Retired Judge Virgil Smith plans run for Detroit council seat

Jasmin Barmore
The Detroit News

Correction: Virgil K. Smith is the son and an adviser of retired Judge Virgil C. Smith. His name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Retired Wayne County Circuit Judge Virgil C. Smith is preparing to run for a Detroit City Council seat in a campaign where his son, a former state senator who struck a plea deal, is one of his key advisers.

Smith, who served 14 years on the Wayne County Circuit Court bench, including four years as chief judge, said he plans soon to announce his candidacy for the District 4 seat, but it depends on what council member Andre Spivey plans to do.

The district is on the east side of Detroit and is home to the East English Village neighborhood and to businesses such as Ascension St. John Hospital.

Judge Virgil Smith

Spivey told The Detroit News on Monday that he will seek one of two at-large seats on the nine-member council instead of seeking re-election to the district seat, a decision that promises to expand the field. The decision has been a long time coming, said Spivey, who has pulled petitions to get signatures to run for the at-large seats.   

“I came to District 4 in 2013, having served as an at-large member since 2009," Spivey said. “And even though I vote for everything that takes place throughout the entire city, I want to be a part of that and get back to going to the meetings on the northeast, north end, southwest and the west side of Detroit.”

“I miss those relationships that are citywide and having done three terms now, I have enough institutional knowledge that I think can be better served throughout the entire city.”

Smith, 73, is a former state representative who become the first Black Michigan Senate floor leader in Michigan history. He said said he feels strongly that he can lead District 4 and rectify some of the issues the city is facing.

Detroit City Council member Andre' Spivey

“I think the city could use my experience and history,” Virgil C. Smith said. “I spent 24 years in the Legislature. I know how to behave in the legislative process. I know how to, hopefully, bring my colleagues or future colleagues — if the voters choose me — to make it as an effective legislative body as we can get.

”...And the best thing about trying to do that is by making sure that the people understand that they’re there to serve the people.”

Among those who have pulled petitions to gather signatures for the District 4 seat are Spivey’s chief of staff, Keith Jones, and former newspaper and television reporter M.L. Elrick. Toson Knight, a former assistant city manager for District 4, said he is also running for the seat.

Smith’s son, Virgil K. Smith, who also served in the Michigan Legislature before serving time in the Wayne County jail for shooting at his ex-wife’s car in 2015, said the campaign began collecting signatures in January. The deadline to file is in mid-April. 

The younger Smith struck a deal with Wayne County prosecutors to plead guilty to malicious destruction of property and reckless discharge of a firearm and serve probation that ends on March 14. He had served nearly nine months in jail on original felony charges that were eventually dropped. 

Under an initial plea agreement, the younger Smith was prohibited from holding elective office during his five years of probation but a judge ruled the elective office ban shouldn't apply. He unsuccessfully ran for a District 2 council seat in 2017 over Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy's objections. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the original plea deal violated public policy.  

Smith’s father acknowledges his son's past but said he does not think it will affect the election. 

“My son has had some troubles," Virgil C. Smith said. “He's had some issues that he has had to address, and I think that he's addressed them in a way that has brought maturity to him.

"... He has always been committed to the people that he served, and he will be one of many people that I will seek to aid me in this process.”

Spivey, who has represented the district since 2013, said he too doesn’t see Smith’s son being an issue.

“The judge has had a stellar career, with a great judicial record and his own political journey. I think he will be fine to run in District 4 or anywhere else.”

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.