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 Sen. 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 Sen. 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 qualifications; 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 after 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 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 — anytime they wished.
Smith didn’t resign until after he began a prison term.
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.
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 re-elected Banks in 2014 and 2016, and Democratic leaders said nothing. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan even campaigned for his re-election 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.
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 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.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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