It was Sir Isaac Newton in his law of motion who reminded us that for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. In Tuesday’s primary vote that became true when residents of Wayne County sent a powerful message that there is a consequence for every action, and in this case even if the action did not convict or accuse a person of any crime.
Come January, a new Wayne County Executive, Warren Evans, former Detroit police chief who also served as sheriff in Wayne County, will replace incumbent Robert Ficano, whose administration has been the subject of FBI investigations that led to convictions and sometimes jail time for top county officials who worked in the Ficano administration. Ficano indicated, especially in the last debate I moderated at the downtown campus of Wayne County Community College District, that he should not be viewed through the prism of the federal investigations.
During that debate he invoked several times the name of Jeffery Collins, the former U.S. Attorney who came to work for him as a top deputy and helped to address the questions of transparency and ethics. Ficano’s logic was that because he was able to secure a former top federal prosecutor who also was a former appeals court judge, it was clear indication that he did nothing wrong. If he had, Collins would not have accepted his offer to come to Wayne County government and clean house.
But Ficano seemed to have forgotten one thing: politics is all about perception. Once a perception has been created and there is mounting evidence for that perception to hold true, no amount of cleaning up can redefine the perception that people hold about any given politician. Despite the fact that the federal probe into corruption at Wayne County did not knock on Ficano’s personal doorstep, in the eyes of voters he is the legitimate leader of Wayne County. And as leader, the buck stops with him. You don’t pass blame around and claim to not know what was going in your administration with your top deputies. All of the convictions that United States Attorney Barbara McQuade netted in her probe of the Ficano government were high-level officials. These were not low-level service workers.
These were individuals who succeeded in becoming the personification of Wayne County and how it did business. And because they were high-level officials, the threshold of responsibility was even higher when it came to the public trust. They should have known better. Wayne County government is not a private equity firm. There should be no excuse for failing the public, which is what we saw in the plea deals and convictions. Mr. Ficano could claim innocence because he should have that privilege and the rule of law dictates that every man is presumed innocent until proven guilty. He has a responsibility to ensure that those who work in higher capacity for him are individuals who are transparent. If you are in charge of running things in your government or company, you don’t need an FBI probe to tell you where things are going wrong.
The Kwame Kilpatrick saga provides many examples and template for elected officials to avoid. If Ficano had stringent control of his administration with checks and balances (and had not waited for Jeffrey Collins to come and install the needed checks and balances) many things could have been averted, and perhaps voters would have made a different choice in the Tuesday primary.
Then comes the failed jail project, which also helped to doom Ficano’s political fortunes after millions of taxpayer dollars went to a project that is yet to yield any public benefit. But more than the jail project, what has killed Ficano’s political life in Wayne County government, as evidenced by the primary election, is the federal corruption probe.
Wayne County residents have watched how Detroit city hall went through its own experience with mass convictions of public officials being hauled off to jail like lambs for the slaughter. The federal district court, the seat of the Detroit political corruption trials, sometimes mirrored ancient Rome as we saw the trials in Detroit revealing the disturbing loss of virtue, the immoral health of our body politic (which is reflected across the nation), the aggressive search for material wealth on the taxpayers dime as well as indulgence in public resources emanating from the desire for political glory, all reveal some sort of a morally bankrupt political system at city hall that was bent on feasting on patronage, bribery and classical extortion.
And that is exactly what voters saw in Wayne County government, especially with the Ficano men who were caught. They did not want a repeat of what took place in city hall. Because it took Ficano too long to atone for the political sins of his administration (the actions of some of his top officials), it was already late when he finally apologized. It almost seemed as if he was forced to come out and render an apology after several polls were showing that if the election were held then, he would have been in severe trouble. If, in fact, the chief executive of Wayne County wanted to change course he should have used the announcement of a federal probe as an opportunity to reaffirm that his administration was on course and then explain in full detail what was owed to the public.
What Wayne County taxpayers demonstrated in Tuesday’s election was that they did not want a regime that would betray residents and their best interests. Wayne County has been the hardest hit with the foreclosure crisis, and it has faced other economic challenges as well The last thing it needs is public officials using tax dollars as their ATM machine or casino.
Yes, public service is admirable and we need more people to answer the noble calling of public service, but it should not be a license for political corruption. Public service should not be the place for bribe-takers and money-lovers who think that they can use public money for their own pleasure. People are fed up with self-serving politicians and they want a different direction.
Ficano has had a long and admirable career in public service, his supporters and others insist. It is sad to watch his almost three-decades in public service go down this way. Again at the debate, he tried to remind his supporters and voters like that he has been at the service of the public for decades, and that this was a calling for him. I can’t disagree with him. He offered himself for public service, and with public service comes public accountability, and with public accountability comes the ability to ensure (100 percent) that those around you with serious and sensitive positions are accountable to the fullest.
Mr. Ficano should not blame voters for what happened on Tuesday. He should blame some of his appointees who are already either in jail or waiting jail time. What happened on Tuesday is a political lesson in crime and punishment. He repeated several times on the campaign trail that he did not commit the crime, but voters made him pay for the crimes those under him committed.
The Warren Evans era begins in a few months and we’ll be watching to see how Evans, who had a troubled stint at the Detroit police department, will shape his administration. Like Evans, Ficano was a Wayne County Sheriff. But we hope that Evans has learned the lessons from the sagas that have taken place in Detroit and Wayne County to avoid any repeat. A month before the election when he walked into my office, Evans assured me that he was a different kind of leader who would hold people accountable and he could not understand how all of that was happening in the Ficano administration, and no one made a move to put a stop to it. It’s too early to tell or speculate on how effective Evans would be. Only time will tell.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of a forthcoming book on Detroit. His most recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, Black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a senior political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.bankolethompson.com.