Dems fight over criminal records, Detroit in House race

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Fights about criminal histories and Detroit issues have dominated a special state House primary campaign to replace an ex-convict who resigned from office six months ago.

Former Rep. Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods, resigned from his 1st District seat in early February, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of making false statements of financial condition to try to obtain a $7,500 personal loan and was sentenced to one day in jail. He previously faced three felony charges from Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office.

His eight prior felony convictions — for credit card fraud and writing bad checks between 1998 and 2004 — were fodder in his two re-election bids.

The special election race has attracted 11 Democrats and two Republicans, with one from each primary advancing to the Nov. 7 general election. But the Democratic primary has been a fierce battle in this heavily Democratic district that includes parts of northeast Detroit, Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Shores.

Endorsements from elected officials, unions and other interest groups have been divided among three or more candidates.

But attention has turned to Democratic candidate and Harper Woods School Board member Tenisha Yancey, whose criminal past is being targeted. The 41-year-old former Wayne County assistant prosecutor is endorsed by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.


Records show Yancey pleaded guilty to stalking in August 1995 and served two years’ probation. She was also found guilty of retail fraud in Calhoun County in March 1995. The court did not immediately have access to files showing what the judge’s sentence was.

Yancey had felony firearm charges dismissed by the Wayne County Circuit Court in 1995, when the court also dismissed charges for aggravated stalking and discharge of a firearm in or at a building.

Later, in 1997, she was found guilty for failing to stop at the scene of a property damage accident by the same Wayne County court and sentenced to one year of probation.

Yancey did not return multiple calls from The Detroit News. But a campaign flier showed she is emphasizing women’s issues as she advocates for requiring the state’s businesses to give their workers paid sick leave and ensuring the “health care law keeps working for women — and that women’s health decision are kept between a women and her doctor, not politicians.”

Yancey has labor backing and has raised the most money of any candidate at $47,560, which includes $5,000 from the United Auto Workers union, $3,500 from the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and $2,000 from Operating Engineers Local 324.

Less than two weeks before Tuesday’s primary, St. Clair Shores lawyer and Democrat Kirkland Garey sent a letter to Worthy, Napoleon and the media urging the two officials to rescind their support for Yancey because of her record.


Garey, 60, said his utter distaste for the other candidates spurred his campaign and has raised $31,260 ahead of the primary — almost all of which was donated from himself, campaign finance records show.

While unaware of Yancey’s record, Napoleon said he’s not troubled since the incidents happened more than 20 years ago. And she is a licensed lawyer.

“Look I absolutely do believe in redemption,” Napoleon said. “I don’t run criminal histories on everybody who asks me for an endorsement. There was no real red flag for me to believe that there were issues with her background.”

Yancey could face a tough battle from Pamela Sossi, a criminal defense attorney from Harper Woods who finished second to Banks in the 2016 primary. Banks won 45 percent to 36 percent.

Sossi has raised nearly $39,000 and is backed by the Michigan Farm Bureau, Pipefitters Local 636, the Auto Dealers of Michigan PAC, the chief operating officer of the Meridian Health Plan and the Small Business PAC.

Sossi said her focus is on getting more money for Detroit through state revenue-sharing, bolstering a dwindling Detroit police force, fighting unemployment and lowering what are among the highest auto insurance premiums in the nation for Detroiters and Metro Detroiters.

“We are red-lined in our district,” she said. “I really take the success of my community personally. And we’ve really been riddled with corruption in this area.”


Scandals involving Detroit politicians, federal corruption charges against state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, and Banks’ criminal history have distracted from the issues Detroiters face every day, Sossi said.

“Elected officials, they should be held to a higher standard,” she said.

Attack ads and emails also have targeted Justin Johnson, a Democratic candidate who is the brother of Sen. Bert Johnson.

“I know there have been other folks sending back-channel emails to elected officials in the area of Grosse Pointe,” said Justin Johnson of Grosse Pointe Woods, referring to criticisms of being the brother of a senator who previously spent eight months in prison after pleading guilty in a 1993 break-in and armed robbery.

Johnson said his brother’s legal troubles have not been a problem for his own campaign.

He has raised nearly $25,000 and is financially backed by the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, Detroit City Council’s chief of staff and others in Detroit or Wayne County government.


Johnson has also been endorsed by the Michigan Association of Police Organizations, Detroit Police Lieutenants and Sergeants Association, the Detroit Police Commission chairman, the Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus, Service Employees International Union State Council, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25.

Another candidate — Washington Youson — claims to be the only true Detroiter in the race because most of the others live in suburbs.

The Democratic ballot includes Sandra Bucciero of Grosse Pointe Woods, Ronald Diebel of Detroit, John Donahue of Detroit, Burgess Foster of Grosse Pointe Woods, Keith Hollowell of Grosse Pointe Woods, and Gowana Mancill of Harper Woods.

Johnson said he wants to improve public schools, secure more state revenue sharing, and hiret more police and firefighters. He said he is the only person who can “hit the ground running” because of his 10 years of experience as a state House and Senate staffer and a community organizer.

About Yancey, he said: There’s less of an appetite for a candidate that has that background, but I’m not the judge as to the job that she’ll do.”

The Republican primary pits Mark Corcoran of Grosse Pointe Woods, who runs his own construction business, and William Phillips, who has a listed Ferndale post office box and who did not return a call. Gregory Creswell of Detroit is unopposed in the Libertarian primary.

But the crime issues raised in the Democratic primary may not affect the outcome, said Josh Pugh, a political strategist at Grassroots Midwest.

“The reality is that people change,” Pugh said. “If you can lead a narrative about how you’ve learned from your mistakes, redemption is a classic all-American story.”