Squalid Criminals

DOME Magazine:   Jack Lessenberry  April 21, 2017

DETROIT – Now for a controversy few are willing to touch: Why have so many of Detroit’s black legislators turned out to be squalid criminals – and why has this been tolerated by both their voters and Democratic Party leaders?

The latest example came earlier this month when a federal grand jury indicted State Senator Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park on two felony charges for putting a woman on the state payroll who did no work.

Prosecutors say he owed her $10,000, and decided to let taxpayers pay her instead. Naturally, Johnson is entitled to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

However, he has done hard time before, following an armed robbery conviction when he was 19.

And the African-American legislative caucus has now had three embarrassing episodes in the last two years:

Two years ago, it was the sordid spectacle of State Senator Virgil Smith, Jr. (D-Detroit) shooting up his ex-wife’s Mercedes after he asked her to come over for a sexual encounter. Apparently she was unhappy there was already another woman in his bed, and a fight ensued that ended with Smith pumping her car full of bullets on a residential street.

Smith never had many real qualifications for the job; his resume consisted mainly of a string of petty offenses, such as shoplifting and driving while intoxicated.

He’d gotten elected to the state house at age 23, and then the senate after a few rocky years as a Michigan State University student. Many voters may have thought they were voting for his father, Virgil Smith Sr., who had served in the legislature, and is now a respected Wayne County Circuit Court judge.

After Smith the younger was charged with multiple felonies following the shooting episode, Democrats in leadership positions privately debated whether to call on him to resign.

At one point, Lon Johnson, state party chair, told me he was close to doing that. But neither he nor the Democratic leaders in the legislature ever did anything, other than stripping Smith of his committee assignments.

This was baffling, because Smith’s seat is safely Democratic. Smith then stayed in the senate for nearly a year, voting with the Republicans whenever they needed him to.

That made self-serving sense for him; Republicans, with a 27-11 supermajority, could have expelled him – or prevented his expulsion –any time they wished.

Smith didn’t resign from the senate until after his lawyers worked out a plea bargain deal and he began a prison term.

That was in late March 2016. That meant his voters lacked any representation for nine more months, but there was never much indication that Smith or party leaders cared.

Then there was the tawdry spectacle of State Rep. Brian Banks (D-Harper Woods) who had a record that included eight felony convictions before he was first elected in 2012.

Most or all of those were for financial crimes, including credit card fraud and bad checks; he also had a pattern of being evicted for nonpayment of his rent.

Soon after arriving in the legislature, he was in trouble again, when a male staffer he hired filed a lawsuit alleging that Banks repeatedly sexually harassed and finally molested him.

The State of Michigan ended up paying more than $85,000 to defend Banks in court, and another $11,950 to settle out of court with the former aide.

Nevertheless, voters reelected Banks in both 2014 and 2016, and Democratic leaders said nothing. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan even campaigned for his reelection last year.

But the jig was about to be up. Even before last year’s primary election, it was clear that four more felony charges were coming, this time relating to falsifying documents in order to get a loan.

Had he been convicted, Banks might have faced many years in prison as a habitual offender.

Instead, he cut a deal with Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and resigned.

Democratic leaders didn’t condemn his behavior. Instead, House Minority Leader Sam Singh praised him as a “passionate advocate for his district” who “worked tirelessly for his constituents.” Which, to put it politely, is horse exhaust.

To be sure, there are plenty of thoroughly corrupt white politicians – and black ones of integrity. President Barack Obama was a one-woman man whose eight years were as free of sexual or financial scandal as any in American history.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith is a man of unquestioned honesty – and I could fill this column just with the names of white lawmakers with ethical problems.

But when Michigan House Republicans realized they had two bad apples – Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, who were having an affair and using state resources to cover it up, they moved quickly to expel them, though Courser quit first.

What’s different about the Democrats?

Nobody will say so on the record. But Democrats are dependent on black votes, and may well fear antagonizing those voters –an attitude that might well be described as patronizing at best. White liberals are also just as bad. Lansing is full of people to whom Senator Johnson owed money.

“Bert Johnson bounced a $7,500 check to me. Twice. Lied about what happened,” one prominent attorney told me.

She told him she would go to the police if he didn’t pay. But she never did. “I assumed everybody in the party would hate me if I did,” she said.

So has she – and others like her – been guilty of enabling this behavior? “Probably. I will own that,” she said finally.

If that isn’t reverse racism, I don’t know what is.

Coda:  As if to prove that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then farce, Virgil Smith Jr., now out of jail, took out petitions to run for Detroit City Council. As part of his plea bargain agreement, he promised not to run for anything for at least five years.

But hey; that was then, and this is now.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.