention the issues that threaten to bring him down: putting $210,000 on a city-issued credit card during the budget crisis; charging the city $25,000 to lease a luxury SUV for his wife; and saying that police officers tried to intimidate Beatty by stopping her for speeding and detaining her when she asked, "Do you know who the [expletive] I am?"