Detroit’s population loss may leave Michigan without a black representative in Congress for the first time since 1955, a shift that would punctuate the erosion of African-American power in a region with a history of racial friction.
New boundaries pushed Detroit’s two congressional districts deeper into the suburbs because the city of 713,000 lost one-quarter of its population since 2000. As a result, U.S. representatives John Conyers Jr. and Hansen Clarke may be ousted by white Democratic challengers in districts where blacks are a smaller majority than before.
“It’s a more than 50 percent likelihood it will happen,” said Eric Foster, 40, a political consultant in Troy, Michigan, whose clients are mostly Democrats. He said many black voters who moved from Detroit to suburbs care more about economic issues than about keeping blacks in office.
A city that in 1973 elected Coleman Young as its first black mayor amid simmering anger after a devastating 1967 race riot -- and that has had black mayors ever since -- is losing its place as Michigan’s center of African-American influence, Foster said.
Eighty-three percent of Detroit’s population is black compared with 14 percent of Michigan’s, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. While Detroit’s population dropped, black populations increased in most communities near the city, according to data from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
New districts in other U.S. cities have given black candidates less advantage than in the past 30 years, said Jocelyn Benson, a professor specializing in election law at Wayne State University in Detroit. Court rulings on the federal Voting Rights Act, more black candidates and blacks voting for white candidates have diluted the voting bloc in California, Texas and New York, she said.
Detroit’s redistricting has symbolic importance, she said. Conyers, 83, is a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and his support for civil and voting rights is part of the city’s heritage of empowerment, Benson said. He has served in Congress since 1965.
Rosa Parks, whose refusal to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus made her an icon of the civil-rights movement, moved to Detroit and lived there until her death in 2005. At one time, the former seamstress worked for Conyers’ congressional office.
“It is possible for a white candidate to represent multiracial districts like Detroit’s,” Benson said. “But unquestionably, Detroit occupies a unique position in the civil-rights world and the history of our country.”
Conyers’s 46 years in the House of Representatives are second only to fellow Michigan Democrat John Dingell’s 56 years.
In Conyers’s new 13th district, blacks account for about 56 percent of voting-age residents. They make up 57 percent of Clarke’s 14th district, according to a state legislative analysis. Both are heavily Democratic, so winning the Aug. 7 primary virtually assures a victory in November.
Conyers’s main white primary challenger is state Senator Glenn Anderson, 58, a former autoworker from Westland who says Conyers is complacent and has done little for Detroit’s economy.
“He deserves credit for what he did for civil rights 30 or 40 years ago,” Anderson said in a telephone interview. “That’s not what we’re talking about now.”
He said he’s courting Detroit voters who want a more responsive congressman.
Two black state legislators -- Senator Bert Johnson, 38, of Highland Park and Representative Shanelle Jackson, 31, of Detroit -- may divide Detroit votes with Conyers in the primary.
Conyers said the struggle for voting rights didn’t end 30 years ago, as shown by a federal suit against Florida’s plan to remove noncitizens from voter rolls, and South Carolina’s blocked attempt to require residents to show photo identification to cast a ballot.
Conyers said he must connect with voters in suburbs that are more racially integrated.
“I’m not taking any chances, I’m campaigning with the understanding we have a volatile electorate,” he said in a telephone interview.
Conyers said the White House is hoping he can deliver votes for President Barack Obama in November. His seniority in the House probably would again make Conyers a committee chairman if Democrats regain control.
Conyers’s campaign, however, is bedeviled by his wife, Monica Conyers, 47, who is serving a three-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2009 to accepting bribes in return for her vote for a sludge-hauling contract as a member of the Detroit City Council.
Bonnie Hunt, 61, a white Westland voter interviewed last week at her garage sale, said she knew little of Anderson though would vote for him because of Monica Conyers. The congressman was not implicated in the crime and has refused to discuss it.
Elaine Harris, 55, a black Westland voter, said Conyers’s reputation was hurt, adding, “You can’t have total denial of what your wife is doing.”
Harris, a retired state employee, said it’s important Detroit is represented by fair and honest politicians, regardless of race.
Susan Rock, 57, a white lawyer from Redford Township, said she’ll vote for Conyers because of his record, and said, “he’s interested in the little guy, the working person.”
The other incumbent, Clarke, is a House freshman who’s part black and part Indian, a lawyer and artist who says he’s an antidote to self-serving politicians. The redrawn district where he’s running was chosen as one of five ugliest in the U.S. by Roll Call because of its geographic contortions across two counties. Republican legislators drew it to seek out a majority of black voters, and to require U.S. Representative Gary Peters to either quit or run against a fellow Democrat.
Clarke faces four Democratic challengers, including Peters, who is white. Peters had more than twice as much campaign cash on hand -- $1.2 million -- than did Clarke at the end of March, according to Federal Election Commission records. Peters’s suburban district was carved up and scattered among four new ones as Michigan, the only state to lose population from 2000-2010, had to give up one congressional seat.
Clarke, 55, said in a telephone interview that he was helped by food stamps as a child and young adult, and wants to lessen student-loan debt and boost employment in Detroit, where he said his personal experiences makes him a better choice.
“I can go to Detroit and say, ’You have to take responsibility for yourselves. You can’t blame somebody,’” he said. “I can say that because I’m from the neighborhood.”
Two other black candidates are Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence and former state representative Mary Waters, who in 2010 was sentenced to a year of probation in federal court for her role in a Southfield bribery scheme.
Peters, a former financial adviser and state senator, is from Bloomfield Township. He’s racked up endorsements from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, the Michigan AFL-CIO and a raft of ministers.
Peters said he has a record advocating for middle-class families and helping the Detroit-based auto industry. Among the cities Peters represents is Pontiac, which is 52 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.
“All that matters to people is they have the most effective representative for them in Washington,” Peters said in a telephone interview. “That’s what this campaign is about.”
Losing Detroit’s two congressional seats to white candidates would be devastating, said Irma Clark-Coleman, 75, who is black and represents part of Detroit on the Wayne County Commission.
“It means we would have no one there in Washington speaking for issues that black people face on health care, voting rights, jobs, the economy,” Clark-Coleman said.