TIM SKUBICK: What to do about Sen. Virgil Smith

Long-time insurance industry friend Sen. Virgil Smith was enjoying the Detroit Tigers game from the Michigan Blue Cross Blue Shield sky box last Saturday and was described as happy and apparently without any personal stress. As Saturday afternoon at the ball park faded into early Sunday morning at his home in Detroit, his stress level apparently went off the charts as he is accused of firing his rifle ten times into his former wife’s Mercedes Benz. And by the time the local prosecutor was done with him, he is now facing four very serious felony charges and his political future in this town is questionable at best and pretty grim at worst.

It’s one thing to say someone is innocent until proven guilty but in the political world where optics can trump guilt or innocent, Senator Smith has already taken some hits.

After the story broke, state senators returned to town on Tuesday. It was the first time the news media could seek reaction to the mess their colleague found himself in.

First the speculation. Would Mr. Smith show-up for work?

Answer: His office was locked. His car was not in the capitol parking lot and when they took attendance Tuesday morning, he was the only no-show. There were obvious concerns that if he attended session there would be a “media circus” so the senator was advised to lay low and nobody knows if and when he will show up on the senate floor.

The senate GOP leader Arlan Meekhof took the first step to tap down the story by advising his Republican colleagues not to avoid the media like the plague. Later, through an aide he suggested maybe the senator should consider stepping down.

Senate Democrats talked about it too behind closed doors but Minority leader Jim Ananich was a stand-up guy and granted an interview. He seemed to reflect the sentiment on both sides of the aisle; he would not be stampeded to make a rush judgment on his fellow Democrat. Everyone acknowledged that all the facts where not in and this was at the moment a classic “he said, she said” story that was not going away anytime soon.

This let’s-not-rush-into-anything changed for Mr. Ananich when Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy unloaded on Mr. Smith. Felonious assault, malicious destruction of personal property, domestic violence assault/battery and felony firearm charges.

Once Mr. Ananich heard that he took swift action. Without asking for a vote from his 10 colleagues he removed Mr. Smith from his five committee assignments and took away his caucus leadership post. The leader said he wanted to make sure the citizens in the 4th senate district had effective leadership but removing their senator from those committees meant they would have no representation.

Why the change of heart?

The Flint Democrat explains he wanted to place Democrats on those five committees since it was unclear if Senator Smith would ever show up. “He needs to focus on his legal challenges,” Mr. Ananich advised his colleague. “I’m hopeful he gets the counseling help that he needs and this legal matter gets dealt with...”

Hours later word reached the media that the senate D leader had thought about calling for an expulsion hearing within two weeks. “Everything is on the table, but we are early in the process,” he explains. He quickly knocked down as “untrue” the speculation that he would order the ouster hearing.

At least one legal source confides that is the right strategy. No one in the legislature is fond of voting a colleague out of office. They have done it, to be sure, but it’s an ugly process. By holding off on a hearing, it’s possible senators may be taken off the hook by the prosecutor. There’s speculation that she may work a plea bargain with the senator and resignation could be part of that deal. There’s no way to confirm any of this but in the past, as in the example of former Sen. Joe Mack, that’s exactly what came down.

There’s also some speculation about a new state law..the Kwame law named after you know who. If a public official is convicted of a crime but was not acting as a public official at the time, expulsion could be avoided.

At this read no additional action appears to be in the offing as the legal process unfolds. Of course, all that would dramatically change for senators if their former colleague decides to show-up for work.

Then what?

It’s a good bet they are hoping that never happens.

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.