The rest of the country may have dimly registered a flurry of scandal over romantic text messages involving Detroit's mayor four months ago. But the controversy has become a growing political cancer that threatens not only to get Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick turned out of office and even sent to jail, but also to unseat the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and even damage Barack Obama's chances of carrying swing-state Michigan in the fall.
The ouster of the self-proclaimed hip-hop mayor is far from certain. But as court and removal proceedings bog down, the scandal remains an albatross for the Motor City and Kilpatrick's Democratic allies.
When Kilpatrick took office in 2002, he was only 31. A former minority leader of the Michigan House of Representatives, he lived large, sporting a posse of body guards. Eventually, rumors of a wild 2002 stripper party at the mayoral mansion and misbehavior by the bodyguards reached Gary Brown, Detroit's deputy police chief for internal affairs. The party was rumored to be connected to the murder of Tamara Greene, an exotic dancer.
Brown started investigating in 2003, and within two weeks he was fired. That led to a probe by Republican state attorney general Mike Cox, who found problems with "extravagant payments of overtime" to the body guards, but declared the alleged party had "all the earmarks of an 'urban legend' and should be treated as such."
But four years later, a wrongful firing/whistle-blower lawsuit revived the issue. Both Kilpatrick and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, testified in August 2007 they had not had Brown fired. When asked on the witness stand if they had been "romantic" or "intimate," Kilpatrick and Beatty denied it.
The jury didn't believe them and awarded Brown and another officer $6.5 million. Kilpatrick eventually settled this and an untried companion lawsuit for a total of $8.4 million. What the Detroit City Council didn't know when it approved the payment out of public coffers is that there was a secret deal to lock in a bank vault steamy text messages from city-issued pagers by Kilpatrick and Beatty.
Those came crashing into public view in late January when they were splashed across the front page of the Detroit Free Press. On October 3, 2002, Kilpatrick wrote, "I'm madly in love with you." Beatty answered, "I hope you feel that way for a long time. In case you haven't noticed, I am madly in love with you, too!" They shared other messages about missing each other and laughed about almost getting caught by the bodyguards at a hotel while in Washington for a Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference.
The messages also indicated Kilpatrick and Beatty had lied about Brown's ouster. On May 15, 2003, Beatty wrote, "I'm sorry that we are going through this mess because of a decision that we made to fire Gary Brown. I will make sure that the next decision is much more thought out." The mayor responded, "It had to happen though. I'm all the way with that!"
Kilpatrick initially did not deny writing the text messages. Instead, his office released a statement calling the messages "profoundly embarrassing." "My wife and I worked our way through these intensely personal issues years ago," he wrote. Beatty, who had already divorced, resigned.
Kilpatrick played all the cards at his disposal. He and his wife made a vague televised apology and vowed to fight. In his State of the City speech, Kilpatrick said his family had received death threats and he had been called the N-word more than at any other time in his life. It didn't work.
After a legal battle, a tiny portion of the text messages were released to the public. Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy in late March charged Kilpatrick with perjury, obstruction of justice, and misconduct in office. Beatty faces similar charges. "Even children know that lying is wrong," Worthy said at a press conference.
Since the Detroit City Council also thinks it was lied to, it voted 5-4 this month to start impeachment proceedings to remove the mayor. Because the city charter is vaguely worded, the council will face legal challengees, and its chances of success are slim. The Democratic governor is unlikely to fulfill the council's request that she remove Kilpatrick.
The criminal case is not a slam dunk, either. Proving perjury will be difficult because some questions weren't worded precisely, Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning wrote in the Detroit News. He asks: "Can anyone define what [romantically involved] means with any precision: candlelight dinners, walks along the beach, exchanging gifts, or just a physical relationship?"
Kilpatrick's defense lawyers also contend the text messages can't be admitted under the federal Stored Communications Act. Yale law professor Susan Crawford and Michigan State University law professor Adam Candeub disagree, with Candeub saying it will take a "legal miracle" for Kilpatrick to prevail. Kilpatrick's attorneys say the prosecutor must prove that the mayor typed the messages himself. Worthy says she can prove it.
Because the mayor is part of a politically powerful Detroit family, his downfall might create a domino effect. A former state House Democratic floor leader, Mary Waters, and state senator Martha Scott are challenging the mayor's mother, six-term U.S. representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, in the August Democratic primary. Waters said the congresswoman's comment that "we will appeal no matter what it costs the city" reflects arrogance among the Kilpatricks.
"We must stop being victims of those who would be irresponsible," Waters says, a message that may resonate with Detroit and suburban voters in the 13th Congressional District. Waters, who is on leave from her government relations job with Prosecutor Worthy, is aided by political consultant Sam Riddle, who helped Mayor Kilpatrick's 2005 reelection but now is one of the mayor's most vocal critics.
Barack Obama might suffer collateral damage as well. The Kilpatrick scandal "has polarized the Michigan electorate to such an extent that there are very senior Michigan Democrats who think that there is no way any black candidate, let alone Barack Obama, could carry Michigan in the fall," New York magazine's John Heilemann told Chris Matthews on May 11.
That may overstate the case. "Obama is going to have serious problems in Michigan, but I don't think the Kilpatrick situation will be a big part of that," says Michigan GOP pollster Steve Mitchell of Mitchell Interactive. He sees the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a bigger concern among ticket-splitting white voters.
The funny thing is that Kilpatrick's delaying tactics have pushed his preliminary criminal hearing into September, the beginning of the fall campaigns. The scandal will be like the text messages--perhaps easy to delete at first but difficult to erase from the voters' minds.
Richard Burr is associate editor of the Detroit News editorial page.