Politics & Prejudices
Drawing the lines
Republicans redraw congressional districts to their advantage
Published: June 22, 2011
What do people in the leafy, upscale Oakland County town of Sylvan Lake have in common with the Asian immigrants and heavily pierced and tattooed young artists of Hamtramck?
What do any of those groups have in common with the soccer moms of Farmington Hills, the mean streets of Motor City's east side, the poor but vibrant Hispanic neighborhoods of southwest Detroit, and Oak Park's Orthodox Jews?
They've all been thrown together in a congressional district that has long been represented by John Conyers. By the way, Southfield, Pontiac, West Bloomfield and Keego Harbor are in there too.
When many of these people find out they are about to become Rep. Conyers' newest constituents, they are likely to react with something approaching horror. No, not out of racism, so much, as their perception — largely accurate — that the 82-year-old congressman isn't heavily invested in suburban concerns.
That, plus the fact that those in the know are aware that Conyers' office seems to be in a near-perpetual state of chaos. This isn't especially reassuring to those who need constituent services.
"You're crazy. Are you serious? We got Conyers? How the hell did that happen?" a Farmington Hiller told me when I told him.
Well, a woman I met by chance at a lunch meeting last week put it best. "This is a case of the legislators choosing their voters rather than the voters choosing their legislators," said Susan Miller, who works with the League of Women Voters in Ann Arbor.
That's exactly what's happening. Every 10 years, we get new official population estimates from the U.S. Census, and then, by law, new districts have to be drawn. Congressional districts all have to have the same number of people — 705,974, based on the April 1, 2010 count. They can vary at most by only one person.
Pretty much the same rule holds for districts in the Legislature, though these can vary by as much as 5 percent from the ideal population of 89,881 for the state House, 260,096 for the state Senate.
Dividing us up into districts isn't all that hard, for anyone with detailed census data and a computer. But the art is doing it to give one side or another partisan advantage. Usually, you have fights over just how to do that, followed by court hearings and compromise.
Not this year. Republicans control everything — both houses of the Legislature, the governor's office, the Michigan Supreme Court.
They can do whatever they want, and they have. The state is losing a seat in the U.S. House due to its population decline. As a result, they tossed two Democratic congressmen into the same district, with the result that either Sander Levin or Gary Peters will have to retire, or be defeated in a primary next August. They aren't happy.
The Republicans controlling the process have also redrawn legislative boundaries in an effort to give their candidates maximum advantage. They did this in secrecy; behind closed doors. They just created the districts, let us see 'em June 17, and soon will enact them.
Democrats, by the way, would have done much the same if they held power, and you'd see two GOP congressmen stuffed into the same district instead. There's only one restraint on our leaders:
The Voting Rights Act has normally been interpreted to mean there is an obligation to keep as many districts as possible with a majority of minorities. With the shrinking of Detroit and the diffusion of Michigan's African-American population, that gets harder and harder. That's why the area carved aside for Conyers stretches out bizarrely like the original salamander-shaped one that was the first Gerrymandered district, almost exactly two centuries ago.
There's a companion district for Hansen Clarke that takes in a big chunk of Detroit's midsection, plus a bunch of Wayne County suburbs such as Garden City and Westland. But both these areas have African-American populations of less than 60 percent, and there is some possibility one or both might eventually elect non-Detroiters.
Congressional districts are supposed to be made up of people with like-minded interests, and leaving the drawing of the lines to partisans is not the best way for democracy.
Those expending energy trying to get signatures for fruitless recall efforts might think instead of trying to get a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to turn redistricting over to an independent, non-partisan commission. Until that happens, the majority of us will continue to be effectively disenfranchised.
War on City Hall's 11th floor: Last week the Detroit media suddenly proclaimed in large headlines that there was chaos in Mayor Dave Bing's administration, and that he was being manipulated by the cruel, over-her-head Svengali Karen Dumas, his communications chief. What caused all this?
Mainly, it was set off by allegations made by one Rochelle Collins, who made lots of charges in a lawsuit she started after she got fired from her city job. This is hardly surprising; people who get fired from any job usually blame anyone except themselves.
But the newspapers, especially the Free Press, began screaming that Dumas had to go, and within two days the mayor in fact fired her. Now, I am not close enough to City Hall to be able to assess to what extent the charges against Dumas were merited. Once she appeared weakened, lots of people appeared to stab her in the back.
My knowledge is limited to the fact that she always has been professional and classy with me. I've had two long interviews with the mayor since he took office; she attended these but never interfered.
There may be legitimate concerns about how she did her job. She did have more ties to the discredited Kilpatrick administration than many people felt comfortable with, though she wasn't alone.
When it was clear that she was becoming the story, not the spokeswoman, the mayor moved quickly to fire the person who had been his closest aide, which perhaps should call into question all the stories about Bing being indecisive and unwilling to make the hard choices. Sometimes, the top man has to be ruthless, and he was.
> Email Jack Lessenberry