Detroit Mayor Race: Hip-Hop vs Buttoned-Down

The upcoming election for mayor of the nation's 11th largest city comes down to two men with vastly different styles and backgrounds — hip-hop vs. buttoned-down, perhaps.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (search), 35, is a flashy, energetic, 6-foot-4 lawyer and former college football player who wears a diamond earring. He enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Legislature and Democratic Party to the mayor's office.

His opponent, Freman Hendrix (search), is a 54-year-old career bureaucrat who went to college on the GI Bill after spending four years in the Navy in the 1970s. He and his wife still make it a priority to reserve Friday evenings as "date night."

The stark differences will be on display in the coming months during what political observers say will be an extremely negative campaign for Detroit (search) mayor. Kilpatrick is fighting for his political life after receiving only 34 percent of the primary vote Tuesday to Hendrix's 44 percent.

"Hendrix doesn't have the charisma the mayor has, and that's key," said pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC/MRA in Lansing. "But the mayor doesn't have the trust right now. If he can regain the trust of the people, then he can close the gap. Detroit doesn't generally like kicking out incumbents."

Kilpatrick, a Detroit native whose mother is a congresswoman, was elected four years ago with big ideas and a big smile that inspired many in the struggling city. But he has racked up a list of scandals that have some residents questioning whether he was up to the task of leading such a large city at such a young age.

Hendrix worked his way up through Detroit and Wayne County government, becoming deputy mayor under Kilpatrick's predecessor, Dennis Archer. His most recent job was a lucrative position as chief operating officer of an information technology management company in Detroit.

"He started in the basement, and starting in the basement connects you to the community and teaches you how to listen and learn and climb up the ladder," said Deidric Tupper, a minister who has known Hendrix for about a dozen years.

Hendrix's mother is a white Austrian who left her native country in the 1940s to marry a black American military man — Hendrix's father — and live in an all-black neighborhood in a working-class Detroit suburb.

Hendrix says his mixed-race heritage and upbringing taught him how to get along with anyone, and supporters say it benefits him. But in a city that is about 80 percent black, some say his background — along with his close ties to business and emphasis on suburban cooperation — could be used against him if the contest focuses on who is the "blacker" candidate.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network, says Hendrix is ill-equipped to understand many city residents and their needs.

"Freman represents a body of elitism of upper-class African-Americans to the exclusion of most of our residents who are poor and black," Sheffield said during Kilpatrick's election-night party. "This young man (Kilpatrick) is suited for this job. He has been dealt circumstances that only God himself could have circumvented, such as Detroit's budget problems."

Sheffield also echoed one of Kilpatrick's common complaints — that the media has unfairly maligned him. The mayor has said on several occasions that people have a hard time believing a young, black man with an earring and who has been dubbed "the hip-hop mayor" can also be a good husband and father.

Kilpatrick often says he grew up listening to people badmouth Detroit and decided when he was a boy that it was his dream to be mayor so he could raise up his hometown.

Carol Edwards, 51, who does community outreach for a health care company, voted for Kilpatrick and said the mayor just needs time to get the city moving.

"I believe in some of the things he's done," Edwards said. "I like that downtown has really picked up. After a period of time, he'll be able to really develop what he just started doing."

But Hendrix has characterized the Kilpatrick administration as one of waste, nepotism, inexperience and scandals, such as his use of a city credit card for expensive out-of-town travel and a city lease of a luxury sport utility vehicle for his family.

In addition, the city budget that took effect this summer called for hundreds of layoffs of police and firefighters and scaling back bus and trash services, all to tackle a $300 million deficit.

If things don't improve, the city could go into receivership and be taken over by the state. And while the city council enacted the cuts, the mayor has taken heat in part because his spending scandals emerged around the time he proposed service cutbacks.

Irby Flowers, 73, a retired electric company worker, said he voted for Hendrix because Kilpatrick and the city council have been "acting like a bunch of kids."

"Do you see all this mess in this city?" she said.