Redistricting Could Cost Michigan One of Two Black Congressmen

Detroit's decrease in population could also cost it what little Washington clout it has left.

Posted: 03/28/2011 08:01 AM EDT
The official photograph of Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI).

Census figures show that Detroit, once the nation’s fourth-largest city, has lost 25 percent of its population. This means that the city could lose millions of dollars in state funds, which means fewer resources for a predominately African-American city that is already struggling to rebuild itself. Blacks in other communities across the country also could see their voting power diluted because of depopulation and the growth of Latino communities.

The city also could lose one of its two Black congressmen. In an interesting twist, one is the U.S. House of Representatives’ second-longest serving member, John Conyers, and the other, Hansen Clarke, a neophyte who arrived on Capitol Hill just a few months ago.

Every 10 years, states use census data to redraw state, local and federal legislative districts to reflect population shifts. The results of the 1990 census enabled the Congressional Black Caucus to grow significantly.

The populations in both districts have fallen below the number required for a district, so when the lines are redrawn, both will have to be expanded or one eliminated. So, who goes and who stays? One slightly cynical senior Democratic aide pointed to the obvious contrast between the two lawmakers: Conyers has done so much for not only Detroit, but the whole state, while Clarke is still finding his way around the halls of Congress. Clarke’s seat was previously held by long-term Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.

In an interview with The Detroit News, Republican state Rep. Pete Lund, chair of the House Redistricting and Elections Committee, said, “We’re going to have to look at this data and see if it [still] means two minority-majority districts.” But according to University of Michigan political scientist Vincent Hutchings, Republicans in charge of redrawing district lines won’t make it easy for Democrats. They could also try to draw the lines to pit Conyers against fellow Democrat John Dingell, the House’s longest-serving member.

“There’s no positive outcome here because Republicans have no sense of allegiance to voters in Detroit, who are almost exclusively Democrats,” Hutchings said. “Even though the city’s economic situation is front and center in terms of voters’ priorities in Detroit and Michigan more broadly, it’s demoralizing on some level.”

(Photo: Courtesy of John Conyers)