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Candidates with histories of crime and controversy are among the field of seven seeking to fill a Detroit area state Senate seat left vacant by a term-limited incumbent who pleaded guilty to federal theft and conspiracy charges.

Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park resigned in March after pleading guilty to conspiring to steal more than $23,000 from taxpayers through a "ghost employee" on his Senate payroll. He faces up to 10 years in prison. Johnson had promoted his story of redemption, rising to elected office after being convicted of a 1993 break-in and armed robbery at the Oakland Hills Country Club. 

The Senate District 2 seat was going to be open next year before the federal charges were filed. At least four current or former elected officials are running in the primary for the Democrat-dominated district that covers Hamtramck, Highland Park, parts of Detroit, Harper Woods and all of the Grosse Pointe area.

Two high-profile Democratic primary candidates have had run-ins with state officials.

Former State. Rep. Brian Banks of Harper Woods had eight felony convictions for writing bad checks and credit card fraud when he was elected to the state House in 2012. He resigned in 2017 after pleading guilty in a bank loan forgery case that resulted in no additional jail time. 

Former State Rep. George Cushingberry Jr., a former Detroit city councilman, saw his law license suspended after he failed to appear at a hearing over professional misconduct charges. He is currently the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former female staffer, whom he said on his Facebook page "is under the influence of legal pharmaceuticals that severely affects her behavior."

Some candidates are running "because they need a job," said Detroit political consultant Mario Marrow Sr. 

"Some of these guys have been in politics their entire lives; what else are they going to do?

"Talk about a field of characters," Morrow said. "Brian Banks had to resign, and then he wants to run yet again? Cushingberry lost his City Council seat, and now he's trying to get elected again? This is all he knows; he was once the youngest lawmaker in Michigan, so he's been doing this his entire life."

Crime, education and Michigan's high insurance rates are among the issues the candidates are discussing. But the need to steer clear of controversy after Johnson's guilty plea is also important, said Abraham Aiyash, a former member of the Hamtramck Recycling Commission who founded the Halimah Project, an organization that mentors Lansing-area refugee children.

"It's a low bar, unfortunately, but we need people who won't be caught in cronyism and scandal," said Aiyash, one of the candidates.

The rest of the Democratic primary field includes:

• Detroit school board member and former State Rep. LaMar Lemmons III.

• Adam Hollier, a U.S. Army veteran who serves on the Michigan Fitness Foundation and was former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's liaison to the City Council.

• Former State Rep. John Olumba, a Detroiter who criticized transgenders, Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans in his 2016 farewell speech. He didn't respond to Detroit News inquiries.

• Joe Ricci, a Grosse Pointe Farms City Council member and longtime owner of Metro Detroit Chrysler dealerships. He is only running to serve out the last month of Johnson's term.

Hollier gets union support

Hollier has emerged as a viable alternative to the former legislators in the race, gaining the endorsements of the influential the United Auto Workers, Michigan AFL-CIO and American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees Local 25. 

The 32-year-old Detroiter "has an impressive military background and education," Morrow said. "He also seems to be a doer; someone who wants to get the job done."

Hollier said his focus will be on ensuring Detroit children can walk to and from school safely.

"Every day I drive my daughter to daycare right past the spot where my uncle was murdered," Hollier said of the area near Chicago and Dexter on Detroit's west side. "My next door neighbor was murdered in the morning, about the same time I go out for my run. 

"This is a reality for so many people," he said. "... As a dad, I want to make sure every neighborhood has a good school — not just some neighborhoods.

Hollier said he wants to fix what he considers a "broken" state education funding system that affects districts from Detroit to the Grosse Pointes.

Controversial lawmakers run

Banks said he brings years of legislative experience and hopes to balance the needs of everyone in District 2.

"It's a very diverse district," he said. "We have the richest of the rich, and the poorest of the poor."

When asked about his multiple felony convictions, Banks said: "I'm not allowing people to make my past an issue. When I go to doors, people say 'You don't have to waste your time on that. You're a fighter. We think what happened to you is political.'

"When you look at those charges against me, they had nothing to do with my service in office," said Banks, 41. "... If it was something that serious, they wouldn't let me run for office."

Cushingberry defended his record. When asked about his 2015 law license suspension, Cushingberry said: "Anyone who handles as many cases as I did who says they don’t have a complaint against them is either lying to you or they haven’t checked.

"So if I got reprimanded, that’s no big deal," he said. "There have been hundreds of lawyers suspended over the years."

The big issue is to focus on increasing literacy, said Cushingberry, a 65-year-old former state House Appropriations Committee chairman.

"You've got to read to succeed," he said. "That's the biggest problem facing Michigan. We have to build back our reading culture, and get more funding for remedial reading classes.

"Nobody’s paying attention to the fact that in Michigan, the test scores continue to go down," Cushingberry said. "If you look at all the problems facing us in employment and everywhere else, they all stem from a lack of education."

Cushingberry said he'd also like to revamp the state's Medicaid program.

"I don't like this requirement to work," he said, a reference to a new law that requires most adult Medicaid recipients who receive health care insurance to work at least 80 hours per month.

Cushingberry, a longtime advocate of marijuana law reform, said he expects the drug to be made legal. "Then I'd like to expunge the records of anyone who was arrested for marijuana crimes," he said.

Other candidates emerge

Lemmons said his primary focus would be lowering what he calls "discriminatory" car insurance rates for Michigan drivers.

"They use things like level of education, and whether or not you own a home," he said. "This disproportionately affects African-Americans, which makes it racist.

"Michiganders should be charged insurance rates based on things like driving record, experience, amount of claims, accidents, the amount of miles you drive, things like that," Lemmons said. 

Aiyash vowed to reach across party lines since Republicans have a dominant hold on the Senate.

"I can't be naive and say I'm going to pass sweeping reforms," he said. "My goal is to be as diplomatic as possible, and build the Democratic base across the state so we can pass meaningful legislation.

"Progressive values don't have party lines," Aiyash said. "Everyone deserves access to health care, clean water and a $15 per-hour minimum wage. Everyone deserves dignity.

"This is my generation’s Vietnam moment," he said. "We have a lot of questions about what government's role is. The 2016 election awakened bigotry and xenophobia in our country, but also awakened the idea that politics is not a spectator sport."

Ricci said lowering crime is his No. 1 priority.

"Crime doesn't know any color or boundary," he said. "Everyone deserves a safe neighborhood so they can enjoy their surroundings.

"We need bridge-builders right now. I'm not a politician; I'm a businessman, and that means I focus on getting things done."

Hollier has a good chance of winning against better-known candidates in the primary, Morrow said.

"I think he's the one candidate in that race in a long time who can be acceptable to all sides, which is important because that district includes the Grosse Pointes," he said.

ghunter@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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