If you are a Michigan Democrat, I’ve got good news. If Virgil Smith Jr. is as good as his word, there soon won’t be any Democratic state senators in jail.
That’s because Smith, according to his lawyer, has promised to resign by tomorrow. This comes nearly a year after the senator stood naked on a crowded residential street, firing shot after shot into his ex-wife’s Mercedes, wrecking the car but not killing her.
Smith, who already had a string of alcohol and shoplifting convictions, was promptly charged with multiple felonies. The Democratic leadership promptly stripped him of his committee posts. He should have resigned then, since it was clear he could no longer properly serve his constituents. Constituent service wasn’t his priority, however.
Keeping his job and getting paid was. What followed was a disgrace to all parties, including the major political ones. Democrats should have immediately called for his resignation. They make up less than a third of the entire senate, and losing one vote would have been nothing.
Besides, once he was out, a special election could have given them someone better, possibly the admirable Rashida Tlaib, who Smith narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary two years ago.
But Democrats said nothing. Not only was this disgraceful, it made no sense, because Smith usually could be counted on to vote with Republicans on key legislation, including some that hurt his poor black constituents.
Republicans liked this because they could claim they had “bipartisan support” on bills no other Democrat would vote for. In fact, Smith even carried their water on one of their failed efforts, introducing a bill that would have severely limited benefits for those in catastrophic auto accidents, a key goal of the insurance industry.
That was too much even for some Republicans, and the bill never passed. After he was charged with all those felonies, Smith became an even more reliable GOP vote.
All good things must come to an end, however, and now Smith is sitting in Wayne County jail, where he will be for the next ten months as part of a plea bargain. Part of the bargain was that he would also resign from the legislature.
But Wayne Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon voided that, saying the prosecutor had no right to require Smith to leave a position given him by the voters. However, even the Republicans knew keeping a jailed felon in the Senate was untenable, and announced they would begin expulsion proceedings. This is why Smith is finally resigning.
You see, if you resign from the legislature, you get to keep the privileges of a former lawmaker, such as showing up to visit. If you get expelled, you don’t.
Being able to hang out in the Capitol is important if you want to become a lobbyist, which may well be Virgil’s next career. What all this illustrates most of all is how damaging term limits are. Smith, now 36, has been in the legislature since he was 22.
He had no real qualifications for the job, but was almost certainly elected because voters thought he was his father, a former legislator also named Virgil Smith. If you think this system is working for us, you have an interesting grasp on reality.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.