Detroit’s decline from Motown to the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history is long, extending back to the 1960s, but former mayor Kwame Malik Kilpatrick was the straw that broke the camel’s back, depriving the city of hope and ending what could have been Detroit’s millennial resurgence, reports Kelly Phillips Erb at Forbes.

detroit bankruptcy

Detroit’s tax revenue plummeted

There’s no question that Detroit’s problems run deep. Residents and businesses have been leaving for years, debt has risen while tax revenues have plummeted, and crime is rampant. Part of the story is that the manufacturing jobs that made Detroit an economic powerhouse have left for other countries with cheaper labor, and the thorny issue of race can’t be ignored.

But back in 2000 there was at least some reason to be hopeful.

“At the turn of the new century, it appeared that Detroit might be headed towards renewal,” writes Erb. “New buildings went up. Hotels and casinos were moving downtown. It was, it looked like the beginning of a comeback. All the city needed was a comeback kid.”

Kilpatrick’s promise to turn around city

When Kilpatrick became mayor in 2001 he promised to turn the city around, as would any politician, but the 31 year old filled many people with hope that change was possible. Kilpatrick started putting his personal expenses on the city tab, including lavish dinners and a family car, but he defended his actions by saying that Detroit needed to have the image of success if it was going to bring investors back in.

When he ran for re-election in 2005, residents decided to take him at his word, despite being considered one of the worst mayors in the country. After years of lawsuits and ongoing corruption, Kilpatrick was charged with multiple felonies in 2008 and eventually went to jail when he failed to pay the $1 million in restitution he had agreed on. Then, instead of getting out in 2011, he was indicted for fraud and tax evasion.

Obviously, a million dollars didn’t break Detroit, but it wasn’t just his personal spending. During his time in office a quarter of Detroit’s residents moved away. The already problematic deficit increased further, and corruption became standard procedure. Kilpatrick took a difficult situation and made it unsalvageable. He isn’t the only person to share the blame in Detroit’s long, difficult history, but a great deal of it belongs on his shoulders.