DETROIT – They called it “Team Kilpatrick,” a small army of family and friends dedicated to keeping a Detroit congresswoman and her brash, rising star son in office.
As election cycles rolled around, team members donned their trademark green and yellow jackets and poured into Detroit’s neighborhoods to knock on doors, pass out literature and get people to the polls.
Until now, it always worked. But the formidable machine that helped keep Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in Congress and put her son, Kwame, in the Detroit mayor’s office may have finally ground to a halt with Ms. Kilpatrick’s defeat this week in her bid for an eighth term in the Democratic primary.
Unlike other members of Congress rejected by voters this year, Ms. Kilpatrick was not the victim of a political climate hostile to incumbents. The problem was her last name, which became a symbol of political dysfunction during the corruption scandals that put her famous son in prison.
“She just lost the confidence of voters. It seems to me she kind of threw in the towel,” said Detroit City Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr.
“ ... The sins of the son tainted the mother.”
Many in Detroit are wondering whether the departure of the last Kilpatrick will coincide with the end of the larger political structure that has controlled government in the city, the county and beyond for more than 40 years.
Ms. Kilpatrick, Kwame and dozens of other aspiring politicians were the political scions of legendary Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, a powerbroker who helped decide what local projects got built, who ran for office and who got elected in the area. McNamara died in 2006, but Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who is leaving office this year, is among those who carried on his legacy.
It;s not yet clear who will emerge to replace the political veterans now leaving the scene.
“We have some capable young folks, but they haven’t been battle tested,” said political commentator Adolph Mongo, who once worked as a consultant for Kwame Kilpatrick. State Sen. Hansen Clarke, Ms. Kilpatrick’s victorious Democratic opponent, is expected to win the general election, which could make him part of a new chapter or just the voters’ alternative to Kilpatrick on the ballot.
After her defeat, Ms. Kilpatrick, 65, gave no hint of her plans. But in her 32 years in public office, she and her family have embodied much of the recent political history of the city, from the racial upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s to the scandals and economic turmoil of Detroit's recent years.
Ms. Kilpatrick and her ex-husband, Bernard Kilpatrick, grew up in the politics of Detroit’s black nationalist movement. As members of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, a former congregational church, they and others were indoctrinated in black, economic and political self-determination and in confronting the white power structure.
Though the movement was outspoken, Ms. Kilpatrick herself was composed and “dignified,” said Sheila Cockrel, a longtime acquaintance, a demeanor likely forged as a public school teacher from 1970 to 1978. Her husband, Bernard Kilpatrick, was a Wayne County commissioner and later a member of McNamara’s staff. Ms. Kilpatrick ran successfully for the state Legislature in 1978 and served until 1996 when she ran for Congress.
As McNamara helped Bernard Kilpatrick, he used his political clout to line up support for Kwame Kilpatrick in the 2001 mayoral election. But the potent family organization foundered after Kwame Kilpatrick resigned from office in 2008 amid evidence that he had lied in a civil trial about a sexual relationship with a staff member. He was charged with misconduct and spent 99 days in jail, then was returned to prison for violating his probation. He was recently indicted on federal fraud and tax charges.
Supporters say Ms. Kilpatrick represented her mostly lower-income district in Detroit conscientiously, but that her support of her son gradually eroded her credibility.
“For a lot of voters, Kwame Kilpatrick’s federal indictments were the straw that broke the camel's back,'' said Ken Cockrel Jr., who served as mayor for a few months after Kilpatrick resigned. “In my view, she never really did enough to distance herself from her son.”
“She had to take Kwame's luggage,” said Mongo. “I feel bad for her, but life goes on.”
The continued economic decline of Detroit and her district didn’t help. Detroit resident Angela Carter said she has voted for Ms. Kilpatrick in the past, but not this time. She hopes her successor can do better. “My homeowners insurance has tripled. The same thing with the car insurance. It’s ridiculous. I’m not satisfied. The resources from Washington are not filtering through to the city of Detroit.”