Chaos in the Motor City

The mayor of Detroit is sitting in jail. No one is sure who is running the city. Detroit is in chaos, even by Detroit standards, and the one person who could resolve the situation definitively has much to lose by doing so.

Conventional wisdom in Michigan is that Gov. Jennifer Granholm, although she has the power to remove embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick from office, won’t touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

Kilpatrick, dubbed the Hip-Hop Mayor upon his election in 2001 at age 32, has been indicted on 12 felony counts stemming from the alleged firing of a police official to cover up an extramarital affair with his then chief-of-staff, Christine Beatty.

On August 7, Kilpatrick was ordered to jail by a Wayne County judge for violating the terms of his bond by making a recent trip across the river to Windsor, Ontario. (No, he didn’t go to one of Windsor’s infamous nude clubs. As far as we know.)

It’s a mess, and Granholm hasn’t succeeded at cleaning up many of Michigan’s messes since she took office in 2003. Here’s one she could clean up with the stroke of a pen, by exercising her power to remove Kilpatrick from office. Will she?

At the very least, most believe Granholm would wait until Kilpatrick has been convicted of at least one of the 12 felonies with which he has been charged. No governor has used this power since a low-profile township official was removed in 1982, and Granholm’s path of least resistance might be to simply do nothing — especially as she trudges through her second and final term in term-limited Michigan.

But Granholm may have more to gain from removing Kilpatrick than conventional wisdom recognizes.

To understand why, you have to start with the woeful state of Michigan’s economy and the absence of any success in turning it around during Granholm’s time in office. In fairness to Granholm, she did not cause Michigan’s economic problems. Its high-tax, heavy-regulatory environment and overreliance on the anachronistic auto industry pre-dated her by generations. But Granholm has not succeeded in changing any of this, and as of now she faces the prospect of leaving office with virtually no signature achievements — a huge disappointment for a politician who inspired so much enthusiasm upon her ascendancy to office in 2002.

Decisive action to remove Kilpatrick from office would instantly become the signature move of Granholm’s tenure as governor. According to a recent poll, a solid majority of Michigan voters want Granholm to do so. And for a Democratic governor to put her foot down on the chaos of Detroit city government would be no small development.

Moreover, the evidence against Kilpatrick is damning. Accused of wrongful termination in the firing of former Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown, Kilpatrick first denied under oath that he’d had an affair with Beatty (Brown’s knowledge of which his attorneys alleged led to the firing), and then proceeded to sell the City Council on an $8.4 million settlement.

What the City Council didn’t know was that Brown did indeed know about the Kilpatrick/Beatty affair, and that he’d been required to sign a confidentiality agreement never to talk about it publicly as a condition of the settlement. It wasn’t until the Detroit Free Press obtained text messaging records between Kilpatrick and Beatty that all this came to light publicly.

So a move by Granholm to remove Kilpatrick could hardly be portrayed as the railroading of an innocent man. And she could justify it by arguing that there is simply no way Kilpatrick can run the city while preparing to defend himself against 12 felony counts.

But Granholm would have to step on a lot of familiar toes to move against the mayor. For one thing, both Granholm and Kilpatrick came out of the infamous McNamara Machine of the late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara. The Machine raised up and trained promising young politicians, then positioned them to run for strategically selected public offices. Kilpatrick went from his mother’s former state legislative seat to the mayor’s office. Granholm went from the district attorney’s office to a single term as Michigan’s attorney general, and then to the governor’s mansion.

For Granholm to oust Kilpatrick would represent an unprecedented schism within the Machine. And while Michigan residents outside Detroit would no doubt cheer Granholm, a Democrat cannot afford to dismiss the state’s troubled largest city.

If Detroit were sawed off tomorrow and shipped across the river to Canada, Michigan would instantly become a reasonably safe red state. Democrats who hope to win Michigan statewide depend on solid get-out-the-vote efforts in Detroit, which are controlled in iron-fist fashion by the mayor and his allies within the public employee unions.

Granted, there’s not much Kilpatrick can do to exact revenge if he’s removed from office. But Detroit has historically not taken kindly to Lansing interfering in its affairs. The city’s establishment was up in arms when former Republican Gov. John Engler engineered a state takeover of Detroit’s horrid public school system. But they never liked Engler to begin with.

Granholm and statewide Democrats need to maintain good relationships with their compatriots in Detroit, even as they struggle to deal with a city that is losing population, remains bereft with violent crime and continues to drag the state down economically.

And now they have to figure out what to do with a mayor who has turned Detroit into an even bigger embarrassment, if such a thing were possible. It’s not always so good to have the power.