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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Michigan’s 14th Congressional District

June 27, 2014

DETROIT – Here’s what we know for sure about Michigan’s Fourteenth Congressional district, one of the most bizarrely shaped in the entire country: Next year it will replace its current white congressman with an African-American one.

Whoever wins will be a Democrat, and is almost certain to be a respected officeholder with considerable experience.

Those are safe bets, because no white candidates are running this time – and no Republican candidate has even managed to get 20 percent since this district was created.

But its next congressman could conceivably be either Hansen Clarke, who represented some of these voters for a single term in Congress; State Rep. Rudy Hobbs, a state representative who has just about every major endorsement in sight; or longtime Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, the only woman in the race.

This is a hard race to predict, in part because it would be hard to find any district more outrageously gerrymandered than Michigan’s 14th which, on the map, looks like a cross between an old-fashioned scythe and a bent coat hanger.

Three years ago, Michigan’s heavily GOP legislature created it, to fulfill two major redistricting goals: They wanted to pack as many Democrats into as few districts as possible – and wanted to create two districts with black majorities to comply with their interpretation of what the federal Voting Rights Act required.

They succeeded at both. However, they did so by creating a district composed of people and neighborhoods that have little or nothing in common, even geographically.

The Fourteenth begins with the affluent old-money laden Grosse Pointes – and then takes in heavily Hispanic Southwest Detroit, Hamtramck, and some of the city’s most impoverished slums. It continues on through mostly black, solidly middle-class Southfield.

From there it zigs west to the white suburbs of Farmington Hills, and then zags north through heavily Jewish West Bloomfield, before finally ending with impoverished Pontiac, which is still in the process of emerging from years of state control.

Though nearly three-fifths of the district’s voters are black, two years ago, they elected a white congressman, Gary Peters. Michigan lost a seat in Congress following the last census, and Peters and Clarke ended up being pitted against each other here.

The race was hard-fought, but Peters had a clear edge in both money and organizational skills. Clarke also may have been weakened when Lawrence also got into the race.

When the voters were counted, Clarke won a solid majority in Detroit, but was obliterated by Peters in the suburbs. In the end, Peters had 47 percent to 35 percent for Clarke. Lawrence was far behind, with 13 percent.

But this year, Peters decided to run for the seat left open by the retirement of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, (D-Mich.) As soon as he knew that, Hobbs, now finishing his second term in the state legislature, jumped in. “We need an energetic fighter in Congress, especially at this time,” Hobbs said. “I am not running to cap off a career.”

Nobody ever accused Rudy Hobbs, a short roundish man with an infectious grin, of a lack of energy.

Now 39, he’s young enough to be either of the other major candidates’ son. He married his high school sweetheart and had two children while he and his wife were students at Michigan State. Somehow, they both got their degrees.

After briefly teaching first grade, he left to work as a volunteer for U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.)

Soon, he was his district director.

Then he went on to run campaigns for the Democrats, and serve as a senior policy advisor to Lt. Gov. John Cherry, before winning a seat in the legislature in 2010. If elected to Congress, Hobbs said he wouldn’t ask to sit on glamorous committees like appropriations and intelligence. Given his preference, he would opt for the financial services and transportation committees.

Why? “I want to help our people, this area,” he said.

Brenda Lawrence, like Hobbs, grew up on the now crime-ridden east side of Detroit and married young. The first black mayor of Southfield, she has won high marks for keeping services at a high level despite the devastating recession.

She thinks she could be effective in Congress because as a mayor, she has had to strive for bipartisanship rather than engage in ideological bickering. She has a fair amount of name recognition, because in the past she has run unsuccessfully not only for congress, but for county executive and lieutenant governor. As the only woman in the race, she may have an edge. But some voters may be skeptical of her constant striving for seemingly every office in sight.

Hansen Clarke, now 57, is one of the more mercurial figures in Michigan politics. He is both an artist and a lawyer; after serving in the legislature, he was elected to Congress in 2010, ousting the mother of disgraced Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

But redistricting cut short his career. He then made a last-minute decision to run this year. “Supporters came to me and said I had to do it. They had petitions ready and I thought about it, and said yes.” If he wins, he says he will be more accessible to constituents.

“If someone wants to meet me, to get their representative to listen to them, they will be able to do that,” he vows.

There’s a fourth candidate on the ballot, Burgess “Dwight” Foster, but he is a political unknown.

Remarkably, all three major candidates say they like each other, and, as Hobbs said “there are no issues we absolutely disagree on.” Instead, the race is likely to come down to who shows up to vote.

That, and who voters think apt to be most effective. Given Detroit’s needs, that may be the most important issue of all.

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.

June 26, 2014 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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