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KILPATRICK, Carolyn Cheeks

KILPATRICK, Carolyn Cheeks
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


A 30-year veteran of Michigan politics, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996. Kilpatrick picked up a seat on the prestigious Appropriations Committee in only her second term, where she remained throughout her tenure, using the position to direct federal resources towards her Detroit district. An active member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kilpatrick was unanimously elected its chair for the 110th Congress (2007–2009).

Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick was born Carolyn Jean Cheeks on June 25, 1945, in Detroit, Michigan, to Marvell Jr. and Willa Mae (Henry) Cheeks. Raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Kilpatrick later joined the Shrine of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, a politically active and powerful congregation in Detroit.1 She graduated from the High School of Commerce in Detroit as president of her class and attended Ferris State University. She earned a BS in education from Western Michigan University in 1972 and an MS in education from the University of Michigan. In 1968 she married Bernard Kilpatrick. They raised two children: Ayanna and Kwame.2

Early in her career, Kilpatrick worked as a Detroit public school teacher. A protégé of longtime Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young, she left teaching in 1978 to pursue a political career and won election to nine consecutive terms in the Michigan house of representatives. Serving 18 years in the state house, Kilpatrick became the first African- American woman member of its appropriations committee. She chaired the corrections budget and the transportation budget subcommittees during 14 years on the committee. Kilpatrick was also a house Democratic whip and earned a reputation as a consensus-builder.3

In 1996 Kilpatrick declared her candidacy for a Detroit-area seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Among a large field of competitors in the Democratic primary, including three-term incumbent Barbara-Rose Collins, Kilpatrick prevailed with a 19-point margin. In the general election, the overwhelmingly Democratic district elected Kilpatrick with 88 percent of the vote. In her subsequent six re-elections, she won by similarly large margins.4

When Kilpatrick took her seat in the 105th Congress (1997–1999), she received assignments on three committees: Banking and Financial Services (later named Financial Services); House Oversight (later renamed House Administration); and the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress. In the 106th Congress (1999–2001), Kilpatrick obtained a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which required her to give up all other committee assignments. She was the sole Michigan Democrat to serve on the committee during her tenure there, and when Republican Joseph Knollenberg failed to win re-election in 2010, she was the only Michigan Representative on the Appropriations Committee. Kilpatrick also was the first African-American Member of Congress to serve on the Air Force Academy Board of Visitors.5

Much of Kilpatrick’s legislative work centered on bringing federally funded projects to Michigan. She garnered funding for pre-college engineering instruction, children’s television programming, and enhanced rehabilitation services at the Detroit Medical Center.6 She also initiated a transportation bill that included $24 million for an intermodal freight terminal that linked rail, marine, and road delivery lines.7 And she spearheaded $100 million in the 2005 transportation bill for a commuter rail system that covered more than 50 miles in southeastern Michigan. Kilpatrick’s efforts brought a National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineering and aeronautics program for students ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade to Wayne State University. Kilpatrick’s district included a significant portion of Detroit, and she worked to support American automakers. She split from her Democratic colleagues on the issue of fuel economy standards. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, she said, “is a 1970s solution to our energy challenges that is as threadbare as your old bell bottom jeans.”8 During the 2008 financial crisis, she backed legislation to provide General Motors and Chrysler with federal aid.9

Kilpatrick was a prominent advocate for affordable health care for low- and middle-income families and for raising the minimum wage. She voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 and was a “strong supporter of the single payer health care plan” and “a strong public option.”10 Kilpatrick also proposed legislation to provide a $1,000 per month tax credit for medical doctors who practice in underserved areas.11 Kilpatrick sought to encourage corporate America and the federal government to invest more money into minority- and women-owned media outlets and advertising agencies. From her seat on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, Kilpatrick brought attention to health and economic woes in sub-Saharan Africa. In the 106th Congress, she offered an amendment to boost disaster assistance funding for flood relief in Mozambique by $60 million; two subsequent appropriations bills included $25 million and $135 million in International Disaster Assistance for Mozambique and the surrounding region. Kilpatrick also favored funding for HIV/AIDS programs, education, and military assistance in America and in several African countries.12

In 2008 Kilpatrick faced her first serious primary challenge. Mary Waters and Martha Scott, both members of the Michigan house of representatives, ran against her citing the need for new leadership in the district. It was the closest of all of Kilpatrick’s primary battles, but with 39 percent of the vote she secured a plurality over her opponents, and handily won the general election.13 On the heels of the competitive campaign for the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Kilpatrick again faced a strong challenge in 2010. This time, however, she lost in the Democratic primary. Hansen Clarke, a Detroit native and member of the Michigan state senate, defeated Kilpatrick 47 percent to 41 percent, and won the general election for the 112th Congress (2011–2013).14


1“Drew R. Smith and Frederick C. Harris, Black Churches and Local Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005): 152; Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (28 October 2005): H9400; “Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick,” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 16 (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1997): n.p.

2Emell Derra Adolphus, “Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick on Family, Career, Controversy,” 5 May 2015, Blac Detroit,; Congressional Directory, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2009): 139.

3“Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick,” in Contemporary Black Biography; Hans Johnson and Peggie Rayhawk, The New Members of Congress Almanac: 105th U.S. Congress (Washington, DC: Almanac Publishing, Inc., 1996): 58.

4Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

5Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2007): 532; “Biography,” official website of Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, 6 August 2003,

6Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 2001): 815.

7Almanac of American Politics, 2002: 814.

8Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (1 August 2001): H5128.

9Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 December 2008): H10913.

10Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 March 2010): H1905, H2153.

11Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (4 November 1997): E2182.

12Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 December 2010): 18882; Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (28 June 2005): H5285; Congressional Record, House, 106th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 March 2000): H1569; An Act making appropriations for military construction, family housing, and base realignment and closure for the Department of Defense for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2001, and for other purposes, PL 106-246, 114 Stat. 511 (2000); An act making appropriations for foreign operations, export financing, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2001, and for other purposes, PL 106-429, 114 Stat. 1900 (2000).

13"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."

14The Democratic primary received national media attention due to the competitive race and legal concerns of Kilpatrick’s son Kwame, who resigned as mayor of Detroit. For examples, see Sean J. Miller, “Kilpatrick Faces Another Tough Primary This Year,” 12 March 2010, The Hill: 13; Mike Householder, “Rep. Kilpatrick Of Detroit Loses In Dem. Primary,” 4 August 2010, Associated Press; Tricia Miller, “Kilpatrick Loses Michigan House Primary Race,” 7 August 2010, Congressional Quarterly Weekly: n.p.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

"Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Appropriations
  • House Committee - Banking and Financial Services
  • House Committee - House Oversight
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on the Library
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