Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Hip Hopped in Detroit?

Four years ago the City of Detroit found itself in the doldrums. The city, once one of the jewels of the Midwest, seemed to be rotting from the inside out. The population of Motown had shrunk from over 1.2 million citizens to just over 900,000. Blight and crime seemed to have a death grip on the city and the revenues for the town appeared to be shrinking faster than the receding population. The city needed a champion.

To the rescue, riding on bling bling and the unmistakable energy of youth, came the native son. Then just 31 years old, the former Democratic leader in the Michigan House, Kwame Kilpatrick implored his city to "rise up" and face the challenges with grace and passion and revitalize their city. Mr. Kilpatrick electrified the city and won the primary and then beat City Council President Gil Hill (who played the police chief in the Eddie Murphy Beverly Hills Cop movies) with 54% of the vote becoming the youngest Mayor of a major city.

The day after the election Mayor-elect Kilpatrick placed a diamond stud in his left ear and proclaimed himself the hip hop mayor ( a proclamation that could only be made in a city that is nearly 90% African American). Initially, the flashy clothes (the word "mayor" embroidered on his ever present French cuff shirts) the hip hop image and youthful exuberance attracted positive attention nationwide, seemed to give hope to a hopeless city and appeared to have paved the way for a new generation of African American leaders. One not ashamed to embrace the hip hop culture of its youth and use it to bring a new generation of voters; even while engendering skepticism among older voters ( who vote in larger numbers) and the press. The impact on African Americans young voters could have been tremendous. Finally one of their own was in a position to make their lives better and would do it with the flair and cool of a culture that was totally their own.

However, despite tremendous success in commercial and housing construction, massive road and infrastructure improvement and a $2 billion renovation of the Detroit's riverfront, the hip hop image began to wear thin. Scandals surrounding appointees, a $25,000 Lincoln Navigator for his wife (paid for with city funds), extravagant spending with the city's credit card, a horrendous relationship with City Council and a budget in disarray began to take the shine off the bling bling.

The total shine may have disappeared yesterday as Mayor Kilpatrick, now 35 years old, suffered a debilitating loss in the primary election for the office of Mayor. In a field of 12 the Mayor finished second with only 33% of the vote and trailed badly among voters 41 years old and older. Mayor Kilpatrick will face career bureaucrat and former Deputy Mayor Freeman Hendrix, 54, in the general election on November 8th.

The general election will be a microcosm on generational politics. Will the Hip Hop Mayor be able to convince older voters and the press, which has lined up behind Mr. Hendrix, that he has matured and is ready to continue to move the city forward without the poor decision-making and personal mistakes that plagued his first administration? And can he do it without losing the hip hop image? Certainly at 35 years old he ought to begin to lose it anyway, but he has staked his political future on the culture and has peaked the interest of a generation that will expect him to keep it real. A Kilpatrick win could usher in a new generation of leaders with a hip hop bent, but a Kilpatrick loss could be a set back for a generation that is ready to lead, but ready to lead in its own way and living in its own culture.