Kwame Kilpatrick / Detroit

Equally at home in senior centers and hip-hop concerts, Kwame Kilpatrick, 34, inspired Detroit voters with his energy and determination when he rode into office three years ago. But a cherry red Lincoln Navigator has put a big dent in his reputation. After weeks of denying it, the mayor admitted in January that the city paid $24,995 to lease just such a car for his wife.

That outlay showed what Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing Magazine, calls "a tin ear for symbolism," given that Detroit's $230 million budget deficit has prompted the mayor to eliminate 3,000 city positions and end 24-hour...