December 17, 2010 at 1:00 am

Daniel Howes

Howes: Indictments a chance for fresh start

Nine years after he was elected mayor of America's poorest major city, the Big Lie that was Kwame Kilpatrick and his self-dealing machine is being fully exposed — and the victims are the people he claimed to represent.

They're Detroit taxpayers, whose dollars fueled an arrogant, swaggering lifestyle the vast majority could only hope to afford. They're minority-owned contractors who couldn't get a piece of city business without ties to Bobby Ferguson, Kilpatrick's crony and fixer. And they're suburban water department customers who mistrusted Detroit's stewardship of the sprawling system they fund with rising rates.

Wednesday's sweeping federal indictment of the former mayor, his father and three associates helps explain why. Political donors, nonprofit groups, even the moneyed business leaders who doubled-down to help re-elect Kilpatrick in the waning days of the 2005 campaign got tagged by the staggering duplicity.

Their support melted before a self-destructive orgy of lies, petty deception and towering corruption that, near the end, included netting Kilpatrick a $240,000 get-out-of-town sympathy loan from four of the region's most prominent (and successful) CEOs. Yes, he played them, too.

The indictment of the "Kilpatrick Enterprise," as the feds dubbed it, is a sad coda for a sick regime, what Gov. Jennifer Granholm called a "stain on the state." It's also the foundation for a new beginning, a declaration that the raping of Detroit and its taxpayers, businesses and school system by leaders and their sycophants is coming to an end.

That, in itself, is cause for a long-overdue celebration made possible by the greedy over-reach of Kilpatrick, his cronies and the disparate elements accused of fleecing the city and its public schools for way too long. If this indictment under the powerful RICO statute doesn't amount to a mortal blow to Detroit's culture of corruption, what would?

"His charming personality and his gregarious nature had a lot of people fooled," a prominent Detroit-based CEO said Thursday. "The city needs this. It's a sad day, but we can finally turn the corner."

Law enforcement's roll-up of the Kilpatrick Enterprise couldn't come at a better time for Detroit and Michigan. Kilpatrick is gone; the dysfunctional City Council that marked his era is gone; his mother, Rep Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, lost her congressional seat in a primary challenge and will retire in qualified ignominy.

Granholm, a fellow Democrat who hailed from the same McNamara political machine that produced Kilpatrick's co-conspirator father, Bernard Kilpatrick, soon will be gone. And the state capital will be less controlled by the Democratic Party-organized labor axis that has been synonymous with failed Detroit politics for at least two generations.

In their place is a new mayor, Dave Bing, who prizes competence and solutions over cronyism and naked partisanship. The governor-elect, Rick Snyder, understands far better than the incumbent how private-sector business drives economic growth and how a revival of Michigan depends on stronger core cities, starting with Detroit.

And the engines of Michigan's prosperity are beginning to fire again. Two of Detroit's three automakers are likely to post near-record profits this year, just two years after their near-unraveling. Private-sector employers are adding jobs again, retailers are booking increasing sales and the comparatively low costs of investing in the city of Detroit are making downtown a legit play for CEOs and small entrepreneurs alike.

In other words, the fall of the House of Kilpatrick is a golden opportunity for a new cadre of leaders to wipe the slate clean in Detroit, to demonstrate that a humbled American city laid low by its own people and self-perpetuating dysfunction can begin to fix itself.

Start over with contracting, governance and oversight rules. Adopt strict ethics policies that make the city a model among its peers, not a national laughingstock. Instead of clinging to government-only answers in the name of "control," harness the power of alternatives in education, philanthropy and economic development to improve the city, its neighborhoods and its kids.

If there's anything positive to wrest from the sordid Kilpatrick legacy, it should be a thorough housecleaning and a stern reminder that pols and the people who feed off them and at the public trough ultimately are judged by what they do, not what they say.

That's how it ought to be.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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