Hansen Clarke is, you might say, an American original. His father came from what’s now Bangladesh. His mother was a black school crossing guard in Detroit. He thinks of himself as a painter, became a lawyer, and is now a congressman.
Gary Peters is also a congressman and, like Clarke, a Democrat. Though at 53, he’s less than two years younger than his colleague, his background is considerably different. He’s a white Episcopalian with an MBA who now lives in Bloomfield Hills.
Both are non-practicing lawyers who served in the state Senate and lost a race or two along the way. They’re conscientious, hard-working, and married. Both are also trying to destroy each other’s career. Nothing personal, they’ll tell you. It’s the Republicans’ fault.Welcome to the wacky world of redistricting, where one district — the 14th — has been so grotesquely drawn it makes a gerrymander look like a house cat. That’s the district where Peters and Clarke are contending. If you think that’s strange, consider this: There’s one vote that neither man has any chance of winning: His own. Neither lives in this district. For that matter, longtime Congressman John Conyers doesn’t live in the district where he’s seeking re-election, either. That may be odd, but it’s not illegal.
Here’s how this craziness came to be:
Because of population shifts across the nation, Michigan once again is losing a seat in Congress — the fifth one lost since the 1970s, which is the equivalent of losing the clout of Connecticut.
Republicans currently control Lansing — both houses of the Legislature and the governorship.
Consequently, when U.S. Census results were official, they had a free hand to draw new districts. They were determined that the seat they eliminated would be Democratic, just as “Democrats would have done [had] they been in power. They just always seem to be out of luck when redistricting comes,” says Lansing pundit Bill Ballenger, publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.
What Republicans set out to do was draw nine districts that were safe for whichever GOP candidates were nominated, crowding Democrats into a mere five districts they were nearly certain to win.
That explains Michigan’s new 14th District. It looks like a misshapen dragon that meanders across two counties and encompasses an assortment of disparate communities: newer subdivisions in Farmington Hills and Hispanic immigrant neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit, for instance.
Do mostly black and Jewish Oak Park and Southfield have the same interests as the Grosse Pointes? How about Hamtramck and Sylvan Lake? Detroit’s battered east side and Orchard Lake? All have been thrown in to the same congressional district with a big chunk of northwest Detroit added in.
There was something else legislators needed to do. Thanks to court interpretations of the federal Voting Rights Act, it’s believed that they were obligated to create two districts with an African-American majority population. That’s harder than it once was, as the black population has become more geographically diverse.
Nevertheless, they succeeded. Michigan’s new 14th District is about 55 percent black, or was in the April 2010 census. Its companion 13th District is about 57 percent African-American.
The 13th isn’t as oddly configured as the 14th, but its shape still somewhat resembles a misshapen backward boomerang. Slightly more than half its population comes from Detroit, scooped out from the western boundaries toward the center. It then takes in a sprawling array of mostly blue-collar Wayne County suburbs, from River Rouge and Ecorse to Dearborn Heights, Garden City, Wayne, Romulus, and Westland — with Highland Park, Inkster and Redford Township thrown in for good measure.
Neither the 13th nor the 14th is a place where anyone thinks a Republican would have any chance of winning, just as Democrats have little likelihood of success in the districts that include Grand Rapids or Holland.
The next congressmen in all of these places will effectively be chosen in the Aug. 7, 2012, statewide primary.
The 13th and 14th districts theoretically should elect black congressmen. Michigan has had two African-Americans in Congress since Conyers was first elected in 1964, joining the late Charles Diggs, who became Michigan’s first black congressman almost a decade earlier. Diggs resigned in 1980 after being convicted of mail fraud, and was followed by a succession of African-Americans. Clarke, the latest, is a freshman who beat Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick in the 2010 Democratic primary.
Yet it’s entirely possible that when the new Congress convenes in January 2013, Michigan may not have a single black member. That’s because Peters could beat Clarke in the primary. Historically, white voters have been more likely to turn out, especially in primaries.
Conyers is being challenged in the Democratic primary in his new 13th District by two other black legislators and one white. If the black vote splits three ways, Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland could become the nominee.
A closer look at the contests, which will continue to take shape until May:
THE 13TH DISTRICT
John Conyers doesn’t live here and doesn’t say if he plans to move. But a big chunk of his voters ended up in this district when lines were redrawn.
Technically, Conyers now lives in the 14th District. But the man who once called himself “the Congressman from the Planet Earth” had to know he might have a hard time winning over West Bloomfield Township and Farmington Hills voters.In fact, there’s a real question as to whether he can win renomination at all. Recent years have been hard for Conyers, who will be 83 in May. He lost the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee after Republicans won control of the House in 2010.
His wife, Monica, a former Detroit Council member, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and is in federal prison in West Virginia.
Although nobody will say it openly, many whisper that Conyers may be past his prime. At a conference this summer to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary at the Arab-American National Museum in Dearborn, Conyers showed up and urged panelists to appreciate John Coltrane and Miles Davis. He then suggested they take a bus and come celebrate the anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Two black legislators who do live in the district say that, while they have great respect for Conyers, his time has passed.
State Sen. Bert Johnson, who lives in Highland Park, has a fairly unusual background for a politician. Now 38, he’s a family man who has won respect in both the state House and Senate. But when he was 20, he was doing time for armed robbery. “I don’t try to hide my past,” he says. “I was stupid and I was a follower.” Johnson says he read a lot in prison and turned his life around. He worked for a legislator and found politics was his calling.
He plans to tell voters that, although Conyers may be a national spokesman for black issues, they need a congressman focused on local needs.
“This is one of the poorest districts in the nation,” Johnson says. “They need someone who can fight to prevent mortgage foreclosures and work out ways to help the district.”
State Rep. Shanelle Jackson says she can do the same thing. “I’ve been an extremely effective legislator at a young age,” she says. She also needs a new job. At 31, she’s finishing her third two-year term in the Legislature — the maximum allowed under term limits.
She thinks being the only woman in the race may be a plus. State Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland may have something else going for him. He’s the only suburban white candidate in a district that’s nearly half suburban and almost half white. Anderson, who turns 58 this month, says this isn’t about race, but rather “about effectiveness, and my No. 1 issue, the environment.” He worked on the line (Ford) for nearly 30 years, eventually getting elected to his local city council and moving on to the Legislature. “I’m more of a workhorse than a show horse,” he says.
If his candidacy gets solid support outside Detroit, he could win.
THE 14TH DISTRICT
Hansen Clarke and Gary Peters are political orphans. Technically, each is “running away from home,” thanks to redistricting. Peters was put in the same district as U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin, a fixture in state politics since running for governor in 1970.
Take him on in a primary? Not appealing.
Equally unappealing for Clarke was the prospect of staying in the crowded pool of the 13th District.
Peters thinks he has an edge in the 14th. In the ’90s, he represented part of the Oakland County portion of the newly drawn area. He touts his efforts to help save the auto companies, and his financial expertise (he had a long career with Merrill Lynch and PaineWebber). But he’s not a charismatic speaker. Some Democrats still blame him for running a terrible campaign and losing a race for attorney general in 2002.
Conversely, Clarke comes across as engaging, cheerful, and mercurial — a man who says, “the old politics are dead and we need entirely new solutions.” One big idea: persuading the federal government to put any tax money collected from Detroit in a special fund that would be used to rebuild the city.”
Peters snorts at that, and while it may have no chance of passage, the idea may appeal to voters. Clarke likes to note he managed to go around the leadership and persuade a bipartisan coalition to restore Homeland Security funding for Detroit.
If Peters has a fundraising edge, the Clarke family may have ethnic diversity cornered. The congressman’s wife, Choi Palms-Cohen Clarke, was a Korean orphan who was adopted by a Jewish father, a Roman Catholic mother, and later became a jazz singer.
The couple tied the knot (both for the first time) after one date. Today, she has thrown herself into her husband’s campaign. (Peters’ wife, Colleen Ochoa, and their three children have long been active in his campaigns.) However these races turn out, they will be interesting. The tragedy: in the 14th District, especially, a fairly young career will be cut short.
Meanwhile, the Detroit-area delegation includes two other Democrats, John Dingell and Sander Levin, both well into their 80s and expected to face no significant opposition.
Regardless of boundary lines, sooner or later, there will be generational change.