Kilpatrick Out: A Boost for Obama?

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Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick

"Kilpatrick Can Take Off Tether, Says Judge in One of Mayor's Criminal Trials" is not the sort of headline that swells a city with pride. But it's been that kind of year for Detroit.

For the past eight months, every day has brought a new installment in the soap opera of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has faced a slate of criminal charges stemming from his affair with a co-worker and attempts to cover it up. In addition to becoming the first big-city mayor ordered to wear an electronic tether, he has been accused of perjury and assaulting a county investigator in the case; he spent a night in jail for violating bail conditions by crossing the river for a conference in Windsor, Ont.; he posted $7,500 in bail for himself; and he has been forced to take a court-ordered drug test. The mayoral drama has even impacted the presidential race in this key swing state.

Yet as his legal and ethical woes played out on the region's front pages and television sets, Kilpatrick, 38, has steadfastly refused to leave office. In a broadcast apology last winter that left unclear exactly what he was apologizing for, the mayor issued a statement to city residents that walked the line between promise and threat. "I would never quit on you," he vowed. "Ever."

This morning, to the relief of Detroiters and the Democratic Party, Kilpatrick went back on those words. "I lied under oath," he admitted in a Detroit courtroom before accepting a plea deal negotiated with Wayne County prosecutors. Under the agreement, the mayor will resign his office, plead guilty to two counts of criminal obstruction of justice, pay $1 million restitution and spend four months in jail. "I gave that up a long time ago," said Kilpatrick, who has long battled with the local media, when the judge asked if he understood that he was giving up the right to be presumed innocent before any trial on the facts in the case. Kilpatrick must also surrender his law license and refrain from running for public office for five years. With his disapproval rating hovering near 75%, that wouldn't seem to be an issue, but stranger things — ahem, Marion Barry — have happened.

The resolution is a bittersweet ending for the people of Detroit. When Kilpatrick, the former minority leader in the Michigan House of Representatives, was elected in 2001 as the city's youngest mayor, the charismatic African-American politician brought energy to the economically decimated city. In the years since, thanks largely to the construction of both a baseball park and an NFL stadium downtown, the city has slowly begun to rebuild. Small but growing numbers of young professionals have moved in from the suburbs to live in newly constructed loft apartments, helping to slow the exodus that has slashed Detroit's population in half since the middle of the 20th century.

But the cost to Detroit taxpayers for Kilpatrick's abuse of power has been high — over $10 million so far, including legal fees and an $8.4 million confidential settlement paid to whistle-blowers, including the former deputy police chief that Kilpatrick had fired for investigating his after-hours activities. The same sum could put several hundred new police officers on the streets of the country's most violent city. Or knock down more than a thousand of the abandoned buildings that dot Detroit's streets and breed crime. TIME called Kilpatrick one of the worst mayors in America in 2005.

Kilpatrick leaves behind a city council that is itself enveloped in the smog of scandal. One-third of the council is reportedly under investigation by the FBI in connection with a sludge-disposal contract. With this particular political sludge moved out of the mayor's office, however, Detroiters are welcoming the chance for a semi-clean start with council president Ken Cockrel Jr., who will become the new mayor.

If Detroiters are happy, Barack Obama's campaign is thrilled. The Democratic nominee called on Kilpatrick yesterday to resign, saying through a campaign spokesman that "Mayor Kilpatrick's ongoing troubles and the serious charges against him have been a distraction that the city cannot afford." They have also proven to be a distraction Obama could not afford in a state that may be one of the nation's closest contests in November. Kilpatrick's very public troubles have angered many of the white suburban voters that Obama needs to win over. From an inauguration that was celebrated with official "club crawls" to reported stripper parties at the official mansion that sparked the initial probe into his case, the mayor who wore flashy suits and a diamond in his ear has courted the wrong kind of attention. The danger to Obama's campaign is that years of salacious headlines about a young black man in power will bleed into voters' views of his own groundbreaking candidacy. "Michigan is really close. He has to go if we're going to have any chance at winning over the folks in Macomb County," said one senior UAW official, who asked not to be identified.

The Kilpatrick scandal has also damaged an already weakened Democratic brand in Michigan. Governor Jennifer Granholm is nearly as unpopular as Kilpatrick, and was dragged into the mess when the Detroit city council asked her to hold public hearings to determine whether the mayor should be forced from office, a power the governor has under Michigan law. The hearings began yesterday, and their suspension in the wake of Kilpatrick's guilty plea now allows Obama to become the most visible Democrat in the state heading into the fall campaign. Obama will need the next two months to make up for what was already a late start in a state he skipped during the Democratic primary season. "We're introducing him to people who don't know him or whose picture of him is still incomplete," said Obama state director Amy Chapman in late July. Wall-to-wall coverage of Kilpatrick has made it difficult for the campaign to define Obama for voters — and to perform the second task of redefining John McCain, who is well known in the state and campaigned there earlier this year. "Our other challenge," said Chapman, "is for them to not feel comfortable with McCain."

McCain understands that if he wins Michigan, it could put him over the top. His first campaign stop after the Republican National Convention is tomorrow in Macomb County, home of the white working-class voters who became Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. But McCain's decision not to pick Mitt Romney as his running mate may have made his odds a little longer. The former Massachusetts governor and Michigan native was the one potential Veep that Democrats in the state feared. And they believe Obama's current 4-point lead in state polls will only grow as voters get to know him better.

At yesterday's hearing chaired by Granholm, reporters asked one of Kilpatrick's lawyers about the mayor's absence from the proceedings. "I told you," she said. "It wasn't my turn to watch him." Michigan voters will be paying far less attention to Kilpatrick as well this fall. And that's just the way the Obama campaign wants it.

With reporting by Joseph R. Sczcesny / Detroit