Gary Peters, Gearing Up

Oct 10, 2011

When Gary Peters runs for Congress next year, there’s one vote he has no chance of getting.

His own. Thanks to redistricting, he lives just barely outside the district he plans to run in. Over coffee yesterday, he told me that his daughter will be a high school senior, and out of consideration for her, the family plans not to move until after she graduates.

There’s nothing illegal about that. Congressmen don’t have to live in their districts. But it highlights the general insanity of the redistricting process. Peters, who has served two terms in the House of Representatives, will be one of two candidates for Michigan’s biggest, toughest and most exciting race for Congress next year.

But that race won’t happen next November. Nor will Peters be facing a Republican. This battle will be fought out next summer, and settled by the August primary. There, the two youngest and most vibrant members of the Democratic delegation will be forced to try to end each other’s career.

Michigan is losing a seat in the House of Representatives. Republicans control every branch of state government, and they made sure the odd man out would be one of the state’s six Democrats, not one of the nine Republican congressmen. The lines they drew threw Peters into a district with Sandy Levin, a fixture on Michigan’s political scene for almost half a century.

Most of the new district was territory Levin has represented in Congress for years. Peters decided to run in the new fourteenth district. As he put it, it is “fifty-five miles long and less than half a mile wide in places,” and extends from some of Detroit‘s worst neighborhoods to rural getaways in Oakland County.

Congressman John Conyers lives there now, but he has decided to run in the new thirteenth district instead. The winner of the Democratic primary in either district is almost certain to go to Congress. But Peters won’t have a free ride.

He’ll face fellow Democrat and freshman congressman Hansen Clarke in the primary. Slightly less than half the district is in Detroit, and Clarke represents much of that turf. But Peters has represented most of the Oakland County portion, either as a congressman or a state senator in the 1990s. How this will all play out is hard to say.

Both men are giant killers. Peters beat longtime GOP congressman Joe Knollenberg three years ago. Clarke took out Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in last year’s Democratic primary.

Both men are somewhat unusual. Peters is an Episcopalian, a lawyer and a former vice president of Merrill Lynch, a pedigree that would normally scream Republican. Clarke is multi-racial, was a Muslim and a Protestant before becoming a Catholic.

Peters’ strategy is clear. He’ll argue that he’s the guy who knows numbers, fought to save the auto industry, and is all about jobs. Clarke, who may have an edge in the charisma department, says he has a fresh outlook and fresh ideas.

The election is a long way away, but it seems tragic that the political career of one of these vibrant fifty-somethings will come to an end. Meanwhile, three Democrats who are well into their eighties and clearly past their prime are likely to have no trouble at all.

But as JFK once said, life just happens to be unfair.