By KATIE MORELL
Capital News Service
LANSING — Many people who voted for the winner in the primary for a state House seat in northwest Detroit apparently didn’t know of criminal charges against the candidate.
For that matter, many of those who voted for Virgil Kai Smith allegedly thought they were voting for his father, former state Sen. Virgil Clark Smith.
Now, with the Nov. 5 general election only days away, many residents apparently still don’t know that Democratic candidate Virgil Kai Smith pleaded guilty last spring to charges of third-degree retail fraud and was sentenced to one-year’s probation by District Court Judge Pamela J. McCabe.
Court officials define third-degree retail fraud as shoplifting under $200.
According to 55th District Court records, along with his probation, Smith is required to do several things: Not leave the state without consent; perform 30 days of community service; and complete an economic crime program.
If his probation is not successfully carried out, he would spend 30 days in jail and convictions under the controlled substance act and spouse abuse act would be put on his record as well. At 22 years old, under the Youthful Trainee Status, if Smith’s probation is carried out without any violations, he will have a clean record next spring.
Smith did not return repeated calls for comment.
The 7th District, where Smith won the August primary election and is on the Nov. 5 ballot, represents much of northwest Detroit, including communities such as Palmer Woods, Russell Woods, and the Bagley community.
“In the most affluent district in the city of Detroit, we end up with a person who has no experience,” said Henry E. Stallings, a Detroit resident who ran against Smith in the primary election.
Bertha Coleman Poe, a Detroiter who also ran against Smith in the 7th District primary, said that she did not find out about the charges until weeks after the election.
Coleman Poe noted that the Detroit Free Press ran an article weeks before the primary election about people running for the House who had “brushes with the law.” Virgil Kai Smith was not included in that article, she said.
The Free Press did include Smith in a correction later on, but the correction was in the “back of the paper,” she said.
“Law breakers should not be lawmakers,” said Coleman Poe, one of 14 candidates who ran against Smith in the primary. “He should have withdrawn from the race if he had any sense of ethics.”
According to the Secretary of State’s office there is no law forbidding House members from serving if they have a misdemeanor charge, but there is a law that forbids felons from serving in the House.
A felony is a serious crime, usually punishable by imprisonment in a state prison for more than a year or death. Misdemeanors are less serious offenses, which are punishable by imprisonment or a fine, rather than in a state prison.
Even though Smith is charged with a misdemeanor, Coleman Poe contends that people in the public eye should have no blemishes on their record.
“The state should do thorough background checks,” Coleman Poe said. “Voters should be aware.”
Yet, not all people feel as strongly about Smith’s charges.
“All people make mistakes, and I’m willing to forgive him for that,” said Rep. Fred Durhal Jr., D-Detroit. “As long as he is not convicted of a felony, that is fine. We are role models. We need to act the part and be the part.”
Some officials say that the public didn’t know who they were voting for when they voted for the younger Smith in the primary. “I myself thought the father was running,” said Dolores Brodersen, the Republican candidate running against Smith on Nov. 5.
This confusion arises because Smith’s father; the former state Sen. Virgil Clark Smith, has been a well-known name around Detroit politics for many years, and now is the chief of legislation at the Wayne County prosecutor’s office.
According to officials, no one knew that they were voting for the well-known politician’s son, a May 2002 graduate of Michigan State University.
Coleman Poe said that Smith used the same lawn signs as used in his father’s campaigns in his own primary campaign this summer.
“He did not distinguish himself,” Brodersen said. “He dropped the Kai part of his name to make the public think he was his father. I am wondering why voters didn’t know.”
That people were not aware they were voting for young Smith “is a travesty,” said Stallings. “There were too many other valuable candidates running in that race. The only thing not going for them was his name.”
Stallings said that on primary election day he was at a few of the polls and so was the older Smith. He said several voters came up to Smith and told him that they voted for him and Smith had to tell them that it was actually his son who was running.
Rep. Durhal said Smith is a classic case of the public voting simply because they are familiar with the name on the ballot.
“Name recognition is vital to a candidate if you want to win,” Rep. Durhal said. “Once your name is made, you can ride that for a long, long time.”
Myron Wahls, a resident of Detroit who was runner-up in the primary, said he could empathize with Smith because he has been in the same situation.
He explained that his father was a well-known judge in the community, and when Wahls started running for office years ago, “most people thought they were voting for my father. I know how it feels.”
Even with the charges against Smith, Wahls was sympathetic: “We all make mistakes when we are younger.”
Yet, Wahls questioned the fact that the elder Smith knew his son was convicted didn’t discourage him from running for office.
“Why would you allow your son to run?” Wahls said. “That was weird.”
On the subject of the charges, “If people were aware of his record and who he was in full disclosure, there is no way he would have won,” Stallings said.
Brodersen said, “I feel the voters deserve better. They were hoodwinked and it was on purpose.”
On the subject of her race against Smith in the Nov. 5 election, Brodersen said that the district is heavily Democratic, therefore she is not “actively campaigning.”
“He is a shoo-in,” Brodersen said.
On both the matters of Smith’s charges and the fact that it is not his father running for office: “I hope this is made public because the voters deserve to know,” Brodersen said.
Although Smith did not return calls for a comment, his father did have something to say on the name-recognition issue.
“My son campaigned, he filed, he campaigned, I never went over there,” Virgil Clark Smith said. “I never talked to anybody, never went to any campaign events, only he did.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By KATIE MORELL