Will Michigan lose Black influence in Congress?

John Conyers__The story that is yet to be told in the midst of what is quickly becoming a congressional rat race is the fact for the first time in decades Michigan and Detroit could lose African American influence in Congress, largely due to the Republican leadership in the state that drew the congressional district lines in a way that pitted Democratic lawmakers against each other. By doing so, Detroit  and the Downriver communities that have always enjoyed African American representation in Congress for both the 14th and 13th Congressional Districts now stand to lose both. 

And the Democratic leadership  in the state doesn’t seem to realize the importance of at least working to ensure that one of the districts is represented by an African American. At a time when we talk so much about diversity in politics, business and other spheres of life, what would it look like if we wake up the day after the November election and find out that Michigan has no African Americans in Congress? What message does that send to the Democratic Party that claims to be the party of the big tent? It’s easy to blame it all on Republicans for snaking the two congressional districts in a way that leaves Democratic lawmakers in those districts with no option. But in reality, they do have an option. 

They could have a meeting of the minds and strike a delicate compromise to ensure that one of the districts remains in the African American column. Politics is much about compromise.  What is really interesting after the Republican damage caused to both districts is watching Democrats themselves duke it out with each other. Yet none has publicly and in a very forthright way raised  the concern about losing African American representation in Congress. This is not about playing the race card. This is very much about civil rights and minority representation in Congress, both of which should be sacredly guarded in our democratic dispensation. 

Putting raw ambition and politics aside, the Michigan Democratic Party — always found wanting for being so lackluster — should be convening a meeting with all the Democratic candidates that have declared running  for Congress in both districts to sort this mess out. While those candidates reserve the right and the democratic free will to challenge each other, it is in the party’s best interest to ensure that minority representation becomes a reality in Congress for Michigan. 

In the 14th Congressional District, which encompasses Bloomfield Hills, Orchard Lake, Pontiac, Southfield, Detroit and other areas, has incumbent Congressmen Gary Peters, Hansen Clarke, Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence and former Democratic Floor Leader in Lansing Mary Waters running against each other. 

While it’s healthy to see this kind of energized race with each of the candidates making their best pitch as to which among them is best qualified to represent the newly redrawn districts, only one will get to represent Detroit and the surrounding suburban cities in Congress. 

Could it be Gary Peters who defeated the once almighty Joe Knollenberg and has been a consumer advocate? He seems to have garnered nearly all of labor’s support and other strong backers in Southeast Michigan with his fundraising prowess.

Is it Mayor Lawrence who’s been serving as mayor of Southfield for more than a decade in what her supporters attribute to a “strong crossover appeal,” running a city that is racially diverse? Additionally she was the lieutenant governatorial candidate for the Democrats in the last election. 

Is it  Congressman Clarke whose recent elevation to Congress has excited some because of his humble beginnings and dogged persistence to challenge the status quo? His supporters say he has much promise in politics. 

Or is it Mary Waters, a former Democratic leader in the House in Lansing?  Her supporters praise her legislative ability, community mindedness and ability to speak out  despite her recently ended  legal troubles in a federal corruption case at Detroit City Hall?   

In the 13th Congressional District, which stretches from Detroit south to Ecorse and west to Westland, Wayne and Romulus, will incumbent Congressman John Con-yers, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the first major lawmaker in the nation to throw his weight behind then Sen. Barack Obama for president win?  He is facing State Sen. Bert Johnson, State Sen. Glenn Anderson, State Rep. Shanelle Jackson and attorney Godfrey J. Dillard. 

The race in the  13th  District ought to be the most watched congressional race in the state in August  because of the attraction of challenging one of the most influential and longstanding members of Congress.

While the race remains unpredictable, Con-yers’ challengers each bring their own merit to the campaign. 

Sen. Johnson  has been vocal on issues, giving Highland Park and other areas he represented a strong voice. While his critics have indicated that his attempt to go to Washington could spell  trouble for national Democrats because Republicans could use his past armed robbery and time in prison during his youth to smear Democratic campaigns across the country, Johnson’s supporters disagree. They insist he should not be viewed through his past, but rather through his present transformation. Like all others who have dramatically changed their lives, Johnson also deserves a second chance. Whether that chance means going to Washington remains to be seen. 

Rep. Jackson has been a rising star in  Democratic politics since going to Lansing. Her peers see her as an example of the emerging leaders in the state, speaking to issues concerning Detroit and pushing for legislations of various kinds. It is unclear if all of that translates to defeating Conyers. 

Attorney Dillard, who has  been a diplomat for the U.S. State Department with national credentials  including being a lead attorney before the U.S. Supreme Court in the University of Michigan Affirmative Action case, is a respected lawyer. The million dollar question is whether he can unseat Conyers. 

  Sen. Anderson, is also a Democrat from Westland and the only White candidate in the race who is said to be raising thousands of dollars and could prove to be the most formidable in the 14th District race. His campaign seems well organized with a presidential type Web page where he is talking foreign policy, national security, urban
policy, etc.   

Congressman Con-yers has an extensive list of credentials. He has been one of the most powerful and independent voices in Congress. Perhaps the only congressman to have the guts to criticize President Obama on some of his policies, resulting in the president calling him, asking the veteran lawmaker why he was being so hard on him on certain issues. 

His supporters say Conyers earned his right to challenge the president because he came out in support of Obama and campaigned for him to become president long before anyone would conceive the nation’s first African American president. And recently President Obama  issued a statement endorsing Conyers’ reelection. The congressman remained unscathed by the indictment and eventually jailing of his wife, Monica Conyers, former Detroit City Council president in the federal public corruption case that engulfed city hall. 

If for instance Peters wins in the 14th District, and Anderson defeats Conyers in the 13th District, that would mark the end of African Americans in Congress from Michigan. 

Who’s to blame, Republicans or Democrats?  

Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of a six-part series on the Obama presidency, including “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published last year. His latest book is “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue written by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. His upcoming books in 2012 are “Obama and Jewish Loyalty” and “Obama and Business Loyalty.” Listen to him every Thursday, 11:30 a.m., on WDET 101.9 FM Detroit and every Sunday, 9 to 10 p.m. on the Obama Watch program on WLIB 1190 AM-New York.  E-mail bthompson@michchronicle.com.

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