Kwame Kilpatrick’s future had once been full of potential, but the former mayor felt he was entitled to have all his wants satisfied. (The Detroit News)
Three stories have been rattling around my head since the Kwame Kilpatrick verdict came down. Together, they add some perspective to the fall of a man once thought to be the savior of Detroit.
I was sitting in a booth in Horn's Bar on Mackinac Island during the Detroit chamber's 2003 policy conference when Kilpatrick walked in with his top aide and childhood buddy Derrick Miller — the one who would ultimately betray him — and slid into the seat across from me,
Kilpatrick, in his second year in office, had recently began sporting a diamond ear stud, an accoutrement that helped earn him the hip-hop mayor moniker. He wanted to talk about how he, Derrick and a team of young Detroiters were going to transform their city, make it cool, infuse it with hope and energy. He was full of himself, but his excitement was contagious.
Suddenly the door opened and in walked Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a bright, blinking light pasted to his ear lobe. The bar broke up. Everybody laughed, including Kilpatrick, though not quite as hard as the rest of us. He knew he was being spoofed and he didn't like it.
The earring came off for the 2005 re-election campaign, when a chastised Kilpatrick was taken to the woodshed by business leaders worried his personal indiscretions were distracting from his mission. He convinced them he'd turned a new page, and they bought it, helping him defeat a tough challenger.
Early in his second term, Kilpatrick called and asked if we could have lunch. The Detroit News had not endorsed him for re-election, explaining that "character matters." He hoped to convince me his character was solid.
We met in a private dining room at the Detroit Athletic Club, and when the waitress came in, he ordered a chicken caesar salad. As she turned to me, the mayor stopped her. "I haven't ordered my entrée," he said. "A chicken caesar is an entrée," she replied. He told her, "Not for me," and asked for a steak. He ate it all, plus a basket of rolls.
He was a man of huge appetites. For food, for women, for power, for money. He wanted it all, and felt he was entitled to have his wants satisfied. At that lunch, Kilpatrick was wearing a suit with 12 buttons down the front. I was sure it cost more than any four suits I owned put together. Not the sort of duds you buy with a politician's paycheck. That was the problem. Kilpatrick coveted the lifestyles of his rap star buddies, and the only way to get it was to supplement his income with other people's money.
The last time I talked with Kwame Kilpatrick was just a short while before he stepped down as mayor. I'd come to his office to sit in on a meeting of education reformers who wanted his help starting charter schools.
Everyone at the table knew the clock was ticking on Kilpatrick. The lurid text messages between him and Christine Beatty were opening door after door into his sordid dealings, and that brought an awkwardness to the session. No one asked about his troubles, and he didn't mention them.
What he did do was warm to the immediate task. Within just a few minutes, he was in command of the meeting, tossing out suggestions, outlining plans, shaping a vision that charged the room with energy.
It was nuts. We all knew Kilpatrick wouldn't be around to bring any of this to fruition, and yet he had us believing. That ability to sell an idea, to sell Kwame Kilpatrick, really, never failed to amaze me.
He was waiting in the hallway as I walked out, and pulled me aside, out of earshot of the others.
"Look," he said. "I know everyone wants me to resign. I want to go. I'm done with this. But I've got to be able to take care of my family. Could you talk to the business guys and see if they can put together some walking-away money?"
That was Kwame Kilpatrick in a nutshell: Natural born leader, natural born con man. A man who could one minute thrill you with the rich future he painted of his city, and the next be angling how to cut himself in on a payoff. I look at the story of Kwame Kilpatrick as one of tragic waste. He could have soared to great heights, and taken his city with him. Now he's almost certainly headed for a stretch in prison that will consume most of what's left of his best years.
He was a man who loved great threads, but had no moral fabric.
Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Fridays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.