Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s name will not appear on primary ballots Tuesday in Michigan, but voters could decide whether his mother should bear any of the fallout from a scandal that has galvanized city hall.
Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., faces a serious challenge in a three-way congressional primary that has centered on the mayor’s conduct and on tough talk about who could best represent the struggling Detroit district.
The 38-year-old mayor and his former top aide are charged with perjury, misconduct and obstruction of justice, all connected to their testimony in a civil trial last year. They denied having a romantic relationship, but those claims have been contradicted by text messages in a scandal that has dominated news coverage in Detroit for months.
Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, was first elected to the U.S. House in 1996 after nearly two decades in the state Legislature. She has faced little opposition in a Democratic district that John Kerry won with 80 percent in the 2004 presidential election. The primary winner will be heavily favored in the November general election.
During the campaign, former state Rep. Mary Waters has repeatedly referred to the felony charges against the mayor and criticized the congresswoman for defending him. She released a scathing ad that contrasted the felony charges against the mayor with video of the congresswoman defending her son at a rally.
“The reason she got challenged on that was her own doing,” Waters said. “If she had not been out publicly defending his behavior, it wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
In a recent forum, the congresswoman said she supports her son and “we will raise whatever he needs for his defense — as any mother in this room would do.”
The third primary candidate, state Sen. Martha Scott, has downplayed the scandal and argued that focusing on the mayor’s troubles will do little to help the district, where many residents have struggled with high unemployment and poverty rates.
“I’m running for this office because I want to make life better. I don’t think (Rep. Kilpatrick) has done a good enough job,” Scott said.
Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick has pointed to her record in Congress, where she serves on the House Appropriations Committee. Waters, however, downplays Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick’s work to secure 500 million dollars in funding for the state. “Anybody who goes to Congress can bring home the dollars,” Waters said.
The candidates have sought the endorsement of presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has broad support in the district. But Obama is not expected to endorse because he has avoided the mayor’s scandal during his appearances in Michigan.
Some voters have separated the mayor from his mother’s congressional campaign. Duane Humphrey, 32, a Detroit restaurant manager, said he wants the mayor to resign but doesn’t think that his problems should reflect on the congresswoman. “It’s her son, but it’s got nothing to do with her,” he said.
The race is expected to be tight. A poll released by The Detroit News and WXYZ-TV last week showed Kilpatrick supported by 33 percent of voters, while Waters had 29 percent and Scott had 24 percent. The poll of 400 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The Detroit Free Press endorsed Kilpatrick. The Detroit News endorsed Waters.
Kilpatrick should be helped by having two challengers likely splitting the vote against her. State officials predict statewide turnout of less than 20 percent, which also could help her.
Kilpatrick entered mid-July with nearly 500,000 dollars in her campaign account and was expected to flood the district with television, radio and print ads during the final weekend. Waters had raised 10,000 dollars through July 16 and carried nearly 8,000 dollars in debt, while Scott has not filed a campaign finance report.
Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick “is part of a larger political machine that will be able to turn out primary voters,” said Oakland University political scientist David Dulio.
The congresswoman also has clout as chairwoman of the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus. A CBC chair has never lost re-election while leading the caucus, said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist who has studied post-civil rights politics.
She has brought several high-profile Democrats to the district to help her cause, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and New York Rep. Charles Rangel.
But Pelosi’s trip was overshadowed by the mayor’s troubles. When the speaker arrived at the Downriver Italian American Hall in Wyandotte on July 25, a dramatic court hearing in Detroit involving the mayor was under way.
A judge changed the terms of the mayor’s bail in his criminal case, ordering him to immediately post 7,500 dollars and undergo random drug tests after a sheriff’s deputy accused him of assault.
Bill McConico, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick’s campaign manager, acknowledged that many media outlets shifted gears to focus on the mayor instead of Pelosi, making it “hard to get your message out.”
But he said the congresswoman would be busy during the weekend reaching out to voters.
“We’re going to have a comfortable night next Tuesday,” he said.