Commentary: The Squandered Promise of Kwame Kilpatrick

The conviction of the former Detroit mayor on corruption charges comes a decade after high hopes for his leadership.

Posted: 03/11/2013 03:01 PM EDT

It is heartbreaking to recall the hope that permeated the city of Detroit when Kwame Kilpatrick was sworn in as the 60th mayor of that city in 2002. At age 31, he was the youngest person in Detroit’s history to lead the city. He was a former Michigan state representative with a storied political pedigree, an abundance of energy and undeniable charisma.

At that inauguration at a packed Fox Theater, Kilpatrick talked about the need to bolster after-school programs in a move to reduce crime, to pay police officers higher wages and to address the city’s crippling deficit. Emotions were high. The Winans sang, state officials turned out and enthusiasm abounded. His was a presence that signaled vibrancy, youth and assurance.

Older Detroiters spoke lovingly of the young mayor whom they thought of as a leader that might finally tackle the city’s issues. Young people talked about how connected they felt to a mayor who came from the public schools of Detroit and listened to the very rap music they loved. It was thought that if anyone could help resuscitate the image, finances and spirit of the Motor City, it would be the so-called hip-hop mayor.

But Kilpatrick’s conviction Monday on nearly two dozen charges of corruption and extortion represent a tragic example of unfulfilled promise.

Despite the initial promise, what came during Kilpatrick’s administration was a seemingly endless stream of scandals, from accusations that he used city funds to lease a luxury vehicle for his wife to complaints that he had terminated police officers for questioning his large contingent of security personnel.

In the end, the charges were even more serious. He was accused of operating like something of a financial warlord. He was convicted of essentially benefiting from the relationships of business owners seeking city contracts. Prosecutors referred to his leadership practices as “Kilpatrick Incorporated.” The former mayor could face up to 20 years in prison.

Kilpatrick's downfall is nothing short of a tragedy of a man with an oversize ego and a monstrous sense of entitlement, who squandered an uncommonly widespread feeling of goodwill and potential in a deeply troubled city. But it is also a tragedy for a city that deserved far more from its former chief executive.

Kilpatrick is certainly not the first politician to come undone by his own demons, and he certainly won’t be the last. But it is nonetheless a distressingly sad spectacle to see the former mayor — and all he brought to the forefront with his election — come to this.

But the city he led is one where nearly half of its young people live in poverty, where neighborhoods are scarred by the epidemic of high crime, staggering foreclosure rates with abandoned homes and a public school system in shambles. The people of Detroit deserved far more from him. It’s a tragedy that he utterly failed to deliver on the promise he represented.

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(Photo: AP Photo/Detroit News, David Coates)

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