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Morality in government

Jack Lessenberry

Last week I got a check for a thousand dollars from a nonprofit organization for which I do some occasional consulting. However, they had already paid me out of a separate fund.

The odds are that I could have kept this check and nobody would have known. Like everybody else not named Dan Gilbert, I could use the money.

But I would have known. So I sent it back, the CEO told me thank you, and that was that.  I think most people would have done the same.

However, you have to wonder about some of our elected officials. We actually have a state legislator named Brian Banks who has eight felony convictions, mainly for bad checks. He then ran for reelection using the slogan, “You can bank on Banks,” and won.

This is why journalists generally don’t write novels. Reality is far weirder. Banks is a Democrat, and so is Diane Hathaway, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice who ended up in federal prison for felony real estate fraud.

Last week I talked about a sudden rash of strange criminal characters popping up in high positions in the Michigan Republican Party. There’s “Trucker Randy” Bishop, who has two felony fraud convictions in Macomb County and is now chair of the Antrim County GOP.

There’s Doug Sedenquist,  a former radio talk show personality in the Upper Peninsula, who only resigned from the party’s state committee after being convicted of extortion.

Now, criminal behavior by politicians is nothing new. It was almost expected during the era of famous crooks like Boss Tweed. The first Detroit mayor to go to prison was not Kwame Kilpatrick, but a white guy named Richard Reading, who conspired with cops to take bribes.

But are things somehow worse now? 

It seems to me that there’s a different atmosphere in the Republican Party these days. Once, it was the party of straight-laced moral rectitude. Today, it is too often the party of Darwin Jiles, who was elected the state GOP’s minority vice chair two months after being sentenced for shooting someone.

Susan Demas, the 38-year-old editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, thinks there is a difference. The establishment hasn’t changed, but she believes the real enthusiasm comes from the Tea Party, and, she adds, 

“like all fringe movements, has attracted its share of unsavory characters.”

Bill Ballenger, who founded that newsletter, is almost twice her age, and served in the legislature before she was born.

“I really don’t think that things are any worse now,” he told me.  In some ways, things may be better.

Certainly, it is harder for folks to hide. But he did agree that thanks to social media, it is much easier for bizarre characters with bizarre ideas to capture the limelight.

What worries me most is that in a cynical age, what will a young person think of government when they see a man on a state party committee like William Rauwerdink, who served years in prison for financial and accounting fraud?

Or what will they make of a democracy where the voters reelect Brian Banks? Whatever else is foggy, this much is clear: None of this is good for our faith in government.

Not to mention democracy, or the future.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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