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Jack Lessenberry

The law of the jungle

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Lessenberry

The Blade
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ROYAL OAK, MI – Though nobody likes to say so, some Michigan congressional and legislative districts suffer from a lack of political talent. But in others, there’s an embarrassment of riches — and sometimes, that can lead to a different kind of dilemma.

The question: What do you do when you have a host of superbly qualified candidates — in a place where only one party can ever win?

One possible solution: turning to a so-called “jungle” or “top-two” primary, where the top two vote-getters in August square off against each other in November — regardless of party.

That’s what happens in Louisiana, where general elections in recent years have sometimes featured two Republicans. California, after years of fighting in the courts, now has a similar system.

Republicans have become so weak in the nation’s largest state that two years ago, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris defeated another Democrat, Loretta Sanchez, in November. Both got more votes in that state’s June primary than any Republican.

But Michigan has no jungle primary, or even a law permitting runoff elections if nobody gets a majority of the vote.

What it does have is extreme gerrymandering, where nearly all districts are safe, or nearly safe, for one party or another.

What this means is that most congressional and legislative elections are always decided in the August primary, where voter turnout is often less than 20 percent.

And in cases where there are multiple candidates, no runoffs means someone can win what may turn out to be a lifetime seat in Congress, say, with a mere few thousand votes.

This year, that’s especially likely.

Take the 13th Congressional District, for example, which has had no incumbent since John Conyers, first elected in 1964, resigned in December after a host of sexual harassment allegations.

The district is overwhelmingly Democratic — and open congressional seats have been so rare in Detroit that a flood of candidates are expected to be on the Aug. 7 primary ballot.

They include the departed congressman’s son, John Conyers III, and his grandnephew, Ian Conyers. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones is running, as is State Sen. Coleman Young II, who badly lost last November’s race for Mayor of Detroit.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo is in the race as well, as is former State Rep. Rashida Tlaib. More candidates may also get in the race before the April 24 filing deadline. The congressional district has a majority African-American population.

It was designed, in fact, to elect a black member of Congress. But it is entirely possible that a crowded primary, a candidate like Ms. Tlaib, a Muslim of Arab descent, could finish first.

Suppose that were to happen, and the Council President Jones finished a close second. She might well win a runoff — except there wouldn’t be one. There have been a number of where a runoff clearly may have produced a different, perhaps more representative winner than the one that squeaked through in a multi-candidate race.

Consider, for example, a tightly contested state senate primary race in 2014, in a heavily Democratic district. Vincent Gregory squeaked out a primary election victory with 34.6 percent to 34.3 percent for Vicki Barnett and 31 percent for Ellen Cogen Lipton.

Almost certainly, either woman would have beaten Mr. Gregory handily if there had been a runoff. This year, Ms. Lipton is trying again, this time in a primary race for Congress.

This is in Michigan’s Ninth Congressional District, where former House Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D., Royal Oak) is retiring after 36 years in Congress. That set the stage for what you might call this year’s “embarrassment of riches” Democratic primary, one that features three superbly qualified candidates:

Ms. Lipton, 50, a scientist and a patent attorney who went to Harvard Law School. In the legislature, she was especially known for diligent work exposing the failure of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority, or EAA.

State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren, 57, is also an attorney who has an uncommon ability to work with Republicans in the legislature; one of his main achievements was finally getting the state to pay compensation to innocent people who can prove they were wrongly convicted and imprisoned, sometimes for years.

Andy Levin, 57, the third candidate, is the incumbent’s son. Another lawyer, unlike the others he has never been elected to any office, though he did run unsuccessfully for a state senate seat once.

But he does have considerable government experience. He’s managed worker training for the state, has run the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, and now runs Levin Energy Partners, which looks for public-private partnerships to create cleaner and more environmentally effective energy solutions.

Mr. Levin has the advantage of his father’s name. Mr. Bieda is from Macomb County, where two-thirds of the voters live, and Ms. Lipton, recruited by Emily’s List, is the only woman in the race.

A November runoff between the top two might be wonderful for the voters’ sake. But instead, whoever squeezes out a win will face a hapless Republican who, thanks to gerrymandering, is unlikely to get much more than a third of the vote in that district.

So far, no one has shown any interest in trying to amend the Michigan Constitution to allow a jungle primary.

But if this year produces enough unrepresentative winners, and the Voters Not Politicians anti-gerrymandering amendment doesn’t become law, the “law of the jungle” may suddenly look more attractive.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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