Sex and the City: Can Apology Save Detroit's Mayor?

Kwame Kilpatrick is the lastest in a series of mayors caught in sex scandals.

January 8, 2009, 12:19 AM

Jan. 30, 2008— -- When Kwame Kilpatrick was elected mayor of Detroit in 2001 at the age of 31, he was the youngest leader of a major U.S. city, and considered by many to be a talented politician with a bright future.

That future is now threatened by a sex scandal that unfolded last week when a local newspaper discovered explicit text messages sent between the married mayor and Christine Beatty, his then chief of staff.

The messages may set off a perjury investigation, given that they seem to contradict testimony the mayor and Beatty gave last summer during a whistleblower suit into whether Kilpatrick used his security detail to cover up the affair. That suit cost the city $9 million.

Last week the Detroit Free Press found text messages received and sent by the mayor and Beatty's pager from 2002 and 2003. Beatty, who is also married, resigned her post Monday.

"I'm madly in love with you," read one message from Kilpatrick, according to the newspaper. "I need you soo bad," read another printed in the Press.

Messages from Beatty to the mayor read: "In case you haven't noticed, I am madly in love with you, too" and "Did you miss me sexually?"

Kilpatrick is the latest in a recent series of American mayors caught in sexual dalliances that become all too public affairs.

In January 2007, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom came clean about an affair he had with his campaign manager and former chief of staff. In June, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa divorced his wife and admitted to having an extramarital affair with a Spanish-language television reporter.

So are civic leaders having more affairs, or are they just getting caught more, thanks to the electronic trail of e-mail and IMs?

"Sex scandals are as old as politics," said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who has worked on campaigns in 46 states. "What's new is technology: cell phones, e-mail, the Internet, gossip magazines and cable news. We live now in a culture of gossip where things can spread at the drop of a dime, and there is no way to keep a secret," he said.

"There are no more secrets. For the first time, being in public life means your life is completely public," he said.

Since former President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, the public is less scandalized by such affairs and politicians are more likely fess up, said David Fott, a political science professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who heads a program in ethics and politics.

Both Newsom and Villaraigosa copped to their affairs, apologizing and then divorcing their wives soon after. Kilpatrick has been holed up his official residence for nearly a week and issuing a single statement on the subject.

"These five- and six-year-old text messages reflect a very difficult period in my personal life. … My wife and I worked our way through these intensely personal issues years ago," he said in a statement.

While sex scandals may be par for the course for politicians, perjury is another matter."Lots of people told us the sex was not unexpected. Politicians do this kind of stuff all the time," said Jim Schaefer, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press who broke the news of the messages.

"What really gets people's gall was the money shelled out to keep this secret -- $9 million was paid off to three former police officers."

A union of 900 municipal workers last Friday called on Kilpatrick to resign and said members plan to picket City Hall.

When confronted with a sex scandal, errant politicians should apologize quickly, said Fott.

"A prompt apology does a lot to minimize damage. Apologizing might not have been enough 50 years ago, but nowadays people are more willing to be understanding and to relate," he said.

But Kilpatrick has done the opposite, staying at his residence and meeting with lawyers, while reporters swarm Manoogianv Mansion waiting for any comment.

"An apology would be a first step. Right now, people just want him to say anything. He can be defiant, contrite or apologetic. But the longer it drags on the worse it is going to be for everybody," said Schaefer.

The mayor's office said Kilpatrick will make a speech on Wednesday evening.

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