He is African American, charismatic, and controversial. Barack Obama's campaign would prefer that he not attend the Democratic National Convention. And he is not the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Meet Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, perhaps Denver's least welcome superdelegate. He has helped turn Democratic-leaning Michigan into something approaching a tossup state.
Michigan was already in play because Obama is an extremely liberal candidate for a working-class state, and because John McCain has had a good track record here, winning the 2000 Michigan primary over George W. Bush. But Kilpatrick has made life even more difficult for Democrats.
The mayor faces eight charges of perjury, misconduct in office, and obstruction of justice related to his testimony in a Detroit police whistle-blower lawsuit. Complicating matters, Kilpatrick also faces two charges of assault for allegedly attacking a detective who was delivering a summons to the house of the mayor's sister. Michigan Democrats from firebrand attorney Geoffrey Fieger to longtime congressman John Dingell to several black city council members have called on the mayor to step down, but Kilpatrick won't go.
No wonder Brent Colburn, a spokesman for Obama's Michigan campaign, issued a statement that said, "The focus of our convention to people back here in Michigan should be on Barack Obama and how the party intends to get America back on track, not a distraction involving the troubles of one individual."
The courts, not peer pressure, may grant Obama his wish. A judge in the assault case has barred the mayor from traveling out of town and put him on a tether. This negated a ruling by a different judge in the perjury case that removed the tether and allowed Kilpatrick to travel. Kilpatrick requested an August 25 hearing to see if he can get the tether removed, which still might allow him to go to Denver.
Republicans and Democrats alike think Kilpatrick could be influential in the fall election. Obama praised him as a "great mayor" during a May 2007 appearance at the Detroit Economic Club. "I'm grateful to call him a friend and colleague," Obama said. Later, Kilpatrick lauded the Rev. Wright while introducing him for an April keynote address to the Detroit NAACP annual dinner. Just a few days later, Wright had a raucous appearance at the National Press Club in Washington--after which Obama finally disowned his longtime pastor.
"The fact that Kilpatrick can be linked to Obama/Wright at a time when Kilpatrick has a 2 percent favorable rating outside of Detroit makes the link devastating," says Michigan GOP pollster Steve Mitchell of Mitchell Interactive.
"During the primaries, Obama dismissed some white voters by saying they 'cling to their guns or religion,' " Mitchell wrote earlier this month in RealClearPolitics. "Democrats must now worry that white voters in Michigan may well cling to their enormous antipathy toward Kwame Kilpatrick and take it out on Barack Obama."
Some Democrats agree. "Kilpatrick scares white mainstream voters and could cost Obama Michigan and thus the presidency in a tight election," says Sam Riddle, a Michigan African-American political consultant who called early on for Kilpatrick's resignation. Riddle worked for Mary Waters, a former state representative who almost beat Kilpatrick's mom-six-term U.S. representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus-in a three-candidate August primary. The two challengers carried 54 percent of the vote in Detroit, signaling the electorate's displeasure with the Kilpatrick name.
But Detroit voters' antipathy toward Kilpatrick won't translate into an anti-Obama vote. African Americans remain solidly behind Obama.The real worry is about white voters. Still, Obama himself will determine how well he does in Michigan. If voters identify him with specific policies that they like, he may well win. But if his campaign sticks to rhetorical vagueness, then he will remain vulnerable to attacks involving how he handled his relations with the controversial Wright and Kilpatrick.
The question may become how completely Obama and Democrats can get Kilpatrick off the voters' minds. Their best chance comes September 3, when Michigan's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, holds a hearing about removing Kilpatrick from office. The mayor and governor, while from the same Wayne County political machine, do not get along. Granholm, who has poor approval ratings in a state with the nation's worst unemployment rate, might show uncharacteristic guts and remove Kilpatrick. It could help her earn a spot in an Obama administration.
But Kilpatrick likely will go to trial on either the assault or the perjury charges before the November 4 election. That would put the embattled mayor in the spotlight during the stretch run of the presidential campaign and give plenty of ammunition for outside political committees to run ads linking Kilpatrick to Obama.
Obama may avoid a Kilpatrick embarrassment this week in Denver, but the scandal-ridden mayor promises to throw a long shadow over the Democratic campaign into the fall.
Richard Burr is associate editor of the Detroit News editorial page.