Mich. GOP gerrymander sets stage for Dems’ drama


DETROIT — There are a few things we know for sure about Michigan’s 14th U.S. House District, one of the most bizarrely shaped in the country:

Next year, it will replace its current white congressman with an African-American one. Whoever wins will be a Democrat. And the victor is almost certain to be a respected officeholder with considerable political experience.

Those are safe bets, because no white candidates are running this year. And no Republican candidate has managed to get even 20 percent of the vote since this district was created.

But its next congressman is likely to be either Hansen Clarke, who represented some of the district’s voters for a single term in Congress; Rudy Hobbs, a state representative who has just about every major endorsement; or longtime Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, the only woman in the race.

This is a tough race to predict, because it would be hard to find any district more outrageously gerrymandered than Michigan’s 14th.

Three years ago, Michigan’s heavily Republican Legislature created it to fulfill two major redistricting goals: to pack as many Democrats into as few House districts as possible, and to have two districts with black majorities to comply with the party’s interpretation of what the federal Voting Rights Act requires.

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

The 14th begins with the affluent Grosse Pointes, then takes in heavily Hispanic southwest Detroit, the enclave of Hamtramck, and some of Detroit’s poorest slums. It continues on through mostly black, solidly middle-class Southfield.

From there it zigs west to the white suburb of Farmington Hills, then zags north through heavily Jewish West Bloomfield, before it ends in impoverished Pontiac, which is emerging from years of state control.

Though nearly three-fifths of the district’s voters are black, voters two years ago elected a white congressman, Gary Peters. Michigan lost a seat in Congress after the 2010 census, so Mr. Peters and Mr. Clarke ended up running against each other.

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

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

This year, Mr. Peters decided to run for the seat left open by the retirement of longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin. Mr. Hobbs, now finishing his second term in the Legislature, jumped into the House race.

At age 39, Mr. Hobbs is young enough to be the son of either of the other major candidates. After briefly teaching first grade, he left to work as a volunteer for U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.) Soon, he was Mr. Levin’s district director. He was a senior policy adviser to then-Lt. Gov. John Cherry before he won a seat in the Legislature in 2010.

If he is elected to Congress, Mr. Hobbs said he wouldn’t ask to sit on glamorous committees such as appropriations and intelligence. He would opt for the financial services and transportation committees. “I want to help our people, this area,” he said.

Ms. Lawrence, like Mr. Hobbs, grew up on the now crime-ridden east side of Detroit and married young. The first black mayor of Southfield, Ms. Lawrence, 59, has won good marks for keeping services at a high level despite the 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. 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.

Mr. Clarke, 57, is one of the more mercurial figures in Michigan politics. He is 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 made a last-minute decision to run this year. If he wins, he says he will be more accessible to constituents than he was previously.

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

Remarkably, the three major candidates say they like one another. Mr. Hobbs said: “There are no issues we absolutely disagree on.”

The race is likely to come down to who shows up to vote, and who voters think would be most effective. Given Detroit’s needs, that may be the most important issue of all.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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