For most of us the career arc begins with promise, is sustained with good performance and ends without. Kwame Malik Kilpatrick didn’t just have promise, he had rock star promise!
When he arrived on the political scene in the early 2000’s his upside seemed endless. He came with enormous innate charisma, [the “it” many politicians spend a lifetime chasing] a preacher’s ability to move a crowd to fever pitch and a policy wonk’s command of the issues. His smile could light up a room, his quick wit notorious and even for those of us who suspected he was a closet thug he was able to spar with us as if it were a child’s game. No matter the trouble that might have come up [like the Manoogian Mansion party rumor] he could stand before the news cameras and plead his case straight faced or with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, whatever the circumstances called for. Like it or not for much of his tenure [and we often choked on it] we were unable to pin serious wrongdoing on him.
All the while his political stature was taking off. So much so that in 2004 he was one of two speakers to nominate presidential candidate John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The other: Barack Obama. I vividly remember watching network television as Kwame Kilpatrick stood underneath the falling confetti with Kerry and Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards on stage as the applause rose and the campaign went into overdrive. Those nominating speeches are reserved for rising stars. Yet, it is quite ironic and telling that one of the up-and-comers that night now resides in the White House and the other is headed to the big house. This is Kwame Kilpatrick’s career arc and it is monumentally sad. Not for him mind you, but for the City of Detroit that bet on his promise; watched him underperform and in the end sent him to federal prison for what promises to be the next couple of decades.
Bobby Ferguson’s promise wasn’t quite as glittery as Kwame’s but his “upside” [as they say in sports] was great. His parents started Ferguson Enterprises at their kitchen table and Bobby grew his Detroit construction concern smartly. He was able to buy owned dozens of pieces of heavy equipment [worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece] and I was there the day his company, under the Archer Administration, dug the first shovels full of dirt to construct Comerica Park. Ferguson Enterprises did the same for Ford Field. Bobby was a legitimately important minority contractor that was on its way to prospering greatly simply by good performance. But, Bobby had a mean streak too. He pistol whipped one of his employees for allegedly making a pass at Bobby’s wife. He did jail time for that. Bobby ended up being sued by his office manager for alleged sexual misconduct for making passes at her. Somewhere along the line both Bobby and Kwame, who made no secret of their friendship, decided their futures would be brighter if they looked out for each other and only each other and in the process leaving Detroit to fend for itself. Making matters worse, they did so all the while claiming to be the defenders and the leaders of this once proud and great city.
Looking back those appalling facts comes to life. I vividly remember a day shortly after Kwame took office he and Bobby brought us in the news media out to Detroit’s East Side. There Bobby used one of his front end loaders to demolish an abandoned home. He put Kwame in a hard hat and seated him at the controls of that front end loader. Kwame spent a few minutes moving around the rubble. They promised to demolish lots of houses. That promise went unfulfilled [as did the rest]. Instead, Bobby and Kwame decided as a team they could clean up for themselves. At first Bobby got cut in on deals and did work for the City of Detroit like at the major water main break in Sterling Heights caused by an aging Detroit Water Department pipe collapsed. I also vividly remember covering the chaos of that week and watched Victor Mercado [then the City’s Water Department Director] eat in a next door restaurant overseeing Bobby Ferguson’s work on the project to get an interview with him. Mercado ended up pleading guilty to being part of the Kilpatrick Criminal Enterprise in which the feds say was running full tilt that day. Based on what we know now that was only the beginning. At least Bobby and his company were on the scene that day actually doing something. As time went on the feds contended [and the jury agreed] Bobby Ferguson ended up getting millions of dollars in construction contracts without doing any of the work. How did that happen? Kwame saw to it as a condition of doing business with the city.
The jury found resoundingly that Kwame Kilpatrick and Bobby Ferguson’s promise left Detroit. Instead, they pocketed millions of dollars the feds say they can’t find, and millions of taxpayer dollars that the City of Detroit could surely use as it stands on the precipice of Emergency Financial Management. Kwame could have been great. Bobby could just as easily have gotten there with him based on his past performance and both could have lived the wealthy lifestyle they so obviously were drawn to. Instead they decided to gamble their great promise on self-dealing on a grand scale. It reminds me of what my taxation professor told me as I studied for the Certified Fianancial Planner exam: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered!” The jury found Kwame and Bobby’s promise wanting and found Kwame guilty on 24 of 30 counts of racketeering, extortion, bribery and tax evasion. Bobby was guilty on nine of eleven counts of much the same. Jurors saw the Kilpatrick Criminal Enterprise was all that Detroit had to show for its decision to elect and reelect this mayor with such great promise. Kwame said once recently “Detroit you done set me up for a comeback.” That’s true if you are in the Jackson Federal Penitentiary!
In the end this is such a monumental waste. Kwame Kilpatrick and Bobby Ferguson had the world at their feet, promise of possible greatness and instead converted Detroit City Hall into their pay-to-play paradise. They committed a scam of such wretched excess that the jury was utterly repulsed and rightly responded as such. Quite sadly for the residents of a beleaguered city, great promise ends in federal prison. Do no despair for Kwame or Bobby or their families; despair for this once great city so desperate to find rebirth. Let’s hope is can.