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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

The Redistricting Wars


May 13, 2011

The battles over Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget and a proposed new Detroit River bridge may be grabbing the Michigan headlines these days. But another battle with high stakes and plenty of human drama is brewing beneath the surface:

The redistricting wars.

Michigan has lost another seat in Congress, and once again, the survivors will be playing a game of musical chairs. Additionally, state lawmakers have to redraw every one of their own seats.

This happens every decade, and has often led to epic battles between the parties. Twenty years ago, things got so bad that a federal court rejected both the Democratic and Republican plans and drew Michigan’s congressional districts — something that cost several incumbents their jobs. But this time, things are different.

Democrats are essentially powerless. Republicans have the governorship, huge majorities in both houses of the legislature, and a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Barring a plan so outrageous it is likely to attract federal scrutiny, Republicans can pretty much do as they see fit.

Their top priority: to try to guarantee that the seat in Congress the state loses is one of the six now held by a Democrat, not one of the nine held by a Republican. Beyond that, they’d probably like to strengthen GOP strength in some swing districts, notably the Seventh District, which includes Jackson and Battle Creek.

On the state level, the game is much the same. The GOP majority will attempt to draw as many Republican-leaning districts as possible, while bunching Democrats into as few seats as possible.

That’s sometimes easier attempted than done. Ten years ago, Republicans did a masterful job gerrymandering the Senate — so much so that they easily managed to keep control in 2006, when Democratic candidates got 54 percent of the overall vote.

On the other hand, they thought they had done the same in the House. But they hadn’t. Democrats ended up with a large majority by mid-decade, which they kept till last year’s GOP landslide.

Drawing state legislative boundaries is easier, since districts can vary in population by as much as 5 percent. But each of Michigan’s congressional districts should have exactly 710,767 people, based on the population on April 1, 2010.

And drawing those lines creates all sorts of dilemmas:

  • First, there’s the unkindest cut of all — eliminating one seat. Best guess now is that they will do that by throwing Democratic incumbents Sander Levin and Gary Peters into the same district. That will mean one will have to retire — or take on his fellow Democrat in what could be a bitter primary election.
  • Another dilemma: Detroit. The Motor City’s population has shrunk so much that nearly the whole population — 713,777 — could be tucked into a single district. Doing that would make a certain amount of sense. Detroiters have common interests, to be sure. But this is unlikely to happen.

The courts have held that the federal Voting Rights Act means that boundary lines should not be drawn to eliminate majority black or Hispanic districts. So Detroit is likely to be divided into two districts — each of which is half city, half a collection of suburbs.

But the more suburbs are added, the more minority seats may be at risk. Conceivably, suburban voters, who traditionally have higher turnout rates than city dwellers, could unite, outvote Detroiters and dethrone one, or conceivably both, black congressmen.

That may be unlikely. But as Detroit continues to shrink, such an outcome becomes increasingly possible.

Beyond partisan considerations, there is a feeling that congressional districts should be, whenever possible, communities of common interest. Former Congressman Joe Schwarz fumes that Kalamazoo and Battle Creek ought to be in the same district.

“They were together for 90 years or more, prior to the 1990 census,” says Dr. Schwarz, who now practices medicine in Battle Creek. But then they were divided. He thinks they should be reunited. “There is real common community interest between the two.”

Yet he has no idea whether there is any chance of that happening. Redistricting is pretty much going on behind closed doors, overseen by GOP-dominated committees. Later this year, a plan will be submitted to the legislature for a vote, and then to the governor. Then, the real drama begins.

How so? Assume, for a moment, that Peters and Levin are indeed thrown into the same district. That leaves the Democratic Party with a big dilemma of its own.

Almost certainly, Sandy Levin would be the odds-on favorite to win such a primary. Yet would that be sacrificing the future to the past? Four of Michigan’s six Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are not just old, they are very old.

Next year, John Dingell will be 86. Dale Kildee and John Conyers will be 83, and Levin, 81. Within a few years, all of these legendary lions are sure to be gone, one way or another.

Gary Peters will be 53. Does it make sense, for Michigan and the Democratic Party, to cut his career short so that a congressman old enough to be his father can cling on for another term?

Should Sandy Levin think about stepping aside? Should Kildee? What about Dingell, who already has served longer than any member of the House in the history of the nation?

If you thought redistricting was a matter of drawing new lines on a map, you were partly right. What you may have missed is that in a political sense, those lines are all too often written in blood.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

May 12, 2011 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , , ,

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Greg Thrasher // May 13, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Once the gerrymandering is over our state will still be stuck with lousy representatives in both the state and federal houses…

    One day pundits will care about the quality of the outcomes of redistricting rather than the politics..

  • 2 Fiona Lowther // May 15, 2011 at 6:42 am

    “very old”?? — Watch it, there, Lessenberry The early to mid-80s may be old to you, youngster; but those of us who are rounding that corner are still full of ginger, and our brains still work very well, thank you. And our hearts are in the right place, even though they may have lost some of their horsepower.
    As for Dingell, Kildee, Conyers and Levin, they may be a bit long in the tooth by your lights — but they’ve got more humanity, more smarts, more knowledge of the way things work, more concern for their constituents — and more stand-up-and-be-counted guts than too many of their younger colleagues on either side of the aisle. Don’t kick them out or discard them; clone them! And while you’re at it, clone Joe Schwarz while he’s still in his 70s; after all, by the time he reaches 80, by your standards, he’ll be over the hill.
    It may make political sense for some of the “legendary lions” to step aside for up-and-coming cubs, but maybe instead of calling those congressmen who’ve kept the faith “very old,” you should say “long-lived.”
    Oh, and by the way, I wonder how your friend Bill Milliken at 88 likes being dismissed as “very old.”

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