By John Corvino
It’s been two weeks since “the most important election in Detroit in decades.”
After the election, many of my suburban friends approached me solicitously: “Can you BELIEVE that Kilpatrick got re-elected? Aren’t you just sick over the outcome? Don’t you just want to leave?”
In reverse order: no, no, and yes.
No, I don’t want to leave. I like it here. And while I hope for–and will keep working to elect–a better city government, I also realize that much of what’s good here happens independently of the administration.
Nor do I worry about the post-election poll reporting that a third of Detroiters would leave the city if they could. As Susan Ager pointed out in her Free Press column, a poll of Californians last year had a similar result. Most Americans think the grass is greener somewhere other than where they live.
No, I’m not sick over the outcome. If my health were contingent upon Detroit’s political welfare, I would have keeled over years ago. Detroit chugs along in spite of itself, just as it’s been doing for decades.
And yes, I can believe that Kilpatrick got re-elected. He did not steal the election, as some have foolishly alleged. In order to do so, he would have needed the help of Jackie Currie, the city clerk. But if Currie were going to rig the election, surely she would have saved herself first. (Currie lost her longtime post to challenger Janice Winfrey in the day’s biggest–and most deserved–upset victory.)
Kilpatrick won mainly because he was a stronger candidate than his opponent.
I know the newspapers made Hendrix seem virtually unbeatable. But to those of us watching up close, he was an uninspiring candidate. Yes, he is mature, dignified, and mostly scandal-free. But he was arrogant on the campaign trail, he lacked solid details in his nonetheless wordy plan for Detroit’s turnaround, and he ultimately proved to be no match for someone with Kilpatrick’s charisma and intelligence.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no great fan of the mayor. As I wrote on these pages eight months ago:
“The incumbent mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, has been a disaster. Forget the fact that he’s terrible on gay issues, having insulted us not only during his first mayoral campaign but also while in office…. Put simply, Kilpatrick has been asleep on the job for the past three-and-a-half years. (Hey, if you partied like he does, you’d need sleep too.) And don’t even get me started about his administration’s ethics.”
Kilpatrick claims that the media has been unfair to him. While there’s some truth to that claim, the fact is that his performance in office thus far has left much to be desired. It is difficult to trust him. And even if people’s perceptions of him are unfair, perception matters. It affects Detroiters’ confidence in their city. It affects outsiders’ willingness to invest in the city.
During the last few weeks of the election Kilpatrick began courting the gay vote, holding a forum at Off-Broadway East (a mostly African-American gay club on the east side), conducting an interview with BTL, and attending several house parties at the homes of gay couples.
I attended one of those house parties, just as I had attended a similar one for Hendrix a few weeks before. The contrast was striking–and not just because Hendrix’s was in Grosse Pointe, with a largely suburban (read “non Detroit voting”) crowd, while Kilpatrick’s was in Detroit’s Indian Village.
The Hendrix crowd came prepared to be impressed, and yet many walked away disappointed. (I’ve heard similar stories from many friends who had planned to join his campaign.) By contrast, the Kilpatrick crowd arrived skeptical, and yet many walked away impressed (albeit cautiously). Give the guy credit for being smooth.
And then, despite all of the contrary polls and predictions, he came from behind and won the election. Give the guy credit for being tenacious.
Now comes the hard part. No one doubts that Kilpatrick has smarts and charisma. Whether he has sufficient maturity, integrity, and focus remains to be seen.
You know what would be really impressive, Mr. Mayor? Make a comeback that goes well beyond winning the election. Become the great mayor you project yourself to be.
Prove that you’ve really learned from your mistakes. Use your considerable charm to enhance Detroit’s image–as well as its reality. Don’t just be a great campaigner: be a great leader.
Detroit faces Herculean challenges. Show us what you’re really made of.