Redistricting may keep blacks from representing Detroit in Congress

DETROIT – Of the many issues presented by Detroit’s plummeting population is that it has not only altered the cultural makeup of the city and affected the tax base, it has also led to a complete redrawing for electoral maps around the area. Reshaping the face of Michigan’s congressional delegation, it has led to a couple of primary races that no one expected just two years ago.

Bloomberg’s Businessweek reported this week that current congressmen John Conyers, Jr. and Hansen Clarke could be ousted on August 7 during the Democratic Primary after their former district boundaries were redrawn.  The new boundaries pushed Detroit’s two congressional districts, Nos. 13 and 14, into the suburbs and have opened up the possibility that Conyers and Clarke may be ousted by white Democratic challengers in districts where blacks are a smaller majority than before.

“It’s a more than 50 percent likelihood it will happen,” said Eric Foster, a political consultant in Troy, Mich. whose clients are mostly Democrats, in Businessweek. He noted that black voters who moved from Detroit to the suburbs in nearby Oakland and Macomb counties care more about economic issues than about keeping blacks in office.

The problem is not just limited to Detroit. Michigan was the only state to lose population in the past decade. As a result of Congressional reapportionment, Michigan will lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and, because of their majority in Lansing, Republicans control the redistricting process.

The state GOP remapped Michigan in a manner that would meld cities such as Detroit with neighboring suburbs in a fashion that would guarantee that at least one Democrat is forced out of office before the general election.

For example, the new 14th District – where two-term congressman Gary Peters and first-term rep Clarke are squaring off — includes parts of Detroit, the Grosse Pointes, Hamtramck, Oak Park, Southfield, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield, and Pontiac. Roll Call has called the 14th District one of the ugliest examples of gerrymandering in the country, calling the district the “8 Mile Mess.”

“This is going to be the district to watch,” Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said to “It’s very strange, no doubt about it. It’s clearly a district a Democrat is going to win. The only question is who? And where is that candidate going to come from?”

In District 14, Peters is the early favorite over Clarke. Peters has raised more than twice the money Clarke has and has gotten major endorsements from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the AFL-CIO.

The city’s electoral history has been heavily dictated by race since the 1950s. Detroit elected the late Coleman Young as its first black mayor in 1973, just six years after the 1967 riots – the second major race riot in 25 years – and has had four mayors since; all of them have been black. Additionally, the city has only had three white members of its city council since 1980, and never had a Latino member.

Detroit’s redistricting has put Conyers, 83, in jeopardy of losing a seat that he has held since 1965. A founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, Conyers has built his legacy in Detroit on his support for civil and voting rights. Conyers was in the streets of Detroit with a bullhorn imploring citizens to end the violence during the riots in 1967.