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Former MI House Speaker pleads guilty

Abigail Nobel
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James Dickson argues eloquently for legislative accountability in this April editorial.

He hammers home our need to seek character first of all, but the subtext is equally important:

If legislators hear only from big lobbies (not us) what do we expect?

A picture is worth three words: Character is destiny

Photo of 2001 swearing-in ceremony captures troubled state of Michigan in 2023

Gongwer Executive Editor Zach Gorchow found a gem from the archives this week: former Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, and former House Minority Leader Kwame Kilpatrick, D-Detroit, standing side by side, hands on hearts, reciting the oath of office they would later break.

(For copyright reasons, we link to Gorchow’s tweet rather than run the picture.)

So much youth and hopefulness then, at the start of a new century. So little to show for it, all these years later, other than disappointment. 

Johnson pleaded guilty this week to federal corruption charges owing to his time as a marijuana regulator for the state of Michigan. He admitted to taking bribes from the businesses he was in charge of regulating.

As The Detroit News reports, after being term-limited out of the House in 2004, Johnson started a lobbying firm in 2005. In 2017, then-Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Johnson as chair of the Medical Marijuana Licensing Board. That’s where things got out of hand.

The News reported in February that Johnson not only accepted, but requested, a $75,000 loan from a man in the marijuana industry. Two months later, Johnson pleaded guilty.

A decade earlier, it was Kilpatrick who had the legal troubles. In March 2013, a federal jury convicted Kilpatrick of 24 felony counts of extortion, mail fraud, tax violations and racketeering owing to his time as Detroit mayor.

When Kilpatrick won the Detroit mayor’s race in 2001, he resigned the Legislature to lead his city. This resignation was seen as honorable.

When Kilpatrick resigned from the Detroit mayor’s office in Sept. 2008, it was seen as tragic.

Five years after Kilpatrick resigned, he was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison, and Detroit was in bankruptcy court.

Character is destiny.

With leaders like Johnson and Kilpatrick, is it any wonder Michigan suffered through a one-state recession and a lost decade?

The people of Michigan send 150 representatives to Lansing to secure their interests: 110 House members, 38 senators, a governor and a lieutenant governor.

We do this to let 10 million residents go about their lives, knowing that the state they love is being taken care of. Twenty years ago, this was an unsafe assumption. What has changed for the better? 

My worry is the part that never changes. On taking office, our 150 representatives find themselves outnumbered 10-to-1 by lobbyists, who are often former lawmakers or staffers.

These lobbyists know the schedule and the agenda better than any freshman lawmaker. With all these new friends, and all this new money, it’s easy to forget the people who sent you.

The rare lawmaker who doesn’t partake won’t win friends or influence people.

At a minimum, they’ll find themselves on the wrong side of every vote. In the extreme, they’ll find themselves without committee assignments or any of the spoils of victory. Lansing can be a lonely place, especially to a lawmaker far from home.

Joining the club carries all the privileges of membership. A lawmaker today is a lobbyist tomorrow and a regulator the next day.

“Democrat” and “Republican” mean the world to us, in the hinterlands, but they matter little in Lansing and Washington. It’s one clique, and we the people aren’t in it. Perhaps we need to hire a lobbyist.

The next time you cast a vote, put character on the ballot.

Study not only what the candidates say, but their path to power, and their attitude toward power.

If you don’t hear plans for yourself, your family and your neighbors in there, you are dealing with a selfish person. If a candidate isn’t thinking about you on the campaign trail, a representative certainly won’t. Not after they start running with the in-crowd. 

We live in a state with term limits. Study what the candidate was doing before running for office. Ask their plans after leaving office. If those plans involve Lansing or Washington, you’re talking to a swamp creature in the making.

If they’ll return home to the community that sent them, perhaps you have a public servant. Maybe. And even then you’ve got to watch them.

I don’t know that the crew running Lansing now is any more or less honorable than their predecessors were in 2001.

I hope so. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was a first-term state rep that year. Let’s hope her lesson was what not to do.

The people holding the gavels now face the same perks and pressures that brought down Johnson and Kilpatrick.

Will they get stuck in the same swamp?


James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential.



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