It isn’t exactly a secret that a lot of people have lost faith in politicians. Polls show approval of and trust in Congress and the state Legislature has fallen to where it is barely ahead of Athlete’s foot. Men like Rep. Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods, are a good part of the reason why.
Banks has previously been convicted of eight felonies, mostly for things like bad checks and credit card fraud. He has been evicted for nonpayment of rent at least seven times, and has left a long trail of unpaid bills.
He also has claimed to have been both an attorney and an elementary school teacher, though there is no record of him ever having taught nor practiced law.
Yet last fall, against all reason, he was reelected to a third term in the Michigan Legislature, a body in which he has accomplished nothing. No bill he has offered has become law. Banks did, however get a fair amount of media attention during his last term, after a male aide claimed the representative had sexually harassed him.
The state ended up paying nearly a $100,00 to defend Banks and then absorb the cost of settling the case.
Regardless, thanks to extreme gerrymandering and voters who weren’t paying attention, Banks narrowly won a Democratic primary and easily won a third term last year in what is largely a very poor, mostly black district on Detroit’s east side, with a few white suburban neighborhoods in places like Harper Woods thrown in.
But it was clear that regardless of how the election turned out, Banks wouldn’t be around for much of his final term. Last summer he was charged with three more felonies, and there was a chance he could have ended up serving a long prison term as a habitual offender.
Nevertheless, there was a reason why getting reelected was important to Brian Banks. He could use his seat as a plea bargaining chip.
Yesterday, he agreed to resign immediately in exchange for the three felony charges being dropped. Banks will instead plead guilty to one misdemeanor, receive a slap on the wrist and not serve any jail time. By the end of the day, there was actually talk of his running for the state Senate next year.
You might think a district with a quarter million people could find a better role model.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose office had gone after Banks, issued a statement yesterday saying:
“As an elected official, you carry a higher burden of responsibility and are expected to act as a role model in your community. Former Representative Banks violated the trust placed in him by his neighbors and constituents.”
Why, yes he did.
But I would argue that Schuette and the system did too. I don’t think they should have settled for a slap on the wrist here. They should have insisted on a trial, or at least required Banks to plead guilty to a felony and serve some prison time.
As it now stands, it would be easy to conclude that the moral of this story is that if you can get yourself elected to something, your office includes a get out of jail free card.
We might think about whether that’s the message we really want to send.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.