Detroit districts to reach into suburbs for blacks

AP News
Posted: Mar 23, 2011 8:51 PM
Detroit districts to reach into suburbs for blacks

Mostly black Detroit, facing diminished congressional clout after losing a quarter of its population over the past decade, likely will have to reach farther into its mostly white suburbs to keep black majorities in its two congressional districts.

It won't be the first time the Motor City, which boasted three congressional districts as recently as the 1980s, has lost power in the nation's capital. But the auto industry's steady decline fueled a resulting population loss that's caused the city first to lose one congressional seat, then further reduce Detroit's dominance of its remaining two districts.

Those drawing up new congressional lines also have to deal with fewer congressional seats, since Michigan will have just 14 in the U.S. House following the next election after losing a seat to fast-growing states such as Texas and Florida. Although most Detroiters vote Democratic, the process likely will be entirely controlled by Republicans who hold the governorship and majorities in the Michigan House and Senate and on the Michigan Supreme Court.

The two candidates elected to redrawn seats in 2012 won't just represent Detroit, but likely areas north of Eight Mile Road, the tension-laden thoroughfare separating Detroit from its suburbs in adjoining _ and largely white _ Oakland and Macomb counties.

That could mean more cooperation on issues that traditionally have driven Detroit and suburban residents apart, such water rate disputes between suburbanites and the Detroit-controlled utility that sells them their water.

Rapper Eminem featured the gritty boulevard in his 2002 semi-autobiographical film, "8 Mile," and during the past 50 years Eight Mile Road has evolved into a symbol separating the city and its suburbs, black culture from white as Detroit has experienced white flight and a change to black leadership, starting with Democratic Mayor Coleman Young in 1974 and including the scandal-tainted administration of Kwame Kilpatrick, now imprisoned and awaiting trial on federal corruption charges.

Nearly four decades after the 1967 riots that hastened white flight, four of every five Detroit residents are black. So are the city's two congressmen, 81-year-old veteran John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and 54-year-old newcomer Hansen Clarke, who beat incumbent Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in last year's Democratic primary.

Because of federal laws that forbid drawing congressional lines to dilute minority voting strength, the 2000 redistricting gave Detroit's two congressional districts a voting base that was 60 percent black, according to redistricting expert Ed Sarpolus of Target Insyght in Lansing. That was true even though the districts increasingly stretched into largely white suburbs such as Grosse Pointe and Wyandotte in Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit.

Even if the Detroit congressional districts reach into the northern suburbs, the percentage of black voters likely will remain about the same, Sarpolus said. To get there, the districts will have to go in search of about 300,000 more minority voters, since only about 590,000 of Detroit's nearly 715,000 voters are black.

Each of the two districts will have to have about 450,000 black voters among the 705,000 total to hit the 60 percent goal, Sarpolus said.

Denise DeCook of Marketing Resource Group in Lansing, who has helped Republicans with past redistricting efforts, said experts drawing new lines likely will have to look to the majority black Oakland County communities of Oak Park and Southfield to find enough minority voters, rather than just sticking to Wayne County communities as they have in the past. Wayne County lost nearly 12 percent of its population over the past decade, so all its districts are going to have to be substantially changed.

Southfield has long been a destination for middle-class blacks eager to move to a suburban community with better schools, but the city also is struggling to adjust to an influx of black Detroiters who have bought homes made more affordable by the housing crash, bringing an urban culture to the city of just over 75,000.

Those voters may feel comfortable with congressmen from Detroit, such as Clarke and Conyers. But others, including blacks, may pine for representatives whose districts comprised of suburbs rather than Detroit.

Michigan's redistricting guidelines require that county, city and township lines be respected, where possible. But the chase for minority voters could force some changes.

"To create the two districts, you're going to have to draw some strange lines," Sarpolus said.

That means whatever territory the Detroit districts grab could affect seats held by Democrat Gary Peters of Oakland County's Bloomfield Township or Republican Thaddeus McCotter of Livonia, or even seats held by other congressional members if they're pitted against each other to make up for the lost district.

"A lot of the minorities are leaving the urban centers and moving to the suburban ring, and Michigan is no exception in that regard," DeCook said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know Detroit is going to have to go into the suburbs" to keep its minority districts.