Detroit mayor complicates mom's bid

June 23, 2008 12:41:45 PM PDT
For a dozen years, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick has routinely defeated all opponents in the Detroit-area congressional district she represents. But a text-messaging scandal involving her son, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, could help her two challengers link the congresswoman to turmoil at city hall - and serve as a referendum on the mayor's conduct.

"She continues to defend her son, enabling him to fail," said former state Rep. Mary Waters, one of the challengers. "How can you continue to justify that behavior?"

The three-way primary in August will all but determine the winner in the heavily Democratic district. Kilpatrick, leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, has faced only token opposition during the past decade.

But the mayoral scandal has turned the typically sleepy congressional primary into a bitter contest. Waters has frequently referred to the troubles of the mayor and his former chief of staff, Christine Beatty, who are both accused of lying under oath about having an intimate relationship and about their roles in the firing of a police officer.

The mayor and Beatty deny the charges, but excerpts of sexually explicit text messages left on Beatty's city-issued pager contradicted their testimony at a whistle-blower's trial. They face a Sept. 22 preliminary hearing on perjury and other charges. The City Council also is pursuing ways to remove the mayor from office.

Waters launched a scathing television ad focusing on the felony charges against the mayor. "We deserve better," the ad concludes. She also has accused Kilpatrick of being slow to endorse Barack Obama for president and orchestrating the entry of the third candidate in the race, state Sen. Martha Scott.

Scott has denied claims by Waters that she entered the race to split the vote and ensure a victory for Kilpatrick.

"That's the biggest lie I've ever heard," Scott said.

"Anybody who knows me knows I don't support Kwame Kilpatrick. I've been out here for 35 years. I have a record on my own, and I don't ever do anything like that."

Rep. Kilpatrick has pointed to her record on the House Appropriations Committee, where she has helped steer more than $500 million in projects to her home state. She recently endorsed Obama and met with Obama's vice presidential vetting team.

In an interview, Kilpatrick declined to comment on any single ad by her opponent. But she urged voters to watch her ads as they begin to air in the next couple of weeks.

"I don't go in the gutter like that," she said.

Waters' television attack could bring its own risks, said Barbara Goushaw, a political consultant based in the Detroit suburb of Berkley.

"I suspect that an attempt to smear a mother for defending her son will backfire," Goushaw said. "Mothers understand the desire to protect their kids. Behind the scenes, I'm sure Ms. Carolyn has slapped him upside the head a few times."

Despite the mayor's legal troubles, efforts to unseat his mother may be difficult because voter turnout has been low in summertime state primaries. And Michigan voters have consistently re-elected incumbents, giving the state one of the oldest congressional delegations in the nation.

Rep. Kilpatrick's district borders two seats held by veteran Democrats: Rep. John Dingell, of Dearborn, who is on schedule to become the longest-serving House member in history in February 2009; and Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, who was first elected when President Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory in 1964.

"Once you get there, you stay there," Goushaw said.

Kilpatrick was one of the few candidates to unseat an incumbent when she knocked off three-term congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins in 1996. Collins, who now serves on the Detroit City Council, came under scrutiny for her spending of public and campaign money but was never charged with any wrongdoing.

The embarrassment surrounding the mayor's scandal is "bound to hurt a little bit," said Bill Ballenger of Lansing, editor of a Michigan political newsletter and a former Republican state lawmaker.

"The people that don't like the mayor may take it out on the mother or may take it out on anybody named Kilpatrick," he said.


Associated Press Writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.