Rep. Banks battles primary foes, criminal charges

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

State Rep. Brian Banks is battling five Democratic primary opponents for re-election in the Michigan House amid new bank fraud criminal charges that mirror accusations in his past felony convictions.

Attorney Pamela Sossi of Harper Woods is mounting an aggressive campaign to deny Banks a third and final term in the House in the 1st District that includes Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe Shores and a portion of northeast Detroit.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and other Democratic Party leaders have rushed to Banks’ aid since Attorney General Bill Schuette charged Banks with three felonies for allegedly submitting fake pay stubs to a Detroit credit union to get a personal loan in 2010.

Sossi said she is talking to voters about Banks’ new charges as well as his eight past felonies from 1998 to 2004 for writing bad checks and credit card fraud.

“That’s one of the first things voters talk about when they open the door,” Sossi said. “Is our current representative going to prison? Will he be seated? Do we have to have a special election?”

Sossi, a criminal defense attorney, noted Banks is innocent of the new charges until proven guilty.

Banks is being charged as a habitual financial crimes offender and faces up to life in prison if convicted, according to the Attorney General’s office.

In an interview, Banks declined to address the latest criminal charges, referring all questions to his attorney.

But Banks and his supporters have claimed he is the victim of a political hit by the Republican attorney general — a charge Schuette has denied.

“Look at the timing of everything,” Banks said of the charges filed five weeks before the Aug. 2 primary. “Many of our constituents understand politics ... and they’re concerned about the timing of this. It’s an old issue before I took office (in 2013).”

While Banks battles new legal problems, Sossi has found herself under attack in recent weeks by two mystery groups that have sought to label her a Republican.

A group called Democrats for Michigan sent mailers to voters in the district featuring pictures of Sossi and her boyfriend, Mike Norris, with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump superimposed in the background.

“Michigan does not need Donald Trump and we don’t need Pam Sossi. Both are dangerous for us,” the mailer reads.

Sossi rejects GOP label

Sossi said she is a lifelong Democrat. Norris is a Republican political operative who is running her campaign. “My boyfriend isn’t running for the seat,” Sossi said.

Democrats for Michigan is a political action committee that disbanded in 2001, state records show. The new, unregistered group used the same Grand Rapids mailing address as the defunct group.

Mark Lezotte, a Detroit attorney who was previously the committee’s treasurer, said Monday he was unaware of the defunct group’s name and address were being used to distribute the mailers.

Another mystery group called Leadership for a Better Michigan sent voters another mailer that recently blasted Sossi for accepting the endorsements of “known Republicans like Kurt Culler,” a Harper Woods High School math teacher.

Culler, who had Sossi as a student but doesn’t live in the district, posted a copy of the mailer on his Facebook page earlier this month.

“So according to Brian Banks or the people working to get him re-elected in District 1, I’m a known Republican,” Culler wrote.

“That’s news to me since I’m a Democrat. Kind of amazing, but kind of sad as well that they would throw my name into their mailers and make stuff up,” Culler wrote.

Leadership for a Better Michigan was a Kalamazoo County-based group associated with former Republican state Rep. Lorence Wenke that disbanded in 2006, records show.

The mailer targeting Sossi uses the same Post Office box number in Richland that is listed with Wenke’s defunct PAC.

Banks denied any involvement in sending out the mailers targeting Sossi.

“I don’t have time to play dirty politics, OK?” Banks told The Detroit News. “They’re spending all of their time about me. ... They’re not even on my radar. I’m focused on my race.”

Other challengers weigh in

Detroiter Washington Youson, a former legislative aide, also is running an active campaign for the seat, seeking to cut into Banks’ east side Detroit base.

“I don’t really have any issue with Brian Banks, I just think we can have better leadership in Lansing,” Youson said. “I’ve been focusing on the issues, the positive things we can do in our community, rather than talking about the negativity that’s surrounding him right now.”

Keith Hollowell of Grosse Pointe Woods and Detroiters Corey Gilchrist and Kameshea Amos also are on the Democratic primary ballot, but have not been raising or spending money to win the seat.

Sossi has raised more than $30,200 for her campaign, nearly $15,000 of which was her own money, campaign finance records show.

Youson has raised $6,605, with about $5,900 coming from himself, according to filings.

Banks has raised more cash than both active opponents combined by a three-to-one margin. For the two-year election cycle, Banks raised $135,545, with more than two-thirds of his campaign cash coming in this year.

Banks has received campaign contributions from the political action committees of the United Automobile Workers union, Michigan Laborers union, Operating Engineers Local 324, Michigan Health and Hospital Association, Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers as well as Detroit International Bridge Co. owner Matthew Moroun, records show.

Duggan recently knocked on doors with Banks. Democrats held a rally for him on July 1, where state Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon spoke in Banks’ defense.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood