Politics & Government
11:47 pm
Mon March 11, 2013

An historic week in Detroit (not in a good way)

In a weird twist of fate, two remarkable events in Detroit’s recent history are happening at virtually the same time.

Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of multiple federal corruption charges Monday. And Governor Snyder is expected to appoint an emergency financial manager within days.

The timing is a coincidence, but there’s some connection between the two events—and a lot of symbolism.

A historic bad week in Detroit

The verdict was a victory for Detroit US Attorney Barbara McQuade’s office.

There was a celebratory air at McQuade’s post-verdict press conference. But McQuade says, Kwame Kilpatrick’s crimes were serious—and had serious consequences.

“One juror said that she is a Detroiter, and voted for Kwame Kilpatrick for mayor twice, herself,” McQuade reported. “But that the evidence she saw in this case made her stomach turn.

“While Kwame Kilpatrick enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, he watched the quality of life erode for the people of Detroit.”

McQuade says Kilpatrick “didn’t lead the city—he looted it.”

But he ended up looting a city that was already coming apart financially when he took office in 2002.

“If I had been the mayor during those two terms of Kwame Kilpatrick, I could not have stemmed the tide,” said Joe Harris.

Harris served most recently as Benton Harbor’s emergency financial manager. But he worked for the city of Detroit for years as Auditor General, and then as Chief Financial Officer.

Harris says the magnitude of Detroit’s financial problems were evident as early as the 1990s or before. And he raised alarms starting around then. But nobody was listening.

And then, starting with Kilpatrick’s administration, “The mayor would borrow money,” Harris said. “He borrowed over a half billion dollars during a term for short term operations.”

That led to Detroit amassing a substantial amount of debt, rather than fixing its systemic problems.

But Harris says those problems were really too big for one mayor—or anyone, really—to fix by themselves. They’re the natural result of a city that has suffered blow after blow since the 1950s: massive population loss, all kinds of disinvestment, across-the-board mismanagement.

“This was a tsunami that was going to come one way or the other. It had to come,” Harris insists.

Corruption certainly doesn’t help in a situation like that. But just like Kilpatrick didn’t create Detroit’s financial mess, he didn’t invent corruption in city hall, either.

In fact, his trial may not even be the biggest mayoral corruption episode in Detroit history. That honor might belong to Richard Reading, who was embroiled in a sordid scandal that broke open in 1940.

“Not only the mayor, but the police chief, the Wayne County prosecutor, and about 150 other officials were found guilty of various things. There was certainly a culture of corruption then,” noted Bill McGraw. He’s co-author of the Detroit Almanac, and he covered the city for the Detroit Free Press for over 30 years.

Reading ended up in jail. So did former Detroit mayor Louis Miriani, who was convicted of tax evasion in the late 1960s.

So, corruption and even imprisoned mayors aren’t anything new in Detroit history. But, McGraw says, “Kilpatrick certainly awakened any sort of sleeping corruption beasts that were hanging around city hall.”

It’s likely that in this week that we finally learned Kwame Kilpatrick’s fate, we’ll also learn Detroit’s larger fate. Governor Snyder will almost certainly appoint an emergency financial manager for the city.

McGraw calls this convergence of events “an amazing coincidence.” But more than that, they’re a sad illustration of Detroit’s downward spiral.

“These aren’t footnotes to history. These are really main events in Detroit history that people are going to be talking about for a long time,” McGraw said.

But, McGraw adds…maybe the Kilpatrick case has gotten to the roots of public corruption in Detroit. And maybe an emergency manager will be able to tackle the huge systemic problems of which Detroit’s finances are just a symptom.

That may seem like a long shot. But in today’s Detroit, it’s the best anybody can hope for.