Commentary: The Coming Drama

Dec 22, 2010

Well, we finally have the official census figures, and for the first time in history, Michigan lost people in the course of a decade. Worse, we’ll have fewer members of Congress.

Over the last thirty years, we’ve lost five seats in the House of Representatives. That’s equivalent to losing the voting power of the entire state of Connecticut. Put another way, we’re now back to having only one more representative than a century ago.

That means that we’ve lost virtually all the political clout we gained during the age of the automobile. True, that era’s last remaining titans are still in Washington -- the Levins, John Conyers, and of course John Dingell.

But they don’t have the power they did. For one thing, they are all Democrats, and the Dems are losing control of the House.

For another, the auto industry doesn’t have  the clout it did, even as recently as the 1980s. Back then Dingell ran the House Energy and Commerce Committee with an iron hand, and managed to look out for both the industry and the auto workers union.

But Big John lost his committee chairmanship last year, and in January, his party won’t even control the committee. Back in Michigan, the census means several Democratic congressmen will be fighting for their political lives next year, when the legislature will be running a deadly game of musical chairs.

Michigan will lose a seat in Congress. Since we will have nine Republicans and six Democrats, you might think we’d give up a Republican seat. But you’d be wrong.

The redistricting plan will be written and passed by a solidly Republican legislature, signed by a Republican governor, and reviewed a GOP-controlled state supreme court.

While every district has to have the same number of people, they will draw the lines to produce as many GOP seats as possible, and that means eliminating at least one Democrat.

Most likely, they will combine the southeastern districts now held by Gary Peters and Sandy Levin, forcing them to run against each other in the 2012 primary, unless one steps down.

They could also put John Conyers and John Dingell into a seat where they have to run against each other.

Elsewhere, they will try to pack as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible, while strengthening Republican incumbents. This is a delicate process.

 If they get too greedy and try to create too many GOP-leaning districts, they could leave some Republican incumbents, like Thaddeus McCotter or Mike Rogers, potentially vulnerable.

All this may lead to the retirement of some of our Congressional titans. John Dingell will be eighty-six before the next election. He might be able to perform one last service to his party by working out a deal to retire to save someone else‘s seat.

If Peters is thrown into a district with Levin, it might be well to reflect that while Sandy has had an amazing career, he will be eighty-one next time. Peters, fifty-three. It might make sense for the older man to make a graceful exit. Watch for all this and more to play out over the next couple years. The census itself may not seem very sexy. But as a catalyst for political melodrama, nothing has it beat.