Detroit, MI

A New Life and Career for Kwame Kilpatrick? After the Rise and Fall of Detroit's First Hip Hop Mayor

Joseph Serwach

The resurrection of a new Kwame Kilpatrick — returning to a Detroit church Sunday

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Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2006..Photo by Dave Hogg courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick marked his 51st birthday Tuesday by returning to the news headlines announcing his latest comeback.

In his first interview since Donald Trump commuted his 28-year prison sentence on January 20, Detroit’s “first hip hop mayor” announced he’s getting married and is ready for redemption, resurrection, and a new career.

“Sometimes your gift takes you to a place that your character is not prepared to handle,” Kilpatrick said in a documentary about his startling rise and fall.

One decade ago, Kilpatrick was convicted of 24 crimes, including racketeering, extortion, mail/wire fraud, bribery, and tax violations. He and his life-long friend Bobby Ferguson were imprisoned after a decade in power called “a reign of corruption.” He served nearly eight years in prison.

While his sentence, the longest in a public corruption case, was commuted to the time he served, Kilpatrick still owes $195,000 in back taxes and penalties to the Internal Revenue Service and $1.5 million in restitution to the city of Detroit.

Kilpatrick making his debut Sunday in Detroit

His June 8 birthday was marked with the lengthy interview with Deadline Detroit and highlighted in every other outlet. The former mayor seemed ready to return to the spotlight where he was once a Michigan star (but he wasn’t running for political office). He announced:

  • He will be preaching to two major Detroit churches on Sunday, with his remarks being videotaped and live-streamed worldwide. But, he added, “I think it’s dangerous for people to just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to open up a church.’ ... I really think it’s a calling. If I’m led to do that, and He opens the way for me at a particular church, I think that’s the way we should go.”
  • He will preach at 10 a.m. services at the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit, telling Deadline Detroit, “it’s going to be my hometown debut. This is the first time that I’ve done anything public since getting out of prison.”
  • Kilpatrick will also preach (in a pre-recorded sermon) during the 8:30 service at Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Detroit.
  • He plans to marry a Detroit woman he did not identify. His first wife, Carlita, divorced him in 2018.
  • This fall, he will be enrolling in a theological seminary school at Columbia University.
  • He suffered a cardiac arrest and was hospitalized for seven days in September 2020. Now, he said, “I’m healthy. It’s been a miraculous turnaround.”
  • While acknowledging wrongdoing, Kilpatrick denied specific charges, saying, “99 percent of the people in the city of Detroit or surrounding areas, they don’t even know what I was charged with. What I was charged with, even in my filings, even in my conversations, I would disagree with. So you ask, have I ever bid-rigged? Not only had I not done those things — I don’t even know how a person would do that.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office fought Trump’s commuting Kilpatrick’s sentence (done on Trump’s last day as president). In a sentencing memo, the office argued, Kilpatrick “rigged bids and took bribes (and) did it all in a city where poverty, crime and lack of basic services made it one of the most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the nation. The scale of his corruption was astonishing. The impact on the region was devastating.”

Kilpatrick has a conversion story “worth telling,” the Rev. James Holley, senior pastor of Historic Little Rock Baptist Church for 43 years, told The Detroit News. “We want people to know God can make a change in people’s lives.”

Kilpatrick says his conversion came in 2014

Kilpatrick said prison volunteers turned him to starting Christian ministry work, including a volunteer named Bruce Smith from Yukon, Oklahoma: “He asked me a question: Did I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? And I told him I did not. I was really depressed during that period of time and angry, and he took the time to talk to me about it.

“And through that experience of talking with him, I know that I truly received the gift of freedom of liberty and salvation in Jesus Christ. That was in the back of a prison chapel in El Reno, Oklahoma. And we’re sitting in this back pew, and he and I were just sitting there talking. There was no lightning or thunder. I didn’t kiss the feet of Jesus, but there was a definite change in my heart and in my mindset.”

Before his conversion, Kilpatrick said he felt “Condemned. Guilt-ridden. Angry. Depressed. Feelings of being a failure as a dad, my primary responsibility of being a husband and a father, that I let my family down. We all know the dramatic and traumatic statistics of Black men and the household and the lack thereof.”

Kilpatrick was a state lawmaker at age 26 and mayor by age 31

Kilpatrick, in contrast, grew up with every opportunity to rise to power at a young age.

He is the son of Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who represented Detroit in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1979–1996. She was a member of Congress from 1997–2011.

His father, Bernard (also convicted in the corruption cases), was a semi-professional basketball player and politician, elected to the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, ran the Wayne County Health and Human Services Department from 1989 to 2002, and served as chief of staff to former Wayne County Executive Edward H. McNamara.

McNamara was considered a political kingmaker, helping the careers of young Democrat stars who rose to power at a young age, including Kilpatrick and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (who is now U.S. energy secretary).

Kilpatrick won his first elective office at age 26, succeeding his mother when she gave up her state House seat to run for Congress in 1996. But Kilpatrick quickly rose to House Democrat leader by 2001.

In 2001, at age 31, he ran for mayor, beating the nationally known Councilman Gil Hil (a Detroit police inspector who played Eddie Murphy’s boss in the blockbuster film, “Beverly Hills Cop,” where Murphy played a Detroit detective).

“I wasn’t mad at the people that testified against me,” Kilpatrick said. “I wasn’t mad at the process. I was mad at me, and that was the perfect place that I had to be for the kind of experience that I had with the spirit of God.”

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Kilpatrick greeting President George W. Bush in 2005.White House photo by Eric Draper via Wikimedia Commons.

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