The Plank

Legal Trouble For Kilpatrick, Political Trouble For Obama?

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"Mayor Kilpatrick Ordered to Jail." The only thing surprising about that headline, which refers to Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, is the timing.

Kilpatrick is presently awaiting trial for perjury, obstruction of justice, misconduct in office, and several other charges--all of them stemming from an alleged affair with his former chief-of-staff and an alleged effort to hide it. It's a tawdry tale that you can read about here and here. But it's not the original transgressions that have suddenly landed Kilpatrick in the slammer: By crossing the river over to Canada, for a business meeting, Kilpatrick apparently broke the terms of bail. And the judge, incensed, has decided to come down hard on him. 

It doesn't sound like Kilpatrick will be there more than one night. Still, he may want to get used to the feeling. The charges against him carry a maximum sentence of fifteen years. And among the pieces of evidence arrayed against him are some apparently incriminating text messages, originally obtained by the Detroit Free Press.

For those of us who live in and around Detroit, there's an immediate, practical question to answer: Who's running the city? It seems the charter doesn't make that clear. But for most of you reading this, there's a long-term, political question to ponder: How will this affect the presidential election?

As Amy Sullivan writes in this week's Time magazine, Michigan is very much up for grabs this November. Yes, we have a Democratic governor and two Demoratic senators, plus we've backed the Democrat in four consecutive presidential contests. But John Kerry beat George W. Bush by the narrowest of margins and McCain, despite having said some impolitic things about disappearing jobs during the Republican primaries, has generally been popular here. McCain's candidacy might look even stronger if he Mitt Romney, whose last name still inspires devotion in these parts, is the vice presidential nominee.

Barack Obama is still strong here, for the reasons he's strong in most Democratic leaning states. But he also has his problems, as Sullivan explains:

Michiganders didn't take kindly to being made the villain in Obama's
oft told tale of how he had the courage to go to Detroit and say the
auto industry needed to raise fuel-efficiency standards. It was an
obvious way to establish his reputation as a "different kind of
politician." But it didn't help his relative weakness among blue collar
voters.

What does this have to do with Mayor Kilpatrick? Maybe a lot. While the tensions between white suburbs and black cities have subsided across much of America, the tension remains high in and around Detroit, at least based on the anecdotal evidence I've collected as a resident. I'm not exactly sure why this is the case. It could be that the memories of Coleman Young and the riots were simply a bigger deal here than they were in other places; or (more likely) it could be that Detroit remains mired in such economic and social distress. Whatever the explanation, though, it seems that white suburban voters here are more suspicious of black Democratic politicians than white suburban voters elesehwere.

Kilpatrick's mess can only heighten those suspicions. And that's worrisome in a state that, according to my colleague Nate Silver, may hold the key to the election.

--Jonathan Cohn

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