By Corey Williams
ABOVE PHOTO: Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is shown at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant. Kilpatrick has humbled most challengers daring to oust the congresswoman from Michigan’s 13th District seat. There is one name that may prove too tough to overcome: Kwame Malik Kilpatrick, her son and former Detroit mayor. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick barely survived her polarizing son’s embarrassing marital indiscretions and criminal charges while seeking re-election two years ago. His continued legal troubles that now include a state prison stay and federal fraud and tax charges could prove too much with just over a month before the Democratic Congressional primary.
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick beamed as her son and rising political star, Kwame, vowed during his first ceremonial oath of office to faithfully serve the citizens of Detroit as their mayor. She called the Jan. 4, 2002 event the highlight of her life.
“In my mind he’s still my little boy and always will be,” she said then.
Now her little boy is saddled with big problems that could make the seven-term congresswoman and House Appropriations Committee member vulnerable in the Aug. 3 Democratic primary in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.
Already jailed for violating probation, Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted Wednesday on federal fraud and tax charges, accused of a turning a charity into a personal slush fund. The 40-year-old former mayor has been in state prison since May for violating probation in a criminal case tied to sexually explicit text messages and an affair with a top aide.
Cheeks Kilpatrick’s frustration was evident hours after the latest blow.
“I am devastated,” she said. “As a mother, I hope for the best for my son and will always be there for him. Beyond that, I have no further comment.”
Cheeks Kilpatrick faced a strong primary challenge two years ago after racy text messages revealed her son’s marital infidelities and led to perjury and misconduct charges. She won with 39 percent of the vote, just 1,700 votes ahead of her challenger.
It could be tight again this year.
“Kwame’s problems continue to get worse and worse, and I don’t think she’s dodged it,” Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter and a former GOP lawmaker, said Thursday.
Still, State Sen. Hansen Clarke—considered Cheeks Kilpatrick’s strongest competition—has said Kwame Kilpatrick won’t be made an issue in the campaign against his mother. Even Ballenger noted her multiple advantages.
“She’s still the incumbent congresswoman,” Ballenger said. “She still has a huge financial advantage, and can always use the defense ‘I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m going to stand on my 14 years.'”
Campaign finance records show that as of March 31, Cheeks Kilpatrick’s campaign had nearly $320,000 on hand from about 150 donors. Clarke had just more than $71,000 from about three dozen donors.
Attorney Sharon McPhail, a former Detroit general counsel under Kwame Kilpatrick, gave $500 to his mother’s campaign in 2009.
“Not because of Kwame,” said McPhail, who noted Cheeks Kilpatrick garnered more than $650,000 in federal funds for Detroit’s Workforce Development program. Cheeks Kilpatrick has said she has helped bring a half-billion dollars to the state and district overall.
Detroit area radiologist Dr. Yahya Basha donated $500 in February to Clarke’s campaign, saying Cheeks Kilpatrick’s son “has hurt her in the public’s eye.”
“It’s also painful to see her son suffering,” Basha added. “He was the star of Detroit. There was a great deal of hope for the city.”
Kwame Kilpatrick was groomed and reared in Detroit politics by his mother and father, Bernard, once a Wayne County commissioner. He was elected in 1996 to the state House seat vacated by his mother and was only 31 when Detroit voters elected him mayor in 2001.
He was re-elected in 2005, despite first-term accusations he misused city credit cards on lavish meals and travel. About halfway through his second term, excerpts of sexually explicit text messages between the married mayor and his former top aide revealed both lied during a 2007 whistleblowers’ lawsuit trial against the city.
They were charged in March 2008 with perjury and misconduct. Kilpatrick entered pleas, resigned that September and spent 99 days in jail before his release in early 2009. A judge ruled last month he violated terms of his probation, sending him back to prison for at least 14 months.
Federal prosecutors now accuse him of using a tax-exempt fund intended for voter education and other purposes as a cash fund for himself, friends and relatives. He’ll be arraigned in that case July 13.
Cheeks Kilpatrick has been called before a grand jury investigating her son, but has not been linked to any wrongdoing.
Crisis management expert Jonathan Bernstein of Los Angeles said Cheeks Kilpatrick needs to show compassion for her son, while focusing on issues affecting her constituents.
“Most families have members who go on the wrong side of the law for one reason or another,” Bernstein said. “It doesn’t have to drag the whole family down.”