University of Michigan graduate students go on illegal strike with rally

Johnson’s Mich. Senate seat to sit empty until November

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Nearly 55,000 Michigan residents in Detroit and Highland Park will be without representation in either the state Senate or U.S. House until November.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday announced a special election to fill the 2nd District seat vacated by former state Sen. Bert Johnson, who resigned March 2 after pleading guilty to a felony charge in his “ghost employee” federal corruption case.

Snyder scheduled the special election to coincide with the regular statewide Aug. 7 primary and Nov. 6 general election, a move he said will help keep costs to a minimum.

“The timing of this special election gives residents of the 2nd District an appropriate amount of time to research and decide on who their senator should be while reducing the financial burden on taxpayers for the cost,” Snyder said in a statement.

The Republican governor previously announced the same special election schedule to replace U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, who resigned in December amid allegations he sexually harassed staffers.

Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat, also represented parts of Detroit, Hamtramck, Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Shores.

There are 54,954 people who live in an overlapping area that was represented by both lawmakers, according to the office of Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who had pushed for an earlier special election date.

Ananich wrote Snyder a letter asking him to make sure the state Senate seat was filled by August but said Monday he understands the governor’s rationale, citing the need for adequate time to mail absentee ballots to military personnel overseas.

The Senate Business Office will place an employee in Johnson’s old office to field constituent calls and listen to concerns, Ananich said, “but our system is based on having representation in the Capitols, in D.C. and Lansing, so the quicker we could have got that done the better.”

Delaying the election means some citizens won’t have lawmakers “voting on issues that matter to them” and advocating for them in the state Senate or U.S. House,” Ananich said.

The winner of the Senate special election would serve for less than two months but could also compete this fall for the full four-year term that begins in 2019. Candidates for the Aug. 7 primary must file for the ballot by April 24 at 4 p.m.

Asked if the governor considered the impact on voters who had been represented by both Johnson and Conyers, Snyder press secretary Anna Heaton said “a number of issues were taken into consideration” when he scheduled the special election.

“As late as we are in the year with this specific resignation, the local clerks would not have had time to turn around ballots based on any sooner filing deadlines,” she said. Heaton noted concerns with ballots for absentee voters and military members stationed overseas but said election officials “would have been up against tough deadlines for regular precinct polling as well.”

On Twitter, Heaton noted that both special elections were necessary because of “Democrats who resigned from office after abusing taxpayer resources.”

Conyers first came under fire after Buzzfeed reported he had used taxpayer funds to settle a wrongful dismissal complaint with a former employee who had accused him of sexual harassment.

Johnson this month pleaded guilty to a federal theft crime, admitting he conspired to steal money from a federally funded program, a five-year felony. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop a second 10-year theft charge.

The second-term senator was accused of putting an employee on his government payroll to reimburse her for personal loans.

“It is with profound regret that I hereby tender my resignation from the Michigan Senate, effective March 2nd, 2018,” Johnson said in a letter to the state Legislature. “It has been an honor to serve the citizens of the second Senate district.”

Ananich said he thinks resigning was “the only acceptable thing” for Johnson to do once he pleaded guilty to a federal crime involving a breach of the public trust.

But voters didn’t do anything wrong, “so they don’t deserve to be punished because of this,” he said.