Column: Campaigns should eschew predators

Greg McNeilly

Free campaign advice to candidates across the state: If you’re approached by an alleged sexual predator who offers you a giant bag full of money as an “in” to your campaign, say no. Better yet, tell him to go jump off a bridge.

Sexual predators are bad people. They hurt people. If you take their money and allow them in your orbit, voters will rightly question your judgment, and the questions won’t be nice ones. Which begs one question in particular. What in the world is Gretchen Whitmer thinking?

In just the latest bewildering — and easily the most shocking — microcosm of her troubled candidacy for governor, the Democratic front-runner has inexplicably decided to link her campaign to Brian Banks, an alleged sexual predator and one of the most unsavory characters in Michigan political history.

A convicted felon when he was elected to the state House, Banks this year resigned in disgrace as part of a plea agreement related to bank fraud charges so numerous and serious, a conviction could have landed him in prison for the rest of his life. But stealing from banks was the least objectionable of Banks’ offenses.

In January 2013, Banks hired a Detroit party promoter named Tramaine Cotton to work as his taxpayer funded legislative assistant. According to court records and testimony in a lawsuit filed by Cotton just five months later, the job offer was little more than a scheme enabling Banks to prey on Cotton sexually.

The sexual harassment is alleged to have begun immediately, and included frequent unrequited dating requests and rejected advances. Cotton produced evidence to the court including unwanted gifts from his boss like new sneakers and expensive cologne, and appalling, explicit text messages in which Banks asked to perform sex acts on his staffer. Again and again, Cotton said “no.”

So, according to court records, after work one evening in April 2013, Banks allegedly did more than ask. Following a fundraiser, Banks is said to have coerced his employee into a Lansing hotel room and against the man’s will, “forced the performance of oral sex upon” him.

Legal jargon. In the real world, there’s another word for forcing a sex act on an unconsenting victim. Ultimately, Banks is alleged to have fired him for saying “no.” Cotton filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and the state was forced to settle, with taxpayers saddled with nearly $100,000 in settlement costs and fees along the way.

Now, this same alleged predator has been courted by Whitmer as a major campaign donor, and according to recent state-mandated campaign finance reporting, has already handed thousands of dollars to her campaign.

Unbelievable. In Whitmer, Democrats have a front-runner who can’t get out of her own way, and one that has party bosses, donors and consultants increasingly wary. She struggles still to distance herself from unknown Democratic challengers and fails to outpoll even Geoffrey Fieger — a man who isn’t even running for governor — among Democratic primary voters.

Privately, Democratic power players have long lamented Whitmer’s poor campaign, with Democratic consultants describing it with language like “dumpster fire.”

And the scandals are mounting.

Earlier this summer, Whitmer was forced to run far and fast from her own campaign attorney, Mark Brewer, after he was linked to a massive fundraising scandal that netted the Michigan Democratic Party a $500,000 fine from the Federal Elections Commission, among the largest ever levied.

Meanwhile, her campaign office appears equipped with a revolving door. For every scandal or two she lets in, another staffer leaves. She is now essentially on her third campaign manager in as many months, always hoping the next staffer to walk through the turnstiles will right her listless ship.

The problem hasn’t been her staff — it’s been her own terrible judgment. Why embrace felons and alleged sex predators? Because if she’s going to rescue her failing candidacy, Whitmer personally feels she has to. Of all the indictments of her campaign, that may be the most damning.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.