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When lawmakers break the law

Apr 12, 2017

You have to feel bad for Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a good and decent man who has the thankless task of heading a party so small it is more like a faction.

His Democrats are only 11 senators out of 38. Since they have less than a third of the total, they can’t even stop a bill from taking immediate effect. The only way they can do anything is by uniting with some Republicans when there is an occasional split in the GOP.

What made matters worse was that for much of last year, Ananich had only 10 members. Virgil Smith Jr., who got to the senate only by having a famous name, attacked his ex-wife and shot up her car in 2015, and then stayed in the Senate until he eventually was sentenced to jail.

During the intervening months, Smith voted with the Republicans when they needed him to, since they had the power to expel him and cut off his salary. Even after he resigned, it was months before his seat was filled in a special election and Democrats were back to their 11 seats.

But now, Ananich must be experiencing what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.”

Yesterday, a federal grand jury indicted State Senator Bert Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat, for, as the news service MIRS put it, “skimming $23,000 from state payrolls through use of a ghost employee.” The indictment charges that Johnson borrowed $10,000 from a woman and was unable to pay it back. So he put her on the part-time payroll for nine months.

She did no work; just collected a check. Ananich put out the responsible statement he needed to, saying that while these are serious charges, “Senator Johnson is presumed innocent.” That’s all true, but the odds are that this squalid little drama will not have a happy ending.

Incidentally, when the news broke I was talking with U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, and asked him why the indictment had come from a federal, not a state source. “Simple,” he said. “The federal government has subpoena power, and greater facilities for investigation, and the ability to offer immunity. The state government does not.”

There’s another problem most people would find taboo, but which I will mention anyway. Last night, at a dinner, a woman, a well-known liberal, said to me, “Well, what do you expect? He’s a black Democrat from Detroit. They are all crooks.”

That is neither true, nor fair. But incidents like this seem to be happening with depressing frequency – take the serial felon and former state house member Brian Banks, who resigned just weeks ago, and who was repeatedly reelected after his misdeeds were public knowledge.

I could, of course, fill this entire essay with the names of past white crooks in politics, from mayors to legislators and congressmen.

But it seems legitimate to ask if there is a reason this behavior seems to be tolerated. Historians know Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus. But shrewd civil rights leaders made hers the test case because her ethics and integrity were beyond reproach.

You have to wonder why some don’t demand the same today of their politicians.

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.