Congressmen in Crisis

Aug 8, 2011

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to soon sign the redistricting plan passed by his fellow Republicans in the legislature. Assuming  he does so, and there are no last-minute changes, the future careers of four Democratic congressmen will suddenly be thrown into doubt.

Since last December, everyone has known that at least one Michigan Democrat would lose his job. The state is losing a seat in Congress as a result of national population shifts. Since Republicans control the process, everybody knew the odd man out was bound to be a Democrat. And as expected, they threw suburban Detroit Congressmen Sander Levin and Gary Peters into the same district.

If the two men do, in fact run against each other in a primary. Levin is almost certain to win. He has one of the most famous names in politics, and has been in Congress far longer.

Additionally, eighty percent of the new ninth district is territory that Levin has been representing up to now. But strange boundaries in two other districts have added other complications.

There have long been two seats represented by African-Americans and based in Detroit. But redistricting radically changed those districts. Freshman Congressman Hansen Clarke was given new boundaries that include slightly more than half of Detroit, and a collection of mostly blue-collar down river suburbs.

Until now, more of these voters have been represented by John Conyers, who has served in Congress for almost half a century. If the changes Hansen Clarke is facing are radical, they are nothing compared to the district the lawmakers drew for Conyers.

The new fourteenth district is one of oddest Michigan has ever seen. It includes a chunk of north and east Detroit, true. But then it swoops north to add a collection of wildly disparate suburbs.

These range from the wealthy Grosse Pointes to destitute Pontiac, heavily Jewish West Bloomfield and Oak Park, and leafy, middle-class Southfield, Sylvan Lake and Farmington Hills.

They have nothing in common with Conyers’ traditional constituency, and he in turn knows little about them or their concerns. There are already signs that he may be facing a primary challenge.

Some think the solution is simple. Conyers and Clarke should swap districts. The senior man, this theory goes, would be more comfortable and more electable in the thirteenth district. The much younger, fresher, and multiracial Clarke might have more appeal in Oakland County. There’s something to be said for this idea.

And there’s yet another possibility. Gary Peters, who had been representing some of the voters who will be in the fourteenth district, could challenge Conyers. Technically a majority of the voters in this district are still African-American. But their turnout rates are traditionally lower than the whites, especially in primary elections.

Plus, State Senator Bert Johnson says he’s running too. That  could split the black vote. Race isn’t the only factor, of course; some suburban blacks aren‘t keen on being represented by Conyers, who will be eighty-three and sometimes seems out of touch.

All that’s certain is that four congressmen, colleagues from the same party, are facing decisions that are certain to end one or more of their political careers.  And this is bound to make for considerable drama in the weeks and months ahead.