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DETROIT – Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is in a tough reelection campaign against challenger Freman Hendrix. Although the polls show Hendrix with a strong lead going into the final week of the campaign, most experts agree that Kilpatrick could still upset the frontrunner.
Kilpatrick, 35, is one of the youngest mayors of a major city in America. He rose to political prominence as the Democratic Party leader in the Michigan State House and in 2000 he left the state legislature to run for Mayor of Detroit.
He has had a rocky relationship with the LGBT community as Mayor. He raised the ire of the community with anti-gay remarks in his first campaign, but he said he has learned a lot about the gay community through that experience and his interactions with LGBT leaders throughout his first term. But after almost four years in office, his administration has done little to advance the issues that are most important to the LGBT community.
Kilpatrick spoke to BTL’s co-publisher Jan Stevenson Oct. 22 by phone about a range of issue including his campaign, his perceptions of the LGBT community, domestic partner benefits, and how his faith influences his views on LGBT issues.
Between The Lines: Are you interested in getting support from Detroit’s politically active gay community for your campaign?
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick: Absolutely. I’m interested in having the support of everyone in Detroit.
BTL: Triangle Pride PAC sends out questionnaires during each election cycle and they sent one to your campaign, and it was not returned. Is there a reason why?
Kilpatrick: No. It is not because of the gay community or the Triangle Pride PAC. We just had a problem early in this election sending those back. We didn’t send back the UAW’s questionnaire. Early when all the questionnaires were coming in, it was the same time that we were going through the budget period. Unfortunately it took us a while to get a campaign staff together, to get people up and going. And it took us a long time before we even transitioned into a political organization. By the time we did that we were well into July.
So it’s not anything personal, and if they would still want me to fill that out I would be happy to.
BTL: Are you aware that gay people have no legal protections under state or federal law against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations?
Kilpatrick: What do you mean by that?
BTL: The civil rights legislation that is on the books, such as the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Law in Michigan, does not cover sexual orientation.
Kilpatrick: Yeah, yeah. [When in the state House] I supported including sexual orientation in Elliott-Larsen and in the hate crimes legislation. In fact, I co-sponsored some of those bills when I was in Lansing.
BTL: Detroit’s City Charter extends protections based on sexual orientation. The agency with enforcement power of the charter is the Human Rights Commission, but it is woefully under funded. There are no investigators, or investigations or real staff to deal with any complaints that may come in. That’s a problem since that is the only defense for gay folks against discrimination. Why is that?
Kilpatrick: Well, the HRC is also the primary agency for enforcement for executive orders and for ordinance violations. We are just not doing the job in any of those areas and we haven’t been for a very long time because of under-funding. So it’s just not the gay issue. We are doing very poorly there in moving dollars. And when this mayor – me – when I have been faced with ‘where do you cut?’ unfortunately a lot of it has been in the compliance and enforcement area and in human rights.
I would love to sit down – and I have said this to the construction trade community, as well as the African-American contracting community, and now to you and to the gay community – to sit down and come up with some other way, or some help in enforcement. We just don’t have the army to do it now. And it would be disingenuous for either me or my opponent to say that we can fund it – we just don’t have the dollars right now to put into that pot to do it. Because every dollar that goes there is from the general fund is away from a cop or police officer, is away from recreation, it’s away from DTW. What we are doing now, just so you know, is we are trying to look legally if we could have citizens be enforcement people – actually deputize citizens. But that is in the early stages, because we do need some citizen volunteers, some citizen activists, because I don’t see in the short term how we can beef up that part of our operations. It matters and it is frustrating.
BTL: Gov. Granholm launched her “Cool Cities” initiative, and you have been involved in all of that for Detroit. The whole thing is based on the work of urban planner Richard Florida and his book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” In part, Florida argues that those cities that welcome their gay communities send a strong signal to creative people that they are welcome.
In Detroit, many gay people just don’t feel that love. There is no liaison in the mayor’s office to the gay community, and Detroit remains one of the few large cities in America that doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits to the same-sex partnered employees.
You currently have the legal authority to enact DP benefits without a charter provision – the City Council gave the mayor that power in the Archer Administration. Why haven’t you done that, and will you do it if elected to a second term?
Kilpatrick: The only reason I haven’t extended partnership benefits is that we need to radically reorganize the entire benefits structure – period. And to add the benefits now would almost be financially irresponsible at this point. Because our benefits have gone up $120 million in three years since I’ve been here, to add more people at this time would be financially irresponsible.
I hate being management sometimes because it makes me look like an ogre, but I was one of the co-sponsors in Lansing of legislation to extend domestic partner benefits for the state. I believe in it. I think it is something that absolutely needs to happen, but sitting in this chair everyone says, ‘Well, just make it happen.’ Well, that means our benefits may go up another $10 to $15 million which means I would have to cut more than $15 million from the budget. So once we reorganize our benefits and we are done renegotiating with our unions I want that to be part of the benefit package. I really do. I want every benefit that is allowed by any city employee to be extended to the partnership benefits, and people who are registered in the city need to have those benefits.
When I was reading Richard Florida’s book, and I had a long, in depth conversation with him, it opened me up and exposed me, and then traveling. You know, one of the problems with most people in Detroit, I don’t care what kind of income bracket they come from, they are only really exposed to Detroit, and it is only ever a ‘black-and-white’ conversation. I didn’t go to school with one white person until I went to high school. You learn more as you go along, and now I know that it is critically important for us to expand our world, our minds, our industry base, our cultural base, our arts base. We need to open ourselves to different people to be able to grow and flourish right here in Detroit.
BTL: Many LGBT police and firefighters do not feel safe coming out at work – they fear for their personal safety and their jobs.
BTL: Yeah. Using Boston and NYC as examples, both cities have active employee groups in their police and fire departments that are strongly supported by the mayor’s office. Would you support a gay employee group in the Detroit police and fire departments?
Kilpatrick: Yes, if there is a gay or lesbian group I would definitely support it. I don’t see any problem with that at all.
BTL: Diversity training for the police and other city service departments to sensitize them more to gay issues has stopped. Why is that and would you provide the leadership necessary to get them going again?
Kilpatrick: Diversity training and training period in the police department fell apart between 1995 and 2002. Terrible. We need it now more than we’ve ever needed it before. We went out and got Dr. L.C. Scott who is a world-renowned leader in training. She was here for a couple of years and then got a big-time job offer in Washington, D.C. so now she’s gone. We gotta pick that back up because I believe it’s one of the critical problems in community relations with the police officers.
That organization spends most of their time problem solving. And it is hard to solve problems when you don’t know the community, when you are not comfortable with the community, when you have no training in dealing with people, when you’re not exposed to diversity. We are taking an organization that grew up on being tough, being aggressive and policing has changed so much in America, but the department hasn’t changed. Most of their job – 99 percent of it – is really problem solving. It’s not taking a guy out or taking him down. So that’s something we have to teach and learn.
We are doing a national search now to get someone to replace Dr. Scott. That was a major loss when she went to Washington. We need someone else to come in to fill that void.
BTL: Will you support the hiring of openly gay police and firefighters?
Kilpatrick: Sure. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
BTL: Currently the City of Detroit offers Neighborhood Opportunity Funds to organizations that qualify. One requirement to receive NOF money is compliance with all city laws. Do you agree that organizations that receive taxpayer money such as NOF funds should comply with the City Charter and the Omnibus Civil Rights Ordinance?
Kilpatrick: Sure – yes.
BTL: What about the Boy Scouts? Should they be allowed to use city space for free?
Kilpatrick: Are they still discriminating against gay leaders?
BTL: Yep, their policy is that they will not allow gay men to be scouts or leaders.
Kilpatrick: I’ve always been a supporter of the Boy Scouts, and it is a shame that that is still the policy of the Boy Scouts. In 2002 I got in a lot of trouble with the gay community for supporting the Boy Scouts’ stance. I am a former Boy Scout leader, and I started a program at Marcus Garvey Academy, and I never knew that was a policy. It is a private organization and they have a right to think what they want, but it is a problem when they start taking public money. So yes, I do have a problem with that. I didn’t know that was still one of the big issues. I thought that was gone because so many Boy Scout leaders were gay. [laughter] I thought they had gotten over that one. Seems a little hypocritical.
BTL: As Mayor, would you be willing to preside at same-sex commitment ceremonies?
Kilpatrick: No. I don’t do that. I have performed one ceremony – period – when I got into office because I promised my uncle I would do it. I’m not comfortable presiding over any ceremony – marriage or commitment. I just think that is a role for the church. I just feel very deeply that when two people are bond together that should be done in holy matrimony. I ain’t the guy to be doing that.
BTL: You did not support Proposal 2 last year. Do you support the repeal of the state’s constitutional amendment approved in Proposal 2?
Kilpatrick: I could not go out and support the repeal of it. I would not be on the other side either. My issue is because of where I am with my faith, so I wouldn’t be out there actively in support of repeal of it.
BTL: In your first run for mayor you made a comment that angered many people in the gay community. You said you would not want your sons to be near any gay men. Despite repeated requests for an apology, you have never actually apologized to the gay community for that remark. Would you like to take this opportunity to do so now?
Kilpatrick: You know, I have gone into smaller settings and said that if anyone was hurt by that comment then I apologize. I would like to take this opportunity to say to your readers that if anybody was hurt by that comment that I made, then I apologize for that.
There was a specific question that was asked of me when I was 30 years old and piss and vinegar and I answered right off the top of my head, and people took that as a discriminatory hate comment. And that hurt me tremendously because of my record in the community. What I said was, and I can’t remember exactly what I said, ‘I wouldn’t want my kids around gay people,’ is ignorant actually. I don’t know how you keep your kids [away from gays] because people are everywhere and they are just people.
My comments were way too much, and I think after that I had more meetings with groups of gay and lesbian people than any mayor ever has in the history of the City of Detroit. Whether it was going to Affirmations, or smaller settings in Detroit, African-American gay organizations, or going to Hotter Than July! – I’ve been to Hotter Than July! for three years because I want people to know who I am. I don’t hate anybody. I just want people to understand that.
I want my kids to be more global in their perspective. Of course, I want to raise my sons to be strong in who they are, and I don’t want them to be narrow-minded as well. But you change from 30 to 35, and there’s some things because of my faith that I don’t support, but I don’t ever want to be looked at as someone who hates.
BTL: What have you learned about the gay community in your first term?
Kilpatrick: I have learned an awful lot about people who are right around me who are members of the community, and it has been real interesting. I have an ability to disagree, and they have the ability to disagree with me, but there is a mutual love for the heart of people and I have learned that you can do that.
So many African-American men, and that’s all I know about because I’ve been one my whole life, you learn from being a young baby to be against being gay or liking a gay guy, or to be macho. And my whole life I have always been a person who brought people together. I’ve never been a bully, never been someone who talks about folks. And I think that role is playing out much better in this position, and that’s what I want to continue to do.
I think our city is in a position where we are ready to accept the world, we are ready to accept the global mind, we are ready to accept a new economy, we are ready to host a Super Bowl. I have learned that the gay community is a very, very important part of that.
INFO BOX: Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick will be doing Q & A at Off Broadway East Friday, Oct. 28 from 7-9 p.m. Off Broadway East is located at 12215 Harper in Detroit. For more information please call 313-526-8401.