Detroit faces critical mayoral election

Tuesday's vote comes as poverty in the city increases and population plummets


DETROIT -- Even death could not put this city's contentious mayoral race on hold.

The incumbent, Kwame M. Kilpatrick, stood before mourners at civil rights activist Rosa Parks' funeral here last week and spoke of the need to empower the people.

Outside the Greater Grace Temple, as hundreds huddled around Parks' white hearse, challenger Freman Hendrix campaigned - shaking hands, signing autographs and talking about his plans to deal with Detroit's unemployment rate, the second-highest in the nation.

Kilpatrick's mother, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan, tried to woo the electorate from the pulpit.

"Take your souls to the polls and vote," she said. "That's the tribute we owe Mother Parks."

For a city in decay, Tuesday's mayoral election has taken on a sense of urgency.

Economists recently dubbed Detroit the country's poorest urban center, with about one in every three residents living below the federal poverty line.

The city's population has been falling steadily for decades, and researchers estimate that 25 percent of all structures within the city limits are abandoned.

Detroit's economic outlook also is grim: It has a $300-million deficit. There is a chance city workers might not get paid next month. And the city auditor recently warned that unless drastic measures are taken, federal receivership will be unavoidable.

"How the city is handled in the next year or two will determine whether it will have a federal overseer rather than a mayor," said Lyke Thompson, a professor of political science at Wayne State University. "The stakes are very real."

The candidates - both Democrats - have been wary of discussing painful topics, such as cutting municipal services, so close to the election. Yet both have acknowledged there probably will be significant layoffs; hundreds of police officers and firefighters already have lost their jobs.

A poll conducted over the last few days for Detroit's WXYZ-TV showed Hendrix - who came in first in the primary - leading Kilpatrick 49 percent to 39 percent. Officials in both camps say the election will hang on the 12 percent of the electorate that is still undecided.

Over a recent lunch hour, Hendrix arrived at M&W Inc., a car-parts manufacturing plant, to talk to workers about his ideas. Wearing dark brown slacks and a crisp tan shirt, the candidate quickly enumerated Detroit's problems:

Poverty. Unemployment. Trash piling up in the streets. A weakened educational system. A mass transit system fraught with delays and broken equipment.

"This city's in trouble, and we all know it," said Hendrix, 55, who served as the deputy mayor and chief of staff in an earlier administration. "I'm running because I love this city and I hate to see what's happening to it. ... I didn't have a political family that made it easy for me."

Dwayne Traylor, 43, looked skeptical.

"I take the bus to work, and it's only supposed to be a 10-minute ride. But the bus is always late. Sometimes 20 minutes. Sometimes an hour or more, and it's been that way for years," said Traylor, a supervisor at M&W. "If the city hasn't been able do something as simple as get a bus to run on time, how can it fix everything else? How can [Hendrix]? How can Kwame?

"I just don't know what or who to believe anymore."

For months, the race has been mired in personal attacks and political missteps, often overshadowing any discussion of the issues.

Four years ago, after serving as a state representative, Kilpatrick, 35, became the city's youngest mayor. He promised to be a fresh voice, and his love of rap music and his charming demeanor earned him the title "America's hip-hop mayor."

Throughout this campaign, Kilpatrick, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has been promoting his accomplishments: a rise in economic development downtown; additional municipal funding drawn from newly built casinos; and a jump in the number of conventions and sporting events coming to Detroit.

But then there were the news reports of questionable charges on a city credit card and allegations that he used city funds to lease a luxury Lincoln Navigator for his family.

Kilpatrick proposed slapping a municipal sales tax on fast food, only to raise the ire of burger-lovers citywide. And at a rally, the mayor's father, Bernard Kilpatrick, compared the news media's criticism of his son to Nazi propaganda that led to the Holocaust. He later apologized for the remarks.

And Hendrix's campaign was rocked last month when his son was arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge. Still, the candidates have tried to stay on message:

"Detroit needs change, serious change," Hendrix said. "No matter what the outcome, this will have been one of the toughest elections in this city's history."

P.J. Huffstutter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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