She spent 14 years as a U.S. Congresswoman, but for many she’s just 'Kwame's mom.' In a rare interview, she speaks on life, legacy and everything in between.
y midnight on Aug. 4, 2010, it was about time for Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick to concede the race. The seven-term Congresswoman representing the 13th Congressional District was headquartered at the DoubleTree Suites on Lafayette Boulevard waiting for the election results of the Democratic primary with her family.
Her resume of achievements, which she says includes a billion dollars raised in appropriations for the state of Michigan-in the form of the M-1 Rail, Rosa Parks Transit Center and city buses-could have been enough to secure her an easy victory that night. But the Congresswoman could see the tide was turning.
"That was a heavy moment," she remembers, emotionally. "That was the night I lost."
Hansen Clarke-the state senator from Detroit's east side, who was emerald green when it came to playing ball with the Capitol Hill political players-easily would have lost two years ago against longtime incumbent Kilpatrick. Instead, the numbers favored him to win.
Kim Rudolph, the Congresswoman's chief of staff, had been receiving updates on the race from her suite at The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit. She remembers the night as somewhat surreal. In the elevator on her way to the DoubleTree, Rudolph bumped into actor Ashton Kutcher and then-wife actress Demi Moore on their way to dinner at Roast. Moore was in town to film the movie LOL.
"He (Ashton) said, 'You look nice tonight,'" remembers Rudolph; she was wearing a white dress with a wide red belt and her hair close-cropped and blond. "And I remember them asking if everything was all right. And I said, 'It's going to be.'" Arriving to the Congresswoman's hotel, Rudolph was in a mellow mood. "I can't explain it," she says. "It was like it was all good. It's OK. And you know what? It was OK."
Sure, Team Kilpatrick could have held out longer before conceding. After all, they were one of D.C.'s most efficient offices, where Rudolph says 'no' was not acceptable, let alone defeat. But the public's feelings for her candidate changed virtually overnight-and it was by no fault of her own or her dedicated staff. "We were innocent bystanders," Rudolph says.
"So that made it even more difficult because we knew how hard our Congresswoman worked. And how good she was."
Rudolph admits that deep down, she knew Congresswoman Kilpatrick would lose before the race began. And deep, deep down, she sort of wanted her to.
"I didn't think people would be fair to her," Rudolph explains. "I think many people wanted a way to punish her son. And she was the only way." The relationship between a member of congress and a chief of staff is deeply involved and complex, she says. "The chief of staff's job is to run the entire operation. And oftentimes, that means being brutally honest and telling a member of congress what they can and cannot do."
In the living room of the Congresswoman's suite, an intimate group-including her daughter Ayanna and pastor Robert Brumfield of Oak Grove African Methodist Episcopal Church-said a prayer as the Congresswoman called the race. After serving 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, she could have pivoted to another position in politics or the private sector, but she decided to retire.
"And she just said it with such dignity and grace. I remember we were both crying and we both hugged each other for what seemed like 10 years. But it probably was 10 seconds," says Rudolph. She explains, after a "difficult" last few years in office, her team remained intact. "Even when people were telling us, 'You need to jump ship before it sinks.' Not one person left, because we knew we were good at what we did."
Today, the Congresswoman is a different woman. She'll be 70 years old soon and, absent a life in politics, she is noticeably vibrant. "I had a good career," she says. "I don't miss a day of it." Now living in D.C., her daily preoccupations include going to the gym, checking in on her 96-year-old dad and loving her five grandchildren. And she uses any opportunity she can to discuss how society can help its children. "There's a lot that we used to do as a society that cost no money," she says with passion, such as having dinner together as a family. "If we could get back to doing that, it would make enough of a difference."
The Congresswoman's penchant for family structure is a small preview of the community-based values she brought to her career in congress. And if you peel back the layers of her political resume even more-to really get to know her-you will find a devoted daughter, mother and career woman of faith, who has a predilection for wanting to "be the best" and bring out the best in everyone around her.
Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick on family
As a young girl, Kilpatrick was "the first at everything," remembers Raymond Cheeks, her older brother by a year and a half. He says his sister was also "no nonsense."
"Once, I think I was about 7 or 8, she went to the store with me and I stole a Snickers candy bar. And got away with it-until I got home. And then she told on me. And I got beat half to death," he laughs. "She was always that straight-laced person."
Born on June 25, 1945, Carolyn Jean Cheeks was the middle child of five kids to parents Willa Mae Henry Cheeks and Marvel Cheeks Jr. Her father moved to Detroit from South Carolina in 1928 when he was 7 years old. He worked in the Ford plant for about 10 years before he quit to be a handyman.
"My mom was a stay-at-home mom and beautician … well, back then, a lot of moms didn't work. Our neighborhood was like an extended family," says Kilpatrick, about the community between Dexter Avenue and Wildemere Street. "We ate dinner at the same time every day at the table with Dad after he got home from work. And I thought everybody lived like that. I didn't know until I got older that everybody has different families."
Mrs. Cheeks, her mother, was the head of the household, she explains.
"My mom was certainly my epitome of a mother. I thought my dad ran stuff. I didn't know, until she died, she was the one running stuff, as women do. She was very even. She worked the day hours and spent the evenings with her children," Kilpatrick says. Mrs. Cheeks raised her children with one simple rule: "You had to be the best."
"Well … yes," agrees Kilpatrick's father, Marvel Jr., explaining mother Cheeks never put up with much "foolishness." Speaking about his daughter's upbringing, he adds, "She was decisive. She didn't speak out of turn. She was always buckled down to business. She wasn't much of an athlete, but she did other things."
In 1963, Kilpatrick graduated from Detroit's High School of Commerce-a business school across from Cass Technical High School located where the Fisher Freeway is today. At the predominately White school, she found favor among her Black and White peers, elected her class president the year of her graduation. Enrolling in Ferris State University that summer, where she eventually received an associate degree, she met her future husband, Bernard Kilpatrick.
"He was a college all-American," remembers Kilpatrick. "I was goo-goo-ga-ga at the time. We had a good time, though. And we developed two great kids." After marrying in 1968, they divorced around the time she entered politics.
"I wasn't worried about her," says Marvel Jr., about his daughter balancing a career and family. "She was always kind of smart and really progressive. She had a lot of support-an awfully large family."
Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick becomes a congresswoman
After earning her bachelor's degree from Western Michigan University, Kilpatrick started teaching in Detroit Public Schools in 1972 while working on her master's degree at the University of Michigan. She taught business education at Northeastern and Southeastern high schools in Detroit, but her favorite assignment was the secondary school Philip J. Murray-Wright High School.
"I loved it at the time," she says, explaining that being a mother and nurturing her children meant all children. "It's always about the children to me. Plus, what I taught, you couldn't talk your way out of it, like history. You either know how to do accounting or you don't. You either know how to do keyboarding or you don't."
After seeing some students struggle because of lack of resources at home, Kilpatrick wanted to find a way do more for the kids. And she saw politics as way to level the playing field for children in need.
"I do believe that your experiences from a (young age) dictate the kind of life you are going to have in (adulthood). And I never paid that any attention until I saw my own kids and nieces and nephews growing up. If you are kind of limiting their environment with a lack of available education and all that-you don't have much to pull on. That's why these kids now, I just cringe for them."
When Sen. Jackie Vaughn III was in the State House about to run for Senate, Kilpatrick's church, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, encouraged her to take his seat. "They ran candidates for office. They had put some on city council, county commissioner, school board and all that," she explains. "And nobody wanted to do it. And then the minister said, 'Why don't you run for that?'"
With the blessing of her family, she ran for the seat.
"She always had perfect organizing skills," remembers her brother Raymond. "So when it came time for her to run for state rep, the family got behind her. Had a no-blemish record. No nonsense all the way through."
After beating out eight candidates, she took office in the Michigan House of Representatives for 18 years, becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the Michigan House Appropriations Committee. "I did not have any endorsements. We had a good family, a better message and a stronger candidate. And the rest was history," says the Congresswoman, simply. When she decided to run for Congress, she relied on trusted relationships. From her time in Detroit Public Schools, she made good friends with Olympian track runner Wilma Rudolph, her future chief of staff Kim Rudoph's aunt.
"I knew (when I was a child), but as an adult I got to see her heart and compassion for people," says Rudolph, 50, now chief of staff to Congressman André D. Carson. She remembers Kilpatrick asked her to work on her campaign one day by the pool at the Rudolph family home in Nashville, Tennessee. "She said, 'I've been praying on this, and I think I'm going to run for Congress,'" she recalls.
Rudolph would fly out on weekends from Nashville to Detroit to help the Congresswoman with her campaign. "Which is probably one of the best experiences I had, because it taught me what a true politician is," she says. The Congresswoman's standards of excellence became known as the "Kilpatrick bootcamp" among staffers.
"She is a workaholic. And working for her is tough. She had a reputation on the Hill for being tough but fair. I think working for her early in my career really helped me be the woman and the professional I am today," Rudolph says. "She really created a family atmosphere."
Mother Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick
When the Cheeks family lost their matriarch to lung cancer, it was devastating, says Kilpatrick. But now she recognizes her mother's resilience.
"She kept it from us. You know, it's funny like that. I guess she didn't want us to know. She went in to the hospital the day before my birthday," she remembers. "It changed our life forever, but it was always good because my granddad was still living and you had to be strong. You had to be the best. And we had to look to the future. And that's what mom would want us to do."
The Congresswoman carried on this same attitude of wanting nothing but the best from her children, Kwame and Ayanna.
"They thought I was mean," Kilpatrick smiles, laying down her ground rules. "No slacking off. I expect you to be the best. How are you going to run the world if you are not doing the best you can do now? So I was tough."
Both of her children received scholarships-Kwame went to Florida A&M University and Ayanna went to Hampton University. She says they both went on be further high achievers and make accomplishments she calls "blessings." But with the blessings come the hardships.
In her most difficult year, the Congresswoman saw her career mired by questions about her son Kwame's political practices. He had entered politics after winning her former seat in the Michigan House. Initially, she didn't want him to take the position out of her concern it would put a strain on his family, she remembers.
"I didn't want it because he had a young family, and I knew the pressures of public office. I knew if he got in it, he would be in it all the way. And I thought the family might suffer," she says. "But he had a good wife and they kind of worked it out together. So I wasn't really against him running. Just worried about him. I had no second thoughts about whether he'd be great."
When news first broke of Kilpatrick's son's troubles as the mayor of Detroit, everything changed overnight in D.C., remembers Rudolph. But the Congresswoman's focus was on family.
"I was pained for my son more than what I had accomplished that was getting shoved back, because I'm the mom and I know he didn't deserve that," she says about that time that she says made her family "stronger."
"I believe hurricanes, tornados, windstorms, floods is God saying, 'Hey, time out. Take care of my country, my land, my environment, my people,'" she says.
So on that day in 2010 when she lost her seat in Congress, the message was clear: It was time to take care of her family.
In 2013, Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted on 24 felony counts, including racketeering, bribery and other felonies, resulting in a 28-year prison sentence. He is serving that sentence in a federal prison in Oklahoma.
During the trials and the media barrage over the allegations against her son, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick-the mother, not the Congresswoman-stood by her son. That's what mothers do, she says.
"We go a long way for our children, for our birth children and otherwise. That's why we are here. That's why we are created, I believe," she says. "That's why there is a man and a woman, or two men and two women, and I am a strong supporter of both. But we are here to help bring the human race to a place of acceptance and caring and giving and serving, so that the world-and, in our case, our little corner of the world-could be better and stronger."
Sure, she saw the headlines and read the reports, but she says she eventually stopped paying attention due to "misinformation."
"I didn't read a lot of things during that time," she says. "I talked to my son a lot. And we talked as a family. But it was a hard time for all of us, because we didn't believe any of it. Today, I still don't.
"Our media tends to want to shape your opinion rather than giving information and letting you think. And I think that's dangerous."
But she has no regrets. If she could do it all again, she says she wouldn't change a thing.
"First of all, what difference does it make?" she says, on looking back with regret. "That's not how we are built. We don't dwell on that. We keep moving. We have to. My faith is strong and I believe everything happens for a reason-and got me stronger in the process."
After a three-decade long career as a public servant known for being "tough," the Congresswoman says warmly, "I'm in a place in my life where I don't have to be tough anymore."