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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Dems Face Deadly Game of Musical Chairs


December 24, 2010

When the official state-by-state population tallies were released this week, Michigan’s numbers presented a devastatingly minimalist portrait of what’s happened to the state.

Michigan was the only state in the union to actually lose population. Hardscrabble West Virginia, bleak North Dakota and backwards Mississippi added people. Even Washington, D.C., which has been shrinking for decades, grew this time.

But not the state that put the world on wheels. The U.S. Census counters found 54,804 fewer Michiganders than a decade before. While that’s the first decline in state history, it doesn’t look large — only about half a percent of the state’s population.

The falloff from mid-decade, however, was much sharper. Michigan had several hundred thousand more people before the bottom fell out of the auto industry two years ago, after which the unemployed left for Texas — and new college graduates headed for Atlanta, Chicago, Portland, or wherever jobs could be found.

Less people means less money from Washington, and it also means less national clout. The census figures may have been dramatic, but the decline of the automobile state’s power has been going on for decades.

Here’s one devastating way to look at it. Not only does Michigan now lose another congressional seat, but after the next elections in two years, Michigan will have lost five seats in the U.S. House of Representatives just since 1980. That’s equivalent to losing the entire political clout of a state the size of Oklahoma.

And it goes beyond that. Michigan now will be back to having only one more seat in Congress than a century ago.

That means virtually all the political power the state gained during the automotive century is gone. True, the last few congressional titans of that era are still in Washington — Sander and Carl Levin, John Conyers and, of course, the legendary John Dingell.

But they don’t have the power they once did. They are all Democrats, for one thing, and their party is about to lose control of the House. Even before that, the auto industry lost the power on Capitol Hill it once had, even as late as the 1980s.

Back then, Mr. Dingell ran the House Energy and Commerce Committee with an iron hand and managed to look out for Detroit. But Big John lost his committee chairmanship last year. Starting next month, his party won’t even control the committee.

Instead, Democrats will be facing drama in Lansing.

Next year, the state legislature will have the task of redrawing Michigan’s congressional districts, squeezing 15 old districts into 14 new ones. By law, each must have as close to 707,973 people as possible, based on where people lived on April 1, 2010.

This will mean a deadly game of musical chairs. Starting in January, the state will have nine GOP congressmen in Washington, to only six Democrats. One of those seats will have to disappear.

Zeroing out a Republican seat isn’t going to happen. The GOP will control both houses of the Michigan legislature. They will pass a plan to be signed by a Republican governor.

If the Democrats think their plan is unfair, they can appeal it…to a state Supreme Court that will, once again, have a Republican majority. (Good luck with that.)

Every district will have to be somewhat adjusted. Republicans will try to group as many Democratic voters as possible into as few districts as possible, while strengthening GOP incumbents.

This is a delicate process. If they get too greedy and try to create too many Republican-leaning seats, they risk leaving some of their incumbents potentially vulnerable, or at least putting them in the unwelcome position of having to campaign and spend heavily.

One seat has to go, however. The most likely scenario involves combining the Southeast Michigan suburban districts now held by Democratic incumbents Gary Peters and Sander Levin.

That would force them to run against each other in an August 2012 primary, unless one stepped aside. The legislature might also put two old warhorses, John Dingell and John Conyers, in the same district, though that’s less likely.

This will set up a number of hard choices for Democrats. Ten years ago, the legislature put John Dingell in a district with fellow Democrat Lynn Rivers. He beat her easily in a primary.

But the longest-serving congressman in American history will be 86 before the next election. Might he be tempted to work out a deal to retire and save some younger Democrat’s seat in the process?

Similarly, Sander Levin is a legendary figure in Michigan politics. But he will be 81. Does it make sense for him to stage a primary battle against his colleague Gary Peters, who will be 53?

Might it not also make sense for the older man to choose this occasion to make a graceful exit? Depending on how the redistricting lines are drawn, the same question may be asked of John Conyers and Flint-area Congressman Dale Kildee. Both will be 83.

The census itself may not seem very sexy. But as a catalyst for political melodrama, it’s sure had to beat.

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.

December 23, 2010 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , ,

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