Benny Napoleon And Other Detroit Politicians Who Claimed To Have God On Their Side

September 02, 2013, 10:10 PM by  Bill McGraw

Graphic by Lauren Ann Davies

Benny Napoleon’s declaration last week that running for mayor is God’s plan for him took his campaign to a new level.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

In linking his political fortunes so closely to the Almighty, Napoleon puts himself in rare company. But most

of the Detroit politicians who have boasted of their heavenly connections were outright scoundrels or losers who had screwed up.

Napoleon is neither. He is an honorable man who is the Wayne County sheriff and former Detroit police chief.

On Wednesday, during an appearance at, appropriately, a church, Napoleon recalled how on the final day of ninth grade, a fellow student held a gun to his head. Nothing happened that day, fortunately, but the gunman later murdered someone else and went to prison, Napoleon told the crowd.

Then he said: “God spared me for a reason. I believe that is the reason is why I’m here today. God had a plan for me. This is his plan.”

That would seem like Napoleon has a formidable mentor. But given that guidance from above, Napoleon's finish in the primary last month -- 20,000 votes behind a white guy from the suburbs whose name wasn’t even on the ballot -- must be what people mean when they say, “God works in mysterious ways.”

Detroit politicians linking themselves to God have surfaced several times in recent years, but the practice goes back decades. It’s actually an art. Some politicians, like Napoleon, mince no words: God is on their side. Others can be more subtle.

In 1940, former Detroit Mayor Richard Reading was found guilty of conspiring with cops, while he was in office, to take bribes from underworld figures. Reading linked himself to God by inference.

After the guilty verdict was read, he declared, “This is the greatest injustice since the crucifixion of Christ!”

The judge gave Reading 4 ½ to 5 years in prison.

In 1989, Detroit Police Chief William Hart, left, defending himself from allegations of corruption, said: "With God as my witness, I swear I did not do that."

Hart later was convicted and sentenced to prison for stealing $2.3 million from a secret police department fund.

In 1992, James Bradley, the city clerk who probably stayed in office several years too long, received a lot of criticism for widespread problems at the polls. Bradley reminded residents that when they elected him, they got a twofer, and Bradley said He was still running the show many years later.

"I get my direction from up there,” Bradley said, motioning heavenward. “When I first came into this office, I made an announcement that I was taking God into City Hall. ... I will not be vindictive because God never gave me that option."

Then there’s Monica Conyers.

The former president pro-tem and president of the Detroit City Council, Conyers was a totally crazed Jesus Freak, frequently dragging God into her messy, loud but mercifully brief life as a Detroit politician.

In 2008, asked why she was fighting so much with her colleagues, she said: "More of the council members need to understand that I'm not a baby, and that for some reason, God wanted me to be president pro tem and not the others."

The next year, when she became council president, Conyers explained she could get along with Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. even after she famously had called him Shrek during one of her tantrums.

"I think I will be a great president because God does not give you more than you can handle," she said.

Later, as Conyers battled rumors about a federal investigation that resulted in her pleading guilty to accepting a bribe to change her vote in a sludge deal, she discussed her troubles, saying:

 “I believe in my heart that God will deliver me from them."

He didn’t; Conyers went to prison for three years.

But not even the archbishop was as close to the Trinity as the self-described “God’s guy;” disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

 "I believe I'm on an assignment from God,” Kilpatrick once declared.

During the eight-month spectacle before Kilpatrick resigned in 2009, City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta poked fun at the mayor and all Detroit politicians who wear their religion on their sleeves.

Kenyatta said: "The mayor says that he serves God and he speaks to God and he's chosen by God, so hopefully those who also say that they have been chosen by God, if they speak to Him ... then maybe God will speak to the mayor, and he will step down."

If Kilpatrick was so close to God, and he still managed to wind up in prison, awaiting a sentencing next month that could keep him behind bars for up to 20 years, the only conclusions can be:

A)   Kilpatrick was lying about his relationship with God. (Imagine!)

B)   Being close to God doesn’t work if you’re from Detroit.

C)   God is dead.

You don’t need a direct line to heaven to know that hooking up with God is not a good strategy for Benny Napoleon. Looking at the scallywags who have gone on these personal crusades before Napoleon, a fair-minded person's only response should be, "Don't do it, Benny." 

The towering figure of recent Detroit politics -- Coleman Young -- refrained from linking himself with God despite all the controversies he had to deal with during his 20 years as mayor. In his case, it was other people who tried to deify him.

At his first inauguration in 1974, Young, Detroit's first black mayor, was introduced with the words, "Behold, the man," a biblical reference to Pontius Pilate's words to Jesus after he was whipped, beaten and crowned with thorns before his crucifixion. In "Devil's Night And Other True Tales of Detroit," Zev Chafets' 1990 book about Detroit, Chafets described Young's challenging life, as recounted by his admirers, as a sort of hagiographic "stations of the cross."   

Young, though, ridiculed Detroit's political God-squaders.

He once said: "I think people who go around solemn-faced and quoting the Bible are full of shit." 

Leave a Comment: