Kilpatrick faces another tough primary this year

After surviving a primary scare last cycle, Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) is once again fighting to keep her seat.

The seven-term Democrat faces a strong primary challenge from state Sen. Hansen Clarke (D), and the same issues that made her a target in 2008 linger.

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“There has been a culture of politics in Detroit for decades that people go into office to be served by the public — to take care of yourself and your family, not to look after the taxpayer,” Clarke told The Hill. “One thing I’m trying to change is that culture.”

He added, “In other districts, the politicians would be thrown out of office into recall for that kind of arrogance.”

Kilpatrick’s son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, left office in 2008 amid a ballooning text-messaging/corruption scandal and has since served time in prison. Carolyn Kilpatrick was not implicated in the scandal, but made speeches in his defense at the time.

“It’s not anything that she’s really done or not done as a Congressperson, it’s the fact that her name is Kilpatrick and she’s Kwame’s mother,” said Bill Ballenger, who edits Inside Michigan Politics.

Kilpatrick’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on her race.

After Kwame Kilpatrick’s release in February 2009, he moved to Texas, but that hasn’t kept him out of Detroit newspaper headlines. He’s currently engaged in a court battle over restitution payments mandated by his probation. Moreover, his mother and her Detroit office manager, Andrea Bragg, were recently subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.

In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dated March 1 that was entered in the Congressional Record March 9, Kilpatrick said: “I have been served with a grand jury subpoena for testimony by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.” Kilpatrick’s Detroit office manager, Andrea Bragg, submitted a similar letter.

The Detroit Free Press reported the grand jury may be related to a city contractor who told investigators during a federal corruption probe that he handed over bribes to Kwame Kilpatrick in 2002.

According to a statement issued by her office, Kilpatrick “has been assured by the Department of Justice that neither she nor Andrea Bragg is a target of the grand jury.” Both women pledged to “cooperate fully and answer truthfully all appropriate questions.”

The legal proceedings involving Kilpatrick and her son will cause trouble for her reelection, said Ballenger. “Anything like this that reminds voters of her connection to her son and the name Kilpatrick and possible indictment and federal probes and everything else is all bad news for anybody named Kilpatrick, including her,” he noted. 

Clarke insisted he won’t make the Kilpatricks’ legal woes central to his campaign.

“I think it’s unfortunate what the congresswoman and her family are going through, but I’m more concerned about [homeowners facing foreclosure],” he said.

Still, he said he’s running to “to restore people’s trust in Congress.”

Clarke is the only candidate challenging Kilpatrick for now, but that could change. Observers speculated that former state Rep. Lamar Lemmons III (D) could enter the primary, which could siphon off the anti-incumbent vote.

“That’s what the Kilpatricks did last time when I ran for reelection,” Clarke said, noting that Lemmons challenged him for the state Senate Democratic nomination in 2006 with their backing. “They backed a guy who attacked me because of my ethnicity.” Clarke’s father is from Bangladesh.

“Then they put in another woman that had a strong political name — Waters — to cut up my base. And it didn’t work at all. In fact, it was my biggest win ever,” he noted.

That technique did work, however, in Kilpatrick’s 2008 primary.

Kilpatrick faced state Sen. Martha Scott (D) and former state Rep. Mary Waters (D) in the primary. Scott and Waters split the anti-Kilpatrick vote, handing the congresswoman a win — albeit with only 39 percent of the vote.

Adding to Kilpatrick’s woes is the recent conviction of Monica Conyers, the wife of veteran Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), on bribery charges. She was sentenced in federal court Wednesday to 37 months in prison. It only adds to the negative impression of incumbents this cycle.

Kilpatrick does have a fundraising advantage over her challenger. She had some $350,000 cash on hand coming into 2010. Clarke has said he needs to raise $500,000 to keep pace with her.

But even if he doesn’t meet that goal, Clarke said he can still win.

“I won’t need [a big campaign war chest] because I’m a guy from that district. I’m born and raised in that district,” he said. “I’m likely to run a very unconventional campaign. I’m not going to need to go on TV and all that. I just need to do my work and help people.”