Looking back, a young Kilpatrick revealed more than I realized - KMSP-TV

Looking back, a young Kilpatrick revealed more than I realized

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My $10 Countess Mara tie My $10 Countess Mara tie

By M.L. Elrick
FOX 2 News Investigative Reporter

DETROIT (WJBK) - I wore my Ali Barba tie to court on Monday.

Partly because it seemed like the best fit for what I was wearing.

Partly because it reminds me of happier days for Kwame Kilpatrick.

Partly because it makes me think about how much of himself Kilpatrick revealed on the day I bought it.

That may seem like a lot of jibber-jabber about a couple spools of silk. But I bought the tie on what I believe was the first day I met then-state Rep. Kilpatrick. And a lot happened that day which, in retrospect, was filled with portent.

Let me set the scene: As the city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press with primary responsibility for covering the mayor, I was assigned to cover Kilpatrick's mayoral campaign. My friend and partner, James Hill, had primary responsibility for covering the city council. So he was paired with City Council President Gil Hill.

The plan, cribbed from my old New Hampshire Statehouse partner Jordan Rau, was to spend a full day with each of the mayoral candidates and use those observations as the backbone of a pre-primary profile. Because there were so many candidates in the primary (I was also assigned to cover then-city Auditor General Joe Harris), we would have to wait until the race was whittled down before running all the traps for in-depth profiles of the two finalists.

In order for these on-the-fly, fly-on-the-wall profiles to work best, the candidates had to agree to give us full access from the start of their day until they turned in for the night. Kilpatrick, the still relatively unknown leader of the Democrats in the state House, agreed. He had just had his braces removed and, having just celebrated his 31st birthday, was aiming to become Detroit's youngest-elected mayor.

In the morning, photographer Eric Seals and I caught up with Kilpatrick and Derrick Miller. Miller is expected to be the government's star witness in the Kilpatrick & Co. trial. At the time, he was still one of Kilpatrick's best friends and top campaign aides. He chauffeured us around in a dark green Jeep Cherokee.

One of our first stops was at the now-infamous Polo Barber Shop, just down the street from Kilpatrick's home on Leslie. The future mayor stopped to get the line in his beard defined by one of the barbers. As a baby-faced white boy, I had never heard of such a thing. And though it seemed silly at the time, it was a far cry from his purported rendezvous months later in a back room with a woman his police bodyguards said he referred to as his "Jamaican friend."

Still, this seemed like a good start, given that the idea behind hitting the trail with the candidates was that, over the course of the day, they would let down whatever guard they had up. That would allow us to capture some genuine moments, as well as build up some rapport. We could even meet people we might want to follow up with later like, say, a trusted neighborhood barber.

As we cruised around the city, the reporters and the pols got to know each other a bit. Kilpatrick and Miller were a little guarded, but we gradually got comfortable with each other during stops to visit seniors and tape radio interviews.

While we watched and listened, Kilpatrick told a campaign aide over his cell phone that he would not be attending a finance committee meeting. He had another, apparently more important, obligation. A few minutes later, we would find out what the campaign official didn't know: He wanted to get his hair trimmed at another barber shop.

With a decade of political reporting on my resume, I was surprised to hear Kilpatrick blow off a meeting with such a key group. Finance committees members are typically powerful, wealthy or influential folks who hit up friends, relatives and colleagues for critical campaign cash. They generally do this for free, in return for access to the candidate. If the candidate is not an incumbent, he or she is expected to treat them with the kind of reverence reserved for rain-makers.

Instead, we rolled up to Ali's Barba Shop, a raggedy but comfortable little joint on the west side named for Kilpatrick's cousin, Ali, a friendly cat in a camouflage cap and fatigue pants.

Kilpatrick greeted everyone in the shop, including his grandfather, Marvel.

After Ali trimmed up Kilpatrick's seemingly already well-cropped hair, we were ready to roll. Before we drove off, I ran back into the shop and asked Ali how much he wanted for the used ties he was selling. A polka dotted number by Countess Mara -- my late grandfather's favorite maker -- had caught my eye. Ali said 10 bucks. I handed him the cash and ran off to catch up with the guys.

Not long after that stop, Kilpatrick told us he had to go home to freshen up for a big fundraiser that night at the Detroit Yacht club. It would feature his mother and her fellow congresswoman, Maxine Waters. Eric and I said, great, we'd love to see you interacting with your wife and twin preschoolers. But, despite our agreement, we were forbidden from the inner sanctum.

By now, we had gotten pretty comfortable with each other. Kilpatrick didn't just answer questions, he asked a few. He asked me what I had wanted to be when I grew up. I gave him my standard smart-aleck answer that I wanted to be rich. (In fact, I wanted to be a major league baseball player, something I told him sheepishly in a letter I dropped off at the campaign office a couple days later alibiing myself for my wiseass answer and thanking him for allowing us to tag along.) When we drove through a neighborhood with some ladies of questionable repute, I joked that they must be headed to the other Ho Down, not the traditional one to be held at Hart Plaza that weekend.

Still, when we pressed Kilpatrick to let us go home with him, he gave us a firm and unequivocal "No." While the family were OK for brochures and political appearances, reporters would not be allowed to get up close and personal. But he agreed to link up with us again at the fundraiser and, possibly, after.

Eric and I were concerned -- and a little hacked off. But we had little choice. So we split up for a couple hours and caught up with Kilpatrick at the fundraiser, a rousing success full of important-looking people happy to rub elbows with the scion of the Cheeks-Kilpatrick family.

But that was as far as we'd get for the rest of the night.

At the time, it seemed like we hadn't got to see as much of Kilpatrick as we'd been promised.

Looking back, I'd say we saw way more than anyone realized.

Follow M.L. Elrick's coverage of the Kilpatrick & Co. trial daily on FOX 2 and at www.myfoxdetroit.com. Contact him at ml.elrick@foxtv.com or via Twitter (@elrick) or Facebook. And catch him every Friday morning around 7:15 a.m. on Drew & Mike on WRIF, 101.1 FM. He is co-author of "The Kwame Sutra: Musings on Lust, Life and Leadership from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick," available at www.kwamesutra.com. A portion of sales benefit the Eagle Sports Club and Soar Tutoring. Learn more at www.eaglesports.com.

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