Politics and Prejudices: Why our system is broken, A case study

Consider, now that the first flush of titillation and scandal is long past, the sadly contemptible career of one Virgil Smith.

Virg is politically over, of course, whether or not he formally quits the legislature before they throw him out or put him away. By now, unless you've been in a barium mine since winter, you probably know the sordid outlines of the state senator from Detroit's little menage-a-nastiness.

According to police, nobody seems to dispute that the people's representative was naked in bed May 10 with another woman when his ex-wife showed up. A fight ensued, and Virg blasted away at her Mercedes-Benz on a residential street.

He may have shot it 10 times, according to police reports. She survived; the car didn't, and Virg is facing felonious assault and a raft of other felony charges. He was immediately stripped from all his committee positions, Democratic state chair Lon Johnson called on him to resign, and the rest will drearily play out over the next several months in the courts.

Naturally, this is another black eye for Detroit, for state government, and for the citizen's image of politics and politicians. Nobody wants to talk about this, but in plenty of places in Macomb County and in Howell and elsewhere, people will say something like "Yep, one more typical African-American politician." Except they mostly won't say "African-American."

Squalid little Virgil himself is of no particular interest, except as a symptom of one of the reasons politics and government no longer work in this state. He never should have been in the legislature in the first place, and probably wouldn't have been, except for talent-destroying term limits.

Virgil the younger has never had another job, and has a significant petty criminal past. Though he was naked when he allegedly fought his ex-wife, he earlier had a penchant for shoving things down his pants. Now 35, he apparently first came to the attention of law enforcement back in July 2001, when he was a student at Michigan State University.

Then, according to the Detroit Free Press, he was arrested trying to escape from a Meijer store with a bottle of tequila, which he had jammed down his sweatpants, a caper that resulted in his pleading guilty.

Seven months later, it was shoplifting. Don't let it be said that Virgie didn't take his studies seriously. That time, he tried to steal a philosophy book from a student bookstore, again by jamming it down his pants. That time the charges were disorderly conduct and presenting false identification.

Young Virgil got off with a $250 fine. By that time his father, who had served in the state Senate, was working as an assistant Wayne County prosecutor, but we don't know if he gave his son any helpful hints as to how to avoid the slammer.

However, we do know this: Once he paid his fine and got the book out of his pants, it seemed to Virg that he was ready for a career in politics. That fall, he got elected to the state legislature, where he began serving the first of three terms.

Why the voters would choose to be represented by a kid just out of college with a criminal record is a mystery ... until you think about Michigan's disastrous political revolving door.

Term limits in this state mean that no one can serve more than six years in the state House and eight in the state Senate. In many districts, that means the talent pool gets depleted pretty quickly. After all, not many people want to devote vast energy to a career they'll have to leave in a few years.

My guess is that many people thought Virgil the younger was his old man, also named Virgil Smith, who represented the same general area years earlier. Early in his career, the elder Smith was a reliable member of the Coleman Young machine.

Later, Gov. Jennifer Granholm made him a Wayne County circuit judge, where he remains to this day.

Meanwhile, after he became a high-rolling state lawmaker, young Smith began to apply himself. (To alcohol, that is.) After a couple drinking-and-driving convictions, his license was taken away for a few years. But then in 2010 he got arrested for drunken driving again, in Detroit.

That's significant, since a third drinking-and-driving conviction would've been a felony. (Goodbye, Virg.)

But the old-boy network includes women these days, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined to prosecute, citing a "conflict of interest" since his daddy is a judge.

Smith got off, and later that year was elected to the state Senate. As I write this, he's disappeared from sight and is ignoring calls for him to resign. That might be the right thing to do, but hey, he would no longer get paid.

He's done now; even Kym Worthy has mysteriously decided it would no longer be a conflict to prosecute the naked avenger. He is bound to be missed, not by those he misrepresented so much as the insurance lobby.

They had bought little Virg with $36,800 (at least) in campaign contributions, and as a consequence, he was the only Democrat in the Senate to support their efforts to limit benefits for those gravely hurt in catastrophic car accidents.

But even if Smith ends up in the slam, state Rep. Brian (eight felony convictions!) Banks, (D-Detroit) will still be there, at least when he's not fighting the sexual harassment lawsuit a male staffer filed against him. Yes, some cynics do say they've lost all trust in government and our elected officials.

I simply can't imagine why.

But I can tell you this: We'd do a lot better if we got rid of term limits, which ensure that nobody has been in either house of the legislature long enough to really do their jobs.

We also need to completely overhaul the corrupt partisan way we do legislative and congressional redistricting.

Virgil Smith, like the vast majority of lawmakers, never had to worry about facing any opponent in a general election.

If more of them did, they just might act a little more sane.

Call for an election

Eventually, when Smith leaves or is removed from office, the people in his district will need representation. There's an ideal candidate: Former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who was, in fact, one of the best people in the legislature — honest, hard-working, and totally dedicated to the citizens. She lost to Smith in the primary last year. Let's hope the governor calls a special election for August or November and she can be persuaded to run again.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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