What might this mean for Michigan and the Presidential campaigns?
Thirty-four-years-and-a-day since Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, the most serious political scandal of 2008 is reaching its peak, and rather refreshingly it doesn’t directly involve either candidate in the White House race. Kwame Kilpatrick, the Mayor of Detroit, is tonight sat in jail, having breached his bail conditions by taking a trip to Canada.
The 38-year-old Mayor, once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, is facing eight indictments, ranging from misconduct in office and assault, to perjury and obstruction of justice. The sheer range of controversy makes this scandal astonishing to try and fathom – from a whistleblower trial that was lost at great expense, the murder of an exotic dancer, and wild parties at a city-owned mansion, through a text-messaged extra-marital affair with his Chief of Staff (and now co-defendent) Christine Beatty (pictured), the funnelling of state money to organisations close to his wife, nepotistic hiring practices, and finally to death threats towards the Wayne County Prosecutor, and assaulting a police officer who was serving his friend with a subpoena for a hearing related to Kilpatrick’s trial. I have neither the space, nor the inclination, to delve into the details here, but I wonder about the potential repurcussions of this scandal.
Beginning with the local impact, Kilpatrick’s mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, is the Congresswoman representing the safe Michigan-13th district. As such, the ‘real’ election in such districts is the party primary. Having lost only 15 votes in the primary two years ago, Rep. Kilpatrick narrowly won her primary yesterday with only 39.1% – largely thanks to the vote against her being split between two strong contenders (who won 36% and 24.9% respectively). This has been taken as a sign that Michigan is falling out of love with the Kilpatrick family, and might give Governor Jennifer Granholm the political cover she needs to invoke a law that allows her to remove the Mayor from office.
The Governor is in an unenviable position – it is not easy for a white Governor based out in the state-capital Lansing to try to remove the black Mayor of Detroit, and Kilpatrick has always be a controversial figure, able to make himself an extraordinarily dangerous political enemy. He is one of the closest allies of Michael Bloomberg (Mayor of New York) and Thomas Menino (Mayor of Boston) in fighting urban gun-crime, but has never been shy of highlighting the racial aspect of elections in the US. His father once compared his son’s treatment at the hands of the media to the Holocaust (though he later apologised), and the Mayor himself made a high-profile ‘State of the City’ address which referenced both the n-word and its apparent use by those who oppose him. He was widely criticised in the media (the main target of his opprobrium), but also by Gov. Granholm and Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (a Republican), who comsequently compared Kilpatrick to David Duke and George Wallace.
This poses an obvious difficulty for both White House campaigns, as they struggle not to allow race to become the major factor in the forthcoming election. I think there can be no way that this scandal will fail to elevate race as a political issue; Kilpatrick is more Jesse Jackson than Barack Obama when it comes to rhetoric, and the leader of the Black Panthers in Detroit (Malik Shabazz) is on his defence fundraising committee. I think that both campaigns will worry about how they will be forced to deal with racially-charged politics being at the forefront of the news.
For Obama, the concerns must be the image that is cast by one of his supporters (though only from June 3rd 2008) sitting in jail on such charges, especially when that supporter is one of the few African-American men in major-league executive office. Almost all of the serious scandals that dogged Obama in the primaries were cases of guilt by association – can he really now afford for a senior black politician to be so publically interrogated about corruption and sexual impropriety as he makes his bid for the Oval Office?
When the new (African-American) Governor of New York, David Patterson, replaced Eliot Spitzer (who was also deposed in a sex-scandal), he decided to admit his marital indiscretions immediately, rather than have them broken by the press at a later date. At the time, a friend of mine voiced his concern that this would only fuel an ugly stereotype of black men as promiscuous and not to be trusted with high political office – if that relatively innocuous admission by Patterson had potential to cause problems, then Kwame Kilpatrick’s trial could be utterly toxic for Obama’s chances in winning over voters most susceptible to the Bradley Effect.
McCain’s campaign need to be careful as well. Whilst they would surely love to run adverts in Michigan linking Kilpatrick to Obama, they must not allow the impression (so fatal for Hillary Clinton in South Carolina) that they are making race a central issue, or tolerating racial slurs by surrogates. This is not an unknown tactic in US politics, as referenced by the way in which Harold Ford Jr was beaten in his US Senate Race in Tennessee in 2006. Any action which could even vaguely be interpreted as the use of race by the GOP will surely be seized upon by Democrats who know that a justifiable charge of racism would be enough to condemn any opponent to defeat (as Senator Jim Webb can attest, having defeated George ‘Macaca’ Allen in the Virginian contest of the same year).
To compound the issue, Michigan is (as ever) a key swing state. Its economic downturn has been as severe as anywhere in the US, which has made its voters amongst the most vociferous in demanding political solutions to problems with the US economy and housing market. Controversies for McCain and Obama over the seating of delegates at the respective conventions, attitudes towards NAFTA and the off-shoring of jobs, and the protection of the car industry in the face of environmental pressure means that two Presidential candidates (neither of whom won this state in the primaries) are pitching for voters who are amongst the most cynical about the future, and yet so integral in dictating who the country’s next Commander-in-Chief will be.
I don’t know how this scandal will affect the White House race, or how it will play nationally, but I cannot see as salacious a story as this being off the front pages for quite some time. If anyone doubts the political consequences of this case, consider that Michigan AG Mike Cox (a potential Republican candidate for Governor in 2010) has said that he sees no reason why the the assault trial should not take place “within 90 days” – that is to say, on or before the appointed day of the General Election.
UPDATE: The ‘other’ political sex scandal doing the rounds is that John Edwards has finally admitted the affair of which he was accused by the National Enquirer some weeks ago. He still denies he is the father of her child. The MSM made a concerted decision not to report this story for many weeks – the blogosphere and the NE are probably feeling pretty smug right now. Personally, I think this is a flash in the pan that should be forgotten fairly soon. It is a stunning ‘what if’, but shouldn’t seriously affect the White House race because neither candidate will want it kept alive, and unlike Kilpatrick’s trial, there is no reason for it to stay in the news. The biggest damage it seems to be doing is tearing the Democratic base apart – half feel that this is a private matter and even that he should still be Obama’s AG, others feeling angry and betrayed at his recklessness and deceit.
Whilst some commentators are speculating that this will remind voters of President Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, and tar the Democrats with another sex scandal, I think anything that keeps Kwame Kilpatrick off the front pages will be a good thing for Obama. The junior Senator from Illinois will also be thanking his lucky stars that Edwards quit the race before he could win enough delegates to force a brokered convention, and thus almost certainly first refusal at the VP slot. Had this surfaced with Edwards on the ticket, we could have been back in 1972 territory. Conversely, John McCain will be extremely irked that the news is full of a high-profile figure having an affair whilst his wife was in chronically ill-health. Parallels will inevitably be drawn between Edwards infidelity towards his wife Elizabeth (who is suffering breast cancer) and McCain’s desertion of his first wife Carol (who suffered horrific injuries in a car accident). Another even-handed scandal, it seems.