Odd Man Out

Aug 22, 2011

There’s a game of musical chairs going on right now to determine which congressman will end up without a job a year from January. Yesterday, the likely outcome became a little more clear.

First of all, a little background: Michigan is losing a seat in congress because of national population shifts. The legislature redrew the boundary lines, and since Republicans control everything in Lansing, they made sure it would be a Democrat who lost out.

The only question was, which one? When the proposed new districts were revealed, it seemed at first that Oakland County’s Gary Peters would be the certain loser. The area in which he lives and fellow Democrat Sander Levin lives wound up in the same district.

The two men could run against each other in next August’s primary, of course, but on paper, Peters wouldn’t stand a chance.

Most of the new district is territory Levin has been representing, so he has home field advantage. Sandy Levin is also a sort of an icon. He was first elected to the state senate before Peters was six years old. He’s completing thirty years in Congress.

Peters has been there less than four years. And while Sandy Levin will turn eighty-one next year, he’s made it clear he has no plans to retire. That would seem to indicate Peters would be well advised to look for another job, maybe an appointed office.

But not so fast. The redistricting commission also did strange things to the two Detroit-based districts which, according to the Voting Rights Act, need to have African-American majorities.

Congressman John Conyers’s 14th district was changed out of recognition. Less than half of it is in Detroit, and most of those folks have been represented by Hansen Clarke, the only Democratic freshman now in the Michigan delegation. But a lot of the new district is Oakland County people who in the past were represented by Gary Peters, either as congressman or a state senator.

There seemed to be a much better chance that Peters might prevail in a primary here -- especially if some suburban black candidates ended up running as well.

But Peters couldn't seem to decide -- and yesterday, that decision may have been made for him.  Hansen Clarke announced via Twitter that he was planning on running in the Fourteenth District, not the Thirteen District he now represents.

More than half of the Thirteenth is in Detroit, and the rest is largely blue-collar Wayne County suburbs, which ought to be much friendlier turf to John Conyers, an 82-year old civil rights icon.

Conyers hasn’t yet said where he will run, though he’s made it clear he is running. But it seems clear he will run in the Thirteenth.

Hansen Clarke, who was once Conyers’ chief of staff, seems to have done his old boss a favor. Clarke should also be far more electable in the new Fourteenth than Conyers would have been -- he is engaging, much younger, multi-ethnic and multicultural.

Granted, Gary Peters could still get in to the Fourteenth district race, but it would be harder for him now. In politics, timing is everything. And it is often still true that he who hesitates is lost.