S2 E10: Right Here, Right Now
December 10, 2018
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When Mayor Coleman Young dies after twenty years in office, he leaves a yawning vacuum in Detroit’s power structure. But a successor quickly arises: a young, ambitious state legislator named Kwame Kilpatrick. He’s charismatic, larger than life, and has an impeccable political pedigree. There’s only one person who can stop Kwame Kilpatrick: himself.
Season 2 of Crimetown is available exclusively on Spotify. You can sign up and listen for free at spotify.com/crimetown. For a full list of credits, and more information about this episode, visit crimetownshow.com.
Season 2 of Crimetown is available exclusively on Spotify. You can sign up and listen for free at spotify.com/crimetown. For a full list of credits, and more information about this episode, visit crimetownshow.com.
ARCHIVAL FLASHPOINT: Who is leading the race right now and who will ultimately be the next mayor of Detroit?
JOHN WHITE: It’s 2001, an election year. And a controversial character from a prior episode is running for mayor...
ARCHIVAL DEVIN SCILLIAN: If you’ve picked up a paper, turned on a radio or TV you probably know city council president Gil Hill is the early favorite to succeed as mayor of Detroit.
JOHN: Gil Hill, the former head of the Detroit police homicide unit. The FBI believed he was corrupt. They investigated him for allegedly taking bribes to cover up the murder of a thirteen-year-old boy...
ARCHIVAL SCILLIAN: Baggage? He is perceived to have close ties to a police department struggling to correct its inadequacies while enduring a federal investigation into its practices.
JOHN: Soon after the FBI started taking a look at Gil Hill, he retired from the police department and ran for City Council president.
ARCHIVAL GIL HILL: People began to refer to me as mayor. Of course I didn’t let that influence me. I had to think about it. I had to discuss it with my family of course. I had to determine whether or not we could raise the monies to win. And lo and behold it became apparent that all of those things could happen and I announced that I was going to enter the mayor’s race.
JOHN: Now, Gil Hill was was poised to become mayor.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: Hill’s numbers seem to be getting stronger as the primary draws closer.
JOHN: But there was one man who just might be able to stop him.
ARCHIVAL CROWD: Kwame! Kwame! Kwame!
JOHN: His name - Kwame Kilpatrick.
ARCHIVAL KWAME KILPATRICK: We want want our citizens to go to the ballot box and decide whether they want to move forward or stay in the mud. That should be the decision that citizens are making in the ballot book!
JOHN: Today on the show...the 2001 race for mayor pits Detroit's past against its future.
I’m John White. Welcome to Crimetown.
KWAME KILPATRICK: In the fourth grade I won a contest at my school. It was a black studies contest and the prize was to go meet Coleman Young, the Mayor of Detroit, and I was 9 years old.
JOHN: According to Kwame Kilpatrick, his political ambitions began with this visit to the Mayor's official residence: the Manoogian Mansion.
KWAME: It’s a little meeting greeting area, and he came down the stairs. And we shook his hand so I couldn’t even breathe. And I only met him for like two minutes, John, and it was like quick, but for me as a 9-year-old kid, I thought it was a long time.
JOHN: There's a photo of this moment. Nine-year-old Kwame Kilpatrick, looking nervous but excited, stands next to a smartly dressed Coleman Young.
KWAME: From that day forward I told everybody I would be mayor. So it was never anything else I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be president, I wanted to be mayor of the city of Detroit since I was 9 years old and I told everybody that.
JOHN: And the first person he told was his mom, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.
ARCHIVAL COLEMAN YOUNG: We also have with us from the state legislature Representative Carolyn Kilpatrick.
ARCHIVAL CAROLYN CHEEKS KILPATRICK: Thank you very much Mr. Mayor. Ladies and gentlemen...
JOHN: Carolyn was first elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1979. Here she is speaking alongside Coleman Young at an anti-crime summit a few years later.
ARCHIVAL CAROLYN: ...not just locking people up but re-employing them and retraining them and all that goes with that. Thank you Mr. Mayor and I stand ready to support you.
JOHN: Tell me about your mother. Can you describe her?
KWAME: My mother’s my hero. She’s my hero. She is the epitome of a public servant, somebody who really committed her life and was truly called to do that work.
KWAME: I was always strong enough to be different. I just credit my parents with that. And my father was funny. He’d make you feel bad if you wanted to follow the crowd. So, I didn’t have to follow the crowd.
BERNARD KILPATRICK: He was very inquisitive, for one thing. He wanted to see what was going on around him.
JOHN: This is Bernard Kilpatrick, Kwame’s father. He worked on Carolyn’s first campaign, and served in local government himself. But he and Carolyn divorced when Kwame was young.
BERNARD: Politics had nothing to do with it. It was a lot of other things, you know. Just normal kind of things that guys who think they're Romeo and trying to maintain a marriage at the same time. Those kinds of problems, you know?
DREW NELLES: What do you mean by that?
BERNARD: You don't need a picture. No, I mean I had, like, a couple of affairs. Five or six.
JOHN: Kwame lived with his mother, who kept a watchful eye on her son and made sure he stayed on the right track. Kwame played football in high school and went on to college.
KWAME: And my mother was very strict. But in my college graduation, I was walking across the stage and she was standing there at Florida A&M and she took a picture. As he was crying and she was just boohooing and sobbing and I grabbed her and I hugged her and I said, "Ma, you was so mean when we were growing up." And she said, "I wanted you to get to this moment right here."
JOHN: Kwame got a job teaching middle school in Detroit and he put himself through law school. Then, in 1996, his mother decided to make a run for U.S. Congress. And Kwame saw a chance to take her seat in the state house.
CAROLYN: So as a mother, I wore my mother hat, not my political hat, I was concerned. It’s a lonely job. All you all see is the receptions and people smiling and all that. But public service, if you’re committed to it, and that’s how we raised him, that’s what I did in my 32 years, if you’re committed to serving, to representing, to speaking, to bringing the resources in, I know how hard it is sometimes.
BERNARD: It was the age-old battle between me and his mother about whether or not he was ready.
KWAME: I went to my father, he thought it was an excellent idea. [laughs] He said you said man you should run, you got to go right now, this is the time.
BERNARD: My position was, he was ready three years ago. His background got him ready. This guy was out here, handing out leaflets, talking to people when he was 11. When is he going to be ready? If he ain't ready, shit, nobody's ever ready. He's the smartest guy I know.
JOHN: Now, all Kwame needed was a campaign manager...
CHRISTINE BEATTY: He was like um listen my family doesn’t want to really support this. They don't really want me to run. So I got to do this on my own.
JOHN: This is Christine Beatty, Kwame's close friend from high school...
JOHN: What’d you say to her?
KWAME: I said, “I’m about to run for political office, state rep, the job that my mom had.” They all knew what my mother did and I said I want you to help me. I want you to manage my campaign.
BEATTY: What? I know zilch. But Kwame felt like, “Listen, we have a good base. We have the Kilpatrick name.” We walked and knocked on about 5,000 doors that summer. We let people know who he was. A son of the community and it resonated with people.
KWAME: Our campaign slogan was generation to generation, basically you know in allusion to the fact that my mom represented the district for 18 years. It was time to pass the torch and it was from one generation, Carolyn Kilpatrick to Kwame Kilpatrick. And that's the kind of campaign we ran.
JOHN: And it worked. In 1996, both Kilpatricks won. Carolyn headed to Washington and Kwame headed to Lansing... to the Michigan state house. Where he quickly became popular with his fellow representatives.
BERNARD: And the things that he did in his first years, he did stuff that nobody'd ever done.
JOHN: Bernard remembers Kwame's second term… when he ran for House minority leader.
BERNARD: you can't win it for House leader with just Flint, Detroit, places that black folks like. You got to have white support.
JOHN: How did he get that?
BERNARD: He went to all these white places. He went to up in Michigan, you know I don't know if you know anything about the Upper Peninsula, but it's all white.
BERNARD: He was at the Annual Ice Festival in the Upper Peninsula. The first black guy they had ever seen up there. Walking around, hugging people, talking to state reps, talking to local officials, Democratic Party. It was incredible. I mean he called me from up there, "You know, I'm actually having fun." I said, "There's something wrong with you, man. You up there in the ice man.” He said, “Yeah man. Got to do it.”
It's almost like he ... he enjoyed going in the areas that black folks had never been. That kind of personality is not, that’s just something you have, man. He didn’t get that from me, or his mother, nobody. He was really, really good. This guy could do whatever it is he wanted to do.
ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: Please welcome the floor leader of the House Democratic Caucus, Michigan representative Kwam… A… Kilpatrick!
ARCHIVAL CROWD: Kwame, Kwame, Kwame!
JOHN: At just 30, Kwame was a rising star in Michigan politics. And it wasn't long before he was invited to speak at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
ARCHIVAL KWAME: Let us be the generation that fulfils indeed our own destiny, join me america in standing up for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, the next President and Vice President of these United States of America. Thank you very much!
KWAME: And I was driving into work and I was listening to news radio and I heard that Dennis Archer was retiring.
JOHN: Dennis Archer was the mayor of Detroit at the time.
KWAME: You know, I was not thinking about running for mayor. That was not even on my mind.
KWAME: When I got back to the city of Detroit that day, I went by my father's office.
BERNARD: I was kind of like one of the first to say, "This guy could be mayor. And I think he’d be a damn good one.”
KWAME: I said, I dunno, I was not feeling it…
JOHN: That night, Kwame couldn't sleep.
KWAME: And I was up toiling all night and so I went in the basement I took the Bible with me. And and I did something that I thought was crazy, but it was crazy like a fox. I just — I prayed, I say God, listen, if you want me to run for mayor, just show me in the Bible and I opened it. When I opened it and put it on the floor, I was on my knees and put it on the floor, and I put my eyes down and they fell right on Second Samuel Five and it was a story about David. It was a story about David being 30 years old and the elders coming to him and asking him to be king. I said, oh my God, I got this message. I was so excited — that was for me! 30 years old and I took it and ran upstairs. I said, "Carlita!" And I woke her up, it was like 1:00 in the morning.
JOHN: Kwame told his wife, Carlita, about what had just happened.
KWAME: She was like, "What what?!" I say listen, I just read the Bible--I'm supposed to run for mayor." She looked at me she said, OK I'm going to sleep. So she went to sleep. She was just on board. I mean it was amazing, I thought it was a miracle from heaven. The next day I told everybody I was running for mayor. And from that day forward my life has been going 100 miles an hour.
SHEILA COCKREL: Kwame came in and he I mean he, he's very charismatic, really smart.
JOHN: You weren't swayed by that at all?
COCKREL: Not remotely.
JOHN: This is Sheila Cockrel. She was on the Detroit City Council at the time.
JOHN: Do you remember the first time you became aware of Kwame Kilpatrick's, aura?
COCKREL: I wouldn't call it an aura.
JOHN: You said it, charisma.
COCKREL: He had some charisma but it was no aura. I'm going to tell you this. Anybody who starts off with a story about how the Bible fell open and the passage about the shining city on the hill. My thing is, this, well, this is fake. I thought it was pure theater. I mean I guess, he's got balls, I mean. And people will buy this stuff!
COCKREL: I didn’t support him. I supported Gil Hill.
ARCHIVAL FLASHPOINT: If you’ve picked up a paper, turned on a radio or TV you probably know city council president Gil Hill is the early favorite to succeed as mayor of Detroit.
JOHN: Kwame was up against a seasoned politician with a head start. A guy who had built relationships in the city while Kwame was off serving in the state legislature. And... Gil Hill was a local celebrity.
KWAME: So he was very, very down to earth even after the Beverly Hills Cop stuff. We went to meet him at his office at the city council and I said “I'm really jumping into this thing. I'm about to announce that I’m gonna run.” And you know he said, “Well brother, you’re not going to win, brother.” [laughs]
ARCHIVAL KWAME: I officially declare myself as a candidate for mayor of the city of Detroit!
ARCHIVAL KWAME: You know, my mother taught me that service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy. My father ran a two-person campaign when I was 12 years old. I told y’all, he had two suits, he think he the sharpest guy in the world now.
BERNARD: I say I taught him everything, but he was way better than me. He was the best campaigner I've ever seen.
JOHN: Bernard Kilpatrick knew that part of his son's appeal came from his appearance. Six-four, three hundred pounds. You couldn't miss him.
BERNARD: Just that gregarious size. He'd pick up little kids like they were dolls, "Aaah, how you doing big fella?" He was the ultimate campaigner.
REPORTER: Kilpatrick says, he is out campaigning a minimum of 12 hours a day, he says visibility is the key.
KWAME: Stay visible, stay involved. And I'll see you in a neighborhood near you pretty soon. Let's continue to move forward, let's start our future right here, right now.
BEATTY: Our strategy and our slogan, because we... we wanted to play on the young thing. And it was you're young and you can do something in the future.
JOHN: Again, Christine Beatty, Kwame’s high school friend and campaign manager.
BEATTY: So we sat down, we had a session and we came up with the slogan “Our future, right here, right now.”
ARCHIVAL KWAME: ...but we’re all coming together and starting our future here in this city, right here, right now. Thank you very much.
JOHN: The people of Detroit responded...
ARCHIVAL VOX 1: You know I like Gil Hill, you know I voted for him every time at the Council, but I think it’s time for some young blood.
ARCHIVAL VOX 2: We feel that Kwame Kilpatrick has a vision, has youth, has energy, and is honest and has integrity to be our mayor.
ARCHIVAL FLASHPOINT: Let’s take a look at the two most recent polls, Gil Hill remains the front runner but the top three candidates including Kwame Kilpatrick and Nick Hood all show sizable gains...
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: Both Hill and candidate Kwame Kilpatrick are pegged in the polls as top vote-getters in tomorrow's contest. But as Kilpatrick riles supporters tonight he's saying he's not taking preliminary numbers for granted.
ARCHIVAL KWAME: We can't even see after the primary, we're looking at September 11th.
BEATTY: September 11 2001, 9/11, is our primary election day.
BEATTY: That morning I remember I walked into the campaign headquarters and I remember looking at the television.
ARCHIVAL TODAY SHOW: We’re back at 9:00 Eastern Time on this Tuesday morning and we’re back with dramatic pictures of an accident that has happened just a short time ago. You’re looking at the World Trade Center, in Lower Manhattan...
BEATTY: And they were showing the plane flying into the towers. And I mean I was so mesmerized by that. Like, I couldn't believe that that had happened, you know, like most of us like, WTH? I'm sorry what?
JOHN: Although the voter turnout was low, Kwame won the primary.
BEATTY: And I remember that night we got the election came in and we came out on top. We won the primary. Of course everything was very subdued. There was no sort of celebration.
JOHN: In Detroit’s nonpartisan election system, the top two vote-getters in the primary move on to the general election. Which meant Kwame had to face Gil Hill again....
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: The big story on September 11th was supposed to be Detroit’s mayoral primary. But as we all know now, city politics took a surreal backseat to the horrors at Ground Zero. On November 6th, Detroiters will choose a man to lead us into an uncertain future. Candidate Gil Hill is here this morning to talk about his more aggressive approach to the campaign and why he thinks Detroit needs an experienced leader.
KWAME: And then Gil changed the game. Gil came out in the police outfit with flags on a commercial and said it is not the time for immaturity. This is a time for stability and security you know the country is -- his numbers changed the next day.
ARCHIVAL GIL HILL: Mayor Giuliani’s performance during those horrific times illustrate how important it is to have a person on board who had had experience in deadly and trying times. And I think it’s something that people in this community will have to think about when they go to the polls to choose who’s going to be their next leader.
KWAME: We were going to a debate and we were in the back and I said “Gil, you punched me in the mouth man, that was excellent.” [laugh] He says “is something wrong with you?” I said, “no, that was good man. You got me.”
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: Detroit's mayoral candidates squared off for the first major forum since the terrorist attacks on primary day. And with the election just six weeks away, the candidates are starting to snipe at each other, with Hill questioning Kilpatrick's plans to revamp city government.
ARCHIVAL KWAME: Either one of us that becomes mayor, that goes into this structure and tries to make it work will fail. It needs to be blown up and put back together.
ARCHIVAL HILL: Some things you cannot blow up! Some things if you do blow them up when the dust settles, the problems are still there.
JOHN: With Election Day quickly approaching, Kwame had one last chance to win over voters
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: The 31-year-old state rep was turning the last 24 hours of his campaign into a nonstop stumpathon, chatting up potential voters at one site after another.
ARCHIVAL KWAME: We're going to go to hospitals, go to KMarts, we’re going to stay out here, go to locker rooms, clubs, we're going to find people wherever they are and get our message across.
BERNARD: And people would come up to me, "Killer, main man, I saw your son!
JOHN: Here's Kwame's father, Bernard.
BERNARD: Man, that guy, man, he is dynamic! He came in the club." I said, "What?" "He came in the club, man.” They stopped the music and he talked for, like, ten minutes. Had people hollering and screaming. Left and went to another club. They rented a bus. And went to all the black bars in the city. That hadn't been done.
JOHN: On Election Day, the polls had Kwame and Gil Hill neck and neck.
KWAME: We were in a suite in the Marriott Hotel Downtown Detroit in the Renaissance building. And people — we were watching the television. There were pastors there that supported me, my family, a lot of my family, uncles, aunts, cousins, parents. So it was, everybody's there. Carlita's there. You’re also on the phone with insiders, people doing exit-polling and everything else. So it's a lot of information coming in all the time. And I'm kind of a chill, for most of the night. I'm not nervous at all. And so when they projected me, as winning the election that's when I said, “Wow.” For a second I was like, “OK we got the mission done.”
ARCHIVAL KWAME: We as a Kilpatrick campaign and as a Detroit community declare victory. [cheering]
KWAME: But then when everybody was going crazy and crying and, “oh my God and this is history.” And you see the reaction of people that are very close to you and people that supported you and people that worked hard for that moment. That's when it hit me. I was like, “oh my God.”
ARCHIVAL KWAME: ...60th mayor of this city, as the youngest...
KWAME: You know, I was celebrating outwardly, you know shaking hands and smiling, but people that knew me could see that I wasn't as happy as everybody else. It's like the dog chasing the school bus and actually catching it. You know, he chases it and barks and do it with such zealousness, but he really don't want to catch the school bus. That's kind of how I felt that night. I was like “oh my God, I actually won this job. I don't know how to be mayor.” I was kind of panicking inside.
And my mother saw me. And she said, “Son, let me talk to you in this room.” And she took me into the bedroom part, apart from where people were celebrating and she closed the door. And she hugged me and she said — we sat down — and she said, “Your life is going to change from this point forward.”
She said, “This is...this is something you asked for. It’s part of your course and you need to accept that and be a leader.” She said something to me and I was, I'll never forget this conversation. She said, “Unfortunately, leadership is a very lonely position.”
ARCHIVAL CROWD: [cheering]
ARCHIVAL KWAME: Alright, thank you. Thank you…
KWAME: “You've been a part of teams and the crowd your whole life. But you're about to experience loneliness as you've never experienced it.” She said, “But you have chosen to be a leader. And so, just lead.”
ARCHIVAL KWAME: It’s time for all of us to rise up and step up to the mantle of leadership. It’s time for all of us to rise up in this city. It’s time for all of us to rise up and begin our future, right here, right now. God bless you and thank you.
KWAME: And so I didn’t understand at that moment what she was saying to me, particularly the truth and the profound illumination of it. I didn’t understand it. I told her, matter fact I said, “Mom, I’m going to be OK. Everything’s going to be alright.”
JOHN: How did that feel to -- It must have been a reality check of sorts.
KWAME: It was. The job was tremendously stressful for me. People always ask me even here, did you like being mayor, was it fun. I didn’t. I didn’t. I did not like --
PHONE ROBOT: This call is from a federal prison.
KWAME: Yeah, it’s about to cut off.
JOHN: Yeah. I know.
KWAME: I’m so sorry.
JOHN: No, that’s OK, man. We’ll have to continue the conversation.
[CALL CUTS OUT]
JOHN: That’s it.
JOHN: Next week…. Kwame’s troubles begin.
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: Questions, questions, so many questions. Confusing documents, odd explanations, a reporter pushed around by the Mayor’s security staff, and all over a 25-thousand-dollar auto lease. How has it come to this?
JOHN: Crimetown is Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier. This season is made in partnership with Gimlet Media and Spotify.
This episode was produced by Soraya Shockley, Rob Szypko, Samantha Lee, and me, John White.
The senior producer is Drew Nelles.
Editing by Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling.
Fact-checking by Jennifer Blackman.
This episode was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Robin Shore.
Original music this season composed by Homer Steinweiss.
We recorded some original music at Rustbelt Studios in Detroit in partnership with Detroit Sound Conservancy. Special thanks to Carleton Gholz and Maurice “Pirahnahead” Herd.
Additional music by Kenny Kusiak, John Kusiak, and additional mixing by Bobby Lord.
Our theme song is “Politicians In My Eyes” by Death.
Our credit music this week is “True Story Pt. 2” by Phat Kat.
Archival research by Brennan Rees.
Archival courtesy of Tim and Tobias Smith. They have a film called “KMK: A Documentary of Kwame Kilpatrick.” Check it out.
Additional archival material courtesy of WXYZ, the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, and the Detroit Historical Society.
Show art and design by James Cabrera and Elise Harven.
We’ve got a great website with bonus content for each episode like photos, videos, and newspaper clippings, as well as a full list of credits and a transcript. This week we have tons of photos from the 2001 mayor's race between Kwame and Gil. Check it out at crimetownshow.com.
Thanks to the Detroit Free Press, Peter Bhatia, Jim Schaeffer, Mary Schroeder, Mary Wallace, Max White, Randy Lundquist, Erick Hetherington at D&D Video, Devin Scillian, Melissa Samson, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Khary and Tunesia Turner, Miles Feldsott, and everyone who shared their stories with us. Detroit is an amazing place, and we’re honored to tell a small part of its story.
Alex Blumberg is the podfather. A few years ago, Alex ran up to my desk and I was like, "What what?!" He said “listen, I just read the Bible--I'm supposed to make a podcast company." I looked at him and said, “ok I'm going to sleep.”
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