The Obama/Wright/Kilpatrick Collision

The Obama/Wright/Kilpatrick Collision

By Steve Mitchell - August 11, 2008

Two percent. That's the percent of voters outside the "Motor City" that have a favorable impression of embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. You don't have to be a pollster to understand how strongly disliked Kilpatrick is throughout Michigan.

Sit in any restaurant or bar, and all you hear is people talking about Kilpatrick's troubles. Indicted in March on eight felony counts for committing perjury during a whistleblower trial that eventually cost the city about $9 million, the Mayor spent one night in jail on August 7th for violating his bond and then was arraigned the next day for a new crime. In the latest charges, Kilpatrick is accused of assaulting two sheriff's deputies as they were trying to serve one of his close friends with a subpoena.

And, what does this have to do with Barack Obama? Although Kilpatrick has distanced himself from Obama and Obama has distanced himself from Kilpatrick, they are both inextricably linked to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And, that is Obama's problem.

The night before Wright imploded in front of the Washington press corps, he was the featured speaker at an NAACP dinner in Detroit where Mayor Kilpatrick gave him a rousing introduction, an introduction shown on local TV news shows. Undoubtedly, some 527 committee or the Michigan Republican Party has that introduction on DVD.

Rev. Wright has already proven to be an albatross around Obama's neck. Obama's support plummeted among white North Carolina General Election voters after TV ads linking him with Rev. Wright were aired during the North Carolina Democratic primary. That plunge in support did not go unnoticed by McCain supporters.

It is very likely that similar ads will be run in key battleground states starting in mid-October. In Michigan, you can bet that the much hated Kilpatrick will be included in the Obama/Wright ads, making them look like the Three Musketeers, "one for all and all for one."

Not only does Obama have to overcome Wright's fiery rhetoric, he has to overcome the Kilpatrick connection, too. Kilpatrick's tremendous unpopularity has fueled latent and sometime blatant racism among Michigan voters, the last thing Obama needs in a key state less than three months before the election.

White voters around the country demonstrated their concern with Obama when they voted by a more than 2:1 margin against him in all the primary elections after March 4th. Michigan has a large number of lower income, less educated white voters, the same type of voter who rejected Obama in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and other states.

During the primaries, Obama dismissed some white voters by saying they "cling to their guns or religion." Democrats must now worry that white voters in Michigan may well cling to their enormous antipathy towards Kwame Kilpatrick and take it out on Barack Obama.

The timetables being set for Kilpatrick's hearings and trials certainly seem to have an incredibly coincidental link to the presidential election, something that the two state leaders who have set them would deny.

Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm has the power to remove Kilpatrick from office under a little used law. So far, she has been hesitant to do so. The primary reason for her not kicking him out of office was given by an African-American Detroit city councilwoman who said "we don't want a white governor removing our black mayor."

However, since the most recent charges and problems, she has been under added pressure from the media and the public to kick him out. She has also been under intense pressure from the Obama campaign to get rid of him because he could be a real a drag on the ticket. When Obama campaigned in the City of Detroit recently, the Mayor did not attend the rally, saying he didn't want to hurt the presumptive Democratic nominee's chances.

Granholm has other reasons she might want to fire the mayor. Because of Michigan's ongoing recession, coupled with a tax increase she signed into law last year, Granholm's job approval has dropped dramatically. A decision to get rid of the mayor would take her sagging approval from the mid-thirties to the mid-seventies or higher, probably overnight. Granholm has scheduled her removal hearing for September 3rd.

It is probably not a coincidence that the date she has chosen is the day before Sen. John McCain's scheduled acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The timing assures that almost everyone in Michigan will be concentrating on the mayor in Detroit, not on the GOP convention in Minneapolis. So, the Democrats win round one on Kilpatrick.

However, even if he is removed, Republican Attorney General Mike Cox said that he expects the assault charges will be tried in the next 90 days. He said at the time he announced the indictments that simple assault cases like this almost always go to trial within three months. That means the high profile trial should occur in late October or early November, right before the election. In fairness to Cox, his timeframe is absolutely consistent with how other similar cases are handled. Round two to the Republicans.

Democrats hope Kilpatrick's removal from office will insulate Obama from any connection to Kilpatrick, just as they hope Obama's renunciation of Wright will end the controversy about his former pastor. However, radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin have all kept up the drumbeat about Obama, Wright, and white radical Will Ayres.

It's hard to believe that this association will not be the subject of TV ads in the weeks before the election, even though Obama has distanced himself from his former pastor. And, you can also expect that pro-McCain forces will try to tie Wright, Kikpatrick and Obama together in Michigan, no matter what happens to Mayor Kilpatrick. In office or out, guilty or not guilty, the clip of Kilpatrick introducing Wright does not go away. Neither does the clip of Obama defending his former "spiritual leader" or the clip of Wright saying "it's not God Bless America, it's God Damn America."

With Kilpatrick all over the news for his assault trial at the same time as the Obama/Kilpatrick/Wright ads are on TV, it may well be that the final round goes to McCain, perhaps by a knockout. Michigan is a pivotal state for both Obama and McCain. The final results might hinge on guilt through association. It would be more than ironic if two African-Americans, Kwame Kilpatrick and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, are responsible for Barack Obama's loss in Michigan. And, it is hard to write a scenario where a Democrat can be elected president without winning Michigan.


(To assure full disclosure, Mayor Kilpatrick and Attorney General Cox are former clients of Mitchell Research & Communications, Inc.)

Steve Mitchell is president of Mitchell Interactive a political polling, marketing research, and public affairs company based in Detroit and Washington, DC.

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