Ex-cop upsets Detroit council race with Smith, incumbent

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

A retired Detroit police officer is battling two high-profile city politicians for a spot on Detroit City Council, including the incumbent who lost in the August primary but is now mounting a write-in campaign.


Former cop Roy McCalister won the primary over former state Sen. Virgil Smith, who resigned his legislative seat in March 2016 and served a 10-month jail sentence for malicious destruction of property after firing an assault rifle at his ex-wife’s Mercedes-Benz in 2015.

Councilman George Cushingberry finished third in the primary and didn’t qualify for the Nov. 7 general election ballot. He has thrown his hat back in the ring as a write-in candidate in a district that covers part of the city’s northwest side including Palmer Park.


McCalister, 63, received almost 25 percent of the vote in the primary to 22.1 percent for Smith and 19.7 percent for Cushingberry. He has an extensive career in law enforcement, which includes his current post as an investigator with the Eastern District of Michigan Federal Defenders Office.

McCalister’s top priorities include jobs for residents returning to the community from prison and revitalizing northwest neighborhoods with grocery stores.

The primary results proved that district residents are fed up with Cushingberry and want a new leader, he said.

“But I’m still running this race like I’m in third place,” McCalister said. “I’m not taking anything for granted.”

Cushingberry, 64, is hoping for a better outcome in November.

“What I’m going to do is go ahead show the people what I’ve done,” the first-term councilman said. “If they want me to stay, they’ll keep me. If they don’t, I’ll be out.”

Since he finished about 3 percentage points behind McCalister, Smith is considered to have a good shot at winning the general election. He comes from a prominent family in Detroit and served in the Michigan Senate for five years before his legal issue.

Cushingberry said Smith’s jail sentence makes him “totally unfit” for public office.


But Smith, 37, said he doesn’t want to be judged on his past troubles.

“I’m truthful, I’m humbled and honored at this opportunity,” he said. “I will not let (residents) down.”

McCalister stands a chance of winning if the opposition is split between Cushingberry and Smith, who have the same voter base because of their longstanding voter recognition, said Target Insyght pollster Ed Sarpolus.

McCalister has his own supporters because he’s the “new kid on the block,” Sarpolus said.

But if voters aren’t split by the well-known politicians, Smith is likely to win the seat, he said.

“It’s Virgil Smith’s (race) to lose,” Sarpolus said.

Campaign complications

There was a threat that Smith might get tossed from the ballot. But the Michigan Supreme Court is waiting until after the election to hear oral arguments on an appeal from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, whose plea deal with Smith included a five-year prohibition from holding public office that the trial judge ruled unconstitutional.

Worthy wants the public office moratorium reinstated. Smith declined to comment on Worthy’s appeal.

A big issue in the race is whether to allow more medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.

Two November city ballot proposals would allow more medical marijuana dispensaries to be considered for operation. As part of a regulatory overhaul, the state is requiring existing pot shops to apply for state licenses on Dec. 15 and recommending they voluntarily close before then to increase their chances for getting their licenses approved.

McCalister said he doesn’t think Detroit needs more dispensaries, arguing that too many of them have ventilation issues that subject neighborhood residents to odors. They also attract customers with substance abuse problems, he said.

“Why do we have to flood them in the neighborhoods?” McCalister said.

Smith also opposes the ballot measure, saying many residents don’t want to live near “weed factories.”

Cushingberry said he wants to allow more medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in Detroit because they would increase the city’s tax revenue. He said his stance may have helped McCalister prevail in the primary.

“My community is mad at me because I won’t change my position on it,” Cushingberry said. “The same people that have started the anti-medical marijuana movement live in my district.”

Issues for incumbent

The former state lawmaker and Wayne County commissioner came under fire in 2014 when police found a cup of liquor and a half-smoked marijuana cigarette in Cushingberry’s car that the councilman blamed on his passenger, a licensed medical marijuana patient.

In addition, the councilman’s law license was suspended twice.

Cushingberry said the issues that led to the suspensions occurred before he took office. He also noted that the suspensions were irrelevant because he can’t practice law as a council member.

“I have never been convicted of any crime or any drunk driving offense or any serious traffic offense,” Cushingberry said.

The incumbent said he wants to focus on helping the city emerge from state oversight, expanding public-private initiatives to create jobs for residents and the growth of the Northwest Activities Center.

If elected, Smith said he will lobby for lower auto and home insurance rates in Detroit and getting mixed-use development at the state fairgrounds property.

He said he also wants to help reopen the Johnson Recreation Center because it would “add to the quality of life of the neighborhood.”

“I don’t think there’s too many people out here more qualified than me to bring resolution to the issues at hand,” Smith said. “That’s the reason why I’m in this race.”

Among McCalister’s priorities are improving the quality of life for seniors and creating job opportunities through apprenticeship schools and training programs.

“There’s a vast number of ordinances and issues that I’m looking to address once I’m in that seat,” he said.


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Twitter: @NicquelTerry