Vote déjà vu: Smith triumphs again
Detroit — The primary election loss by City Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr. to former state Sen. Virgil Smith was history nearly repeating itself.
The two Detroit politicians faced off in the 2010 Democratic primary for the state Senate district representing parts of Detroit and some Downriver communities, a race Smith won handily.
Despite serious legal troubles that led him to resign from the Senate in March 2016, Smith finished second in last week’s primary with 22.1 percent of the vote and qualified for the Nov. 7 District 2 council general election. His opponent will be Roy McCalister, a retired Detroit police officer who placed first with 24.8 percent.
Cushingberry finished third at 19.6 percent.
Political experts say Cushingberry’s loss was no surprise and predict Smith has a good shot at becoming the district’s new representative on council.
“The bottom line is that Cushingberry didn’t work as hard as he should have,” Target Insyght pollster Ed Sarpolus said.
Sarpolus noted that the former state representative became vulnerable after a 2014 stop when police allegedly 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 while he was in office.
But the question remains whether Smith will be kicked off the ballot in a pending legal challenge.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy asked the Michigan Supreme Court last this week to reinstate plea bargain provisions that would bar Smith from running for office.
The 37-year-old Democrat served a 10-month jail sentence after pleading guilty to malicious destruction. In May 2015, he was arrested for firing an assault rifle at his ex-wife’s Mercedes-Benz.
As part of his plea agreement, Smith was to be prohibited from holding elective office during his five years of probation. The trial court judge dismissed those provisions, saying they were an unconstitutional restriction on the people’s right to choose their elected officials.
If Smith is disqualified from the city council election, it’s unclear if McCalister would run unopposed.
Detroit Elections Director Daniel Baxter said the city’s charter does not say what should happen if a candidate is legally removed from the race. He couldn’t recall it ever happening in Detroit.
“We just have to wait and see exactly how the courts would proceed on that particular issue,” Baxter said. “I would hope that their ruling would provide direction.”
The election must be certified by Aug. 22. The city is required by law to mail out military ballots for the fall election by Sept. 23, Baxter said.
Smith told The Detroit News he had no immediate plans to run for city council after his conviction. But he said residents in his district convinced him to run, saying they were disappointed with Cushingberry.
“A bunch of people got me in a room and it went from there,” Smith said. “For them to recruit a guy that just got out of the county jail … that lets you know how much they didn’t like Cushingberry.”
Cushingberry declined to comment.
McCalister said during the campaign many residents complained that Cushingberry wasn’t accessible and rarely appeared at community meetings in his district.
“They want someone that is going to represent them, be their voice and listen to what their concerns are,” said McCalister, who also ran for council in 2013. “They want somebody that’s gonna take action.”
Political consultant Greg Bowens said Cushingberry’s loss also may be tied to low voter participation in the primary. About 13.9 percent of the city’s registered voters went to the polls, down from 17 percent in 2013.
“People were not ‘pushing Cush’ this time,” Bowens said. “The biggest shocker always comes when an incumbent doesn’t make it past the primary. That’s got to be a pretty hard blow for him.”
As far as his legal issues, Smith said he has learned his lesson and wants to move forward.
One expert said he believes voters will forgive Smith at the polls, especially if he proves he has turned his life around.
Smith is “charismatic” and has name recognition in the city, said Joe DiSano, a Lansing-based political consultant. His father, Virgil C. Smith, is a former state senator and a judge for Third Circuit Court in Wayne County.
“He’s a known quantity,” DiSano said. “I do think he is a force to be reckoned with at the polls and you can dismiss him at your own peril.”
McCalister argues that he will pick up more votes from residents who disapprove of Smith’s conviction.
“Some people are saying it doesn’t matter but for some people I believe it is a (factor),” McCalister said.
Smith commended Cushingberry for his watchful eye on finances and helping Detroit exit state oversight.
However, Smith said he’s prepared to take over the councilman’s seat.
“I’ve been campaigning since I was 12 years old,” Smith said. “I was born into this business.”
He touted his ability to listen to the community’s needs and deliver on his promises.
“My main focus is that I’m not the bad guy that I’ve been made out to be,” Smith said.
Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.