Redistricting Pits Black and White Democrats Against Each Other

The process could turn political allies into enemies.

Posted: 10/03/2011 08:27 AM EDT

For the past several months as new redistricting maps have been unveiled, Democratic lawmakers at all levels of government have publically complained that the new lines drawn by their states’ Republican-controlled legislatures threaten to diminish their numbers and disenfranchise voters. At the congressional level, some House Democrats now find themselves not only having to compete in new districts but also against members who, for now at least, are political allies. Maps in Michigan, Missouri, California and other states also will likely pit white and minority Democrats against each other.

 

“Every 10 years, African-Americans are required to renew their fight for equal involvement in the political process. Nobody ever said that freedom and justice, as they were defined by our predecessors in the civil rights movement, were permanent,” said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. “You know, it’s just been an on-going battle. Redistricting is always the launching pad for that fight.”

 

Freshman lawmaker and CBC member Hansen Clarke of Michigan finds himself in such a situation. His state lost 25 percent of its population in the past decade, which has meant the loss of the seat currently held by Rep. Gary Peters, who has decided to run against Clarke in a newly drawn district that includes a good portion of constituents now represented by long-time Rep. John Conyers, as well as significantly more white voters. According to Cleaver, Clarke has a fight on his hands because of the district’s new makeup and because he is so new to the game.

 

CBC member Laura Richardson, who has represented her California district since 2007, will face fellow Rep. Janice Hahn, who is white and was elected to Congress in July during a special election. Richardson is angry because the district is meant to be a minority opportunity district, designed to enhance the chances of minority votes to elect candidates of their choice. She also will face assemblyman Isadore Hall, an African-American, who may not have considered a bid under different circumstances.

 

“If he has any degree of political savvy, he would know that his best chance for getting into the House is in a three-way race,” Cleaver said.

 

Missouri is another state that may see a contest between an African-American and a white incumbent. Rep. Russ Carnahan, who is white, is weighing whether to launch a bid in the open GOP-leaning 2nd district or challenge Rep. William Lacy Clay in the state’s 1st district, which Clay has represented since 2001 and was represented by his father, a CBC founding member, for several terms.

 

Clay’s not worried, but he’s also not happy. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which provides fundraising and organizational support for candidates, has said it would help Carnahan if he runs in the 2nd district, but if he opts to run against Clay, the DCCC will be in an awkward situation.

 

“I think it's very disingenuous and dishonest on the part of the white Democrats, who have been made frontline members because they are in marginal districts, first of all, and have the financial support and help from the DCCC and then decided they wanted to take on incumbent Black democrats,” Clay said. “They have been selected as frontline members in order for us to hold those seats in order to win back the house.”

 

That said, he adds, “I’ll put my record up against his, or whomever, and will kick his butt.”

 

Although Clay and Carnahan so far appear to still be on friendly terms, the white Democrat is angry with fellow Missourian Cleaver, because he feels that Cleaver didn’t fight hard enough to negotiate a plan that would enable all three of their seats to remain intact. During a recent vote, Carnahan heartily greeted Clay and blatantly ignored Cleaver, who was standing between the two. His animosity, while odd and even kind of petty, is symptomatic of how such redistricting scenarios could fracture the Democratic caucus and incentivize some Black voters to stay home.

 

“I think in some cases, not all, but some of the cases, there is this subliminal idea that if you can get Black and white Democrats fighting that it could weaken the Democrats hold on African-American voters; if somehow the Black and white Democrats are seen as enemies that this thing could be flipped over,” mused Cleaver.

 

One senior aide told BET.com that some African-American voters may decide next November to vote for President Obama and their CBC member and leave the rest of the Democratic choices blank.

 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who co-chairs the CBC’s Redistricting Task Force, said that the caucus will work to ensure that Black lawmakers retain their seats and minority voters are able to elect the candidates who will best represent their needs.

 

“We are not asleep at the wheel. This is a very important issue to us, as was the census, that’s why we work so hard at the Congressional Black Caucus and after all three of the last censuses to increase the numbers of minorities that were counted, in particular African-Americans, to ensure that [they] are represented,” said Jackson Lee. “We don’t want to see a redistricting process snatch that opportunity away by ignoring the Voting Rghts Act and ignoring the rights of minority voters to be able to vote for a person of their choice.”

(Photos: UPI/Bill Greenblatt/Landov)

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