It could be an item on a David Letterman Top Ten List of "How to Know Your Mayor is Headed for a Major Scandal" -- he's known as the "Hip-Hop Mayor."
That's what they call Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, now famous for text messages detailing the affair he had with his chief of staff. Kilpatrick had denied the relationship under oath in a lawsuit brought by two police officers Kilpatrick allegedly fired to cover up his personal misconduct. He has been indicted on eight felony counts including perjury and obstruction of justice.
This would just be another dreary entry in the long annals of misbehaving politicians if it weren't for the backdrop of a decaying city. Elected at age 31 in 2002, Kilpatrick was supposed to bring youthful vitality to his job, and he talked about reform. Now, he's just another tragedy to befall Detroit, a city whose decline is -- as psychologists put it -- overdetermined, but stands as a stark statement of the failure of urban liberalism.
Detroit suffers from every possible malady except a plague of locusts, and that's only because they find urban living uncongenial. The city has a revitalized downtown, but all around it, the city rots. Forbes magazine declared Detroit "America's Most Miserable City," on the basis of its unemployment and crime rates, among other things. The unemployment rate of 8.2 percent is the highest of any major urban area in the nation, and its homicide rate is higher than New York's in the bad old days of the early 1990s.
The city has lost 1 million residents since 1950. It was hit by the decline of the auto industry and white flight, fueled partly by racism. These trends would have rocked the city no matter what. Detroit compounded them with disastrous governance, personified by Mayor Coleman Young, who held office for 20 years beginning in 1974.
His record raises the question why, if it wanted to engage in a nefarious plot to hurt blacks, the federal government would invent the AIDS virus when it could simply emplace mayors like Coleman Young instead. "Imagine a Rev. Jeremiah Wright with real power," says urban expert Fred Siegel. Coleman taunted suburbanites, accusing them of "pillaging the city," while his scandal-plagued administration managed the city into the ground.
He neglected policing, maintaining that "crime is a problem, but not the problem. The police are the major threat ... to the minority community." The 1968 riots never really ended in Detroit, dragging on in a long crime wave. With government services terrible to nonexistent and both crime and tax rates high, there was no reason for anyone to stay. "Several Detroit mayors have been the best economic development officers Oakland County ever had," comments Michael LaFaive of the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, referring to the county to Detroit's north.
Public-sector unions protect the dismal status quo. Detroit high schools graduate just a third of their students, according to an estimate by Michigan State University. But when a philanthropist offered to spend $200 million to create 15 new charter high schools, teachers staged a walk-out. Mayor Kilpatrick spurned the offer. These failing schools throw kids with no skills into a struggling economy in an environment characterized by social breakdown.
No matter what Mayor Kilpatrick did with his chief of staff or how many lies he has told, this is the true scandal of Detroit -- and too many American cities. In the wake of the controversy over Rev. Wright, Barack Obama called for a national conversation on race. But we talk about race incessantly already, and Mayor Kilpatrick will carry on his own dialogue by playing on black fears with charges of "selective prosecution."
What would better serve the interests of African-Americans and the country is a national conversation about good urban governance -- how to crack down on crime, reform the schools and free the economy from sclerotic government. Detroit awaits it, as its disgraced mayor twists in the wind.