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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 won a seat on the prestigious House Appropriations Committee in her second term, where she remained throughout her tenure, using the position to direct federal resources towards her struggling Detroit district. An active member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Kilpatrick was unanimously elected its chairwoman in the 110th Congress (2007–2009).

Carolyn Jean Cheeks was born on June 25, 1945, in Detroit, Michigan, to Marvell Cheeks, Jr., and Willa Mae (Henry) Cheeks. Raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she later joined the Shrine of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, a politically active and powerful congregation in Detroit. She served as coordinator of political action.1 She graduated from the High School of Commerce in Detroit as president of her class and attended Ferris State University. She earned a bachelor of science degree in education from Western Michigan University in 1972 and a master of science degree in education from the University of Michigan. In 1968, she married Bernard Kilpatrick. They raised two children, Ayanna and Kwame. Early in her career, Carolyn Cheeks 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 the house appropriations committee. She chaired the corrections budget and the transportation budget subcommittees during 14 years on the appropriations committee. She also was a house Democratic whip—earning a reputation as a consensus–builder.2

Kilpatrick sought election in 1996 to represent Michigan 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–percent margin. In the general election, the overwhelmingly Democratic district elected Kilpatrick with 88 percent of the vote. In her subsequent six general election campaigns, she won by similarly large margins, despite reapportionment in 2001.3

When Congresswoman Kilpatrick took her seat in the 105th Congress (1997–1999), she received assignments on three committees: Banking and 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 leave her other committee assignments. She was the sole Michigan Democrat to serve on the committee during her tenure there, and when Republican Joseph Knollenberg was not re–elected to the 111th Congress (2009–2011), 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.4

Much of Kilpatrick's legislative work centered on bringing federally funded projects into the state of Michigan. She helped garner funding for pre–college engineering, children's television programming, and enhanced rehabilitation services at the Detroit Medical Center.5 She also initiated a transportation bill that included $24 million for an intermodal freight terminal that linked rail, marine, and road delivery lines.6 She initiated $100 million in the 2005 U.S. transportation bill for a commuter rail system that covered more than 50 miles in southeastern Michigan. Kilpatrick's efforts brought the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineering and aeronautics program, for students ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade, to Wayne State University. Congresswoman 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, saying, Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFÉ) "is a 1970s solution to our energy challenges that is as threadbare as your old bell bottom jeans."7 During the 2008 financial crisis, she backed legislation to provide General Motors and Chrysler with federal aid.8

Congresswoman Kilpatrick was an outspoken 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."9 Kilpatrick also proposed legislation to provide a $1,000 per month tax credit for medical doctors who practice in underserved areas.10 Representative Kilpatrick sought to encourage corporate America and the federal government to invest more money in 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, securing more than $25 million for flood relief in Mozambique, Madagascar, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Congresswoman Kilpatrick favored funding for HIV/AIDS programs, education, and military assistance in America and in several African countries.

In the 2008 primary election, 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. "Right now, people are feeling the trust in government is at an all–time low," said Waters. 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.11 On the heels of the competitive campaign for the 110th Congress, Kilpatrick again faced a strong challenge in 2010. This time 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.12


1"Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick," Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 2000; "Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick," Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 16 (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1997) (hereinafter referred to as CBB).

2"Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick," Contemporary Black Biography; Hans Johnson and Peggie Rayhawk, The New Members of Congress Almanac: 105th U.S. Congress (Washington, D.C.: Almanac Publishing Inc., 1996): 58.

3"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives,

4Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2007): 532; "Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick," (web site discontinued).

5Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Inc., 2001): 815.

6Almanac of American Politics, 2002: 814.

7Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (1 August 2001): H5128.

8Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 December 2008): H10913.

9Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 March 2010): H1905, H2153.

10Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (4 November 1997): E2182.

11"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."

12The 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, (accessed 8 December 2011); Mike Householder, "Rep. Kilpatrick Of Detroit Loses In Dem. Primary," 4 August 2010, Associated Press Online, (accessed 8 December 2011); Tricia Miller, "Kilpatrick Loses Michigan House Primary Race," 7 August 2010, Congressional Quarterly Weekly, (accessed 8 December 2011).

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
  • House Committee - Oversight
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on the Library
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