Bert Johnson’s brother among 14 running for state House

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — The brother of embattled state Sen. Bert Johnson is among 14 candidates running for the Michigan House to replace former Rep. Brian Banks, who resigned in February as part of a plea deal in a criminal bank loan fraud case.

Justin Johnson filed for the 1st District seat two weeks ago, just before his brother was indicted on federal conspiracy theft charges, but said Monday he does not think the legal drama will hurt him.

“I made the decision to run for office because I felt there was a certain something I could contribute to Lansing and the conversation surrounding the quality of life for 1st District residents,” Johnson, a 33-year-old political staffer, told The Detroit News.

“I ran for that purpose. I believe in my vision, and I think that’s what people want to know about.”

The Grosse Pointe Woods resident is part of a field of candidates that includes criminal defense and civil rights attorney Pamela Sossi, who finished second to Banks in the 2016 Democratic primary.

“I’m really ready to finish what I started for our community,” said Sossi, 33. “There are a lot of good candidates in the field, and I’m really proud to run on my record.”

Candidates had until 4 p.m. Tuesday to declare for the special election Gov. Rick Snyder called after Banks resigned. Eleven Democrats, two Republicans and one Libertarian filed for the race, according to Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett’s Office.

The primary election is set for Aug. 8, and a Nov. 7 general election will decide who next represents the district, which includes part of the east side of Detroit, Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Woods and part of the village of Grosse Pointe Shores.

Banks won re-election last fall while facing criminal charges for allegedly falsifying bank documents to obtain a loan. He stepped down as part of a plea deal to avoid potential felony convictions and possible prison time.

Sossi got roughly 36 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary Banks won at 45 percent. Former congressional staffer Washington Youson of Detroit and teacher Keith Hollowell of Grosse Pointe Woods finished third and fourth in the 2016 primary, and both are running again in the special election.

“Sossi has never stopped running, and that would make her definitely one of the potential front-runners,” said Steve Hood, a Detroit political consultant and radio host for the 910 AM Superstation.

But Banks battled with Sossi last year and remains popular in the district despite his legal problems, Hood said, predicting his “endorsement is going to mean a lot to whoever is in that race.”

Other Democrats running for the 1st District seat: Harper Woods School Board member Tenisha Yancey, attorney Kirkland Garey of Grosse Pointe Woods, Marine veteran Burgess Foster, Harper Woods Planning Commissioner Gowana Mancill Jr., attorney Sandra Bucciero of Grosse Pointe Woods, Ronald Diebel of Detroit and John William Donahue of Detroit.

Yancey could be a candidate to watch, Hood said. The attorney and former Wayne County assistant prosecutor is well connected and working to line up significant endorsements, he said.

Court records show Yancey was convicted on misdemeanor stalking and vehicle damage charges as a teenager. But she said she has worked to help kids avoid similar mistakes.

“I’m not proud of the fact I made those bad decisions,” said Yancey, 40. “However, I’m very proud I turned those things around and was able to turn myself around.”

Two Republicans filed to run in a district Democrats have consistently won in recent years: Businessman Marc Corcoran of Grosse Pointe Woods and William Phillips, who did not return calls seeking comment.

Phillips listed a P.O. Box in Ferndale as the mailing address for his candidate committee. That address suggests he is the same William Phillips who ran for a 9th District state House seat last year as a Democrat but received 95 votes.

The Michigan Constitution requires candidates to live in the district they seek to serve for at least 30 days before filing to run.

Libertarian Gregory Creswell of Detroit is also seeking the 1st District state House seat. Creswell ran for governor in 2006 and sought unsuccessfully three different congressional seats in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Hood said he does not expect voters will hold Johnson responsible for his brother’s legal problems, but he said the unique dynamics of the 1st District could be tough to navigate for someone who’s never run for political office.

Johnson said he’s no stranger to political campaigns. He began volunteering in 2000, he said, and has since worked on several state House races, been a union organizer and currently works as director of community engagement for Detroit City Councilwoman Janee Ayers.

“I’ve done pretty much every job there is to do in public service… other than run myself,” Johnson said.