Michigan has had a Black member of Congress since 1955. Will that change in 2023?

By: - January 29, 2022 5:10 am

Monument to Joe Louis, also known as “The Fist” in Detroit | Susan J. Demas graphic

Michigan’s new independent redistricting commission made waves last month by approving a new congressional map for the next 10 years that likely will force some incumbents to run against one another.

This month, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), the only African-American member of Michigan’s congressional delegation, announced she won’t seek reelection this fall. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who is Palestinian American, holds the other Southeast Michigan seat and has said she will run this year.

Now, as several candidates began to offer their names for the two newly reconfigured metro Detroit-area House districts, some Black leaders are concerned about whether any African Americans will represent Michigan in the U.S. House.

The Rev. Charles Williams II, an African American Detroit pastor, wants to see someone who is Black represent the new 12th and 13th districts.

“The districts are presentable for a Black to win,” said Williams.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, May 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Detroit is the largest majority-Black city in the nation. And notably, Michigan has had at least one Black member in its D.C. delegation since 1955 when Democrat Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Detroit was sworn in as a U.S. House member. Detroit Democrat John Conyers joined him in 1965. 

The 12th District includes a portion of Detroit and Oakland County, as well as western Wayne County communities such as Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Livonia, Westland, Garden City and Redford Township. The 13th District includes a portion of Detroit, as well as other Wayne County communities of Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods, the Grosse Pointes, Allen Park, River Rouge, Melvindale and Taylor.

Neither district is majority-Black, even though Detroit has a 79% Black population. 

Keith Williams, Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus chair, said Blacks can best represent their community. He has been vocal about the possibility that the newly-constructed 12th and 13th congressional districts will not have an African American seatholder. 

“We can’t let these folks who can’t win with their selfish ambition get in the way of Black political progress by splitting the Black vote,” said Keith Williams.

Elections in Detroit, from local to federal office, are often marked by multiple candidates running, especially for open seats. This year’s races for the two deep blue Southeast Michigan congressional seats could feature multiple Black candidates, along with others. Williams and other leaders told the Advance they’re concerned this will dilute the vote and result in non-African Americans winning those districts. 

At least one meeting of notable African-American Detroiters has been held and designed to reach consensus on a Black candidate for two districts, according to sources. The candidate filing deadline is April 19 and the statewide primary election is Aug. 3.  

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who is white, also is concerned about African-American political representation.

“The mayor is working very hard to make sure there is no reduction in African-American representation in Congress, in the state Senate, or in the state House, and is in regular meetings with organizations and candidates working to preserve Black representation,” said John Roach, his spokesman, told the Advance last week. 

After new districts were drawn for the 2012 election, Michigan ended up losing a Black member of Congress. Previously, metro Detroit was represented by Conyers, who was Black, and U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Detroit), who is Asian American and Black. 

Conyers won reelection. But with Michigan losing a congressional seat, Clarke was thrown into the 14th District against then-U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), who is white and won the 2012 Democratic primary. 

When Peters declined to run for reelection in 2014 to pursue an open U.S. Senate seat — which he won — Lawrence was elected.

Michigan isn’t alone. With the decennial redistricting process taking place after a years-long Republican effort nationwide that has weakened the Voting Rights Act, people of color throughout the nation are concerned it will hurt Black and Brown representation. 

For the first time, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is in charge of the state’s process, not the Legislature and governor. The 13-member commission consisting of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents in December approved maps for the state House, state Senate and U.S. House. 

Experts have argued the maps violate the Voting Rights Act and don’t have enough majority-minority districts. A group of Democratic state lawmakers have filed a lawsuit arguing that the new maps unconstitutionally disenfranchise Black voters. 

‘He’s brown-skinned, but he’s not Black’

A number of Democratic candidates have already declared for the 13th District seat.

State Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit,) unsuccessfully ran for Michigan governor in 2018, spending $10 million of his personal fortune. But he did secure more votes in Detroit in the Democratic primary than the other two candidates, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed. 

Shri Thanedar | Andrew Roth

Thanedar, who immigrated to the U.S. from his native India, set his sights on the state House during the next election. He moved to the Motor City from Washtenaw County and self-funded his 2020 campaign with about $400,000, while defeating several Black candidates in the Democratic primary. 

He announced in December that he will vie for the newly created 13th District U.S. House seat.

“I will do whatever I can,” Thanedar told the Advance when asked whether he would use his personal fortune to win the election. 

State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), who is Black, last week announced that he will run for the 13th District seat at Plymouth United Church of Church in Detroit. 

“Detroit and Wayne County need a champion in Washington who listens to the needs of our families,” said Hollier. “I’ll fight to secure funding for career readiness, improve our schools, rebuild our roads and bridges, and bring jobs to our communities.”

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Black former state House member from Detroit, also is running for the 13th District, calling it a “legacy seat” that should be held by an African American. State Sen. Betty Alexander (D-Detroit), Harper Woods Mayor Valarie Kindle, Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens, Detroit City Council member James Tate, and former 36th District Court Judge and T.V. personality Greg Mathis have endorsed her.

Gay-Dagnogo said that Thanedar is offering “expensive spending gimmicks and marketing” aimed toward getting Black residents to support him.

“Our citizens are a lot smarter than many of the members of this crowded field are giving credit for, and this seat is not for sale,” she told the Advance last week.

Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo at the bipartisan expungement press conference in Detroit, Sept. 9, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Thanedar told the Advance he believes that Black voters support his candidacy.

“This is a very diverse district,” said Thanedar. “When I talk with voters across the city and throughout this district, I find they’re concerned about paying for groceries and ensuring their kids have access to clean drinking water. When I speak with them, I share my story, one of growing up in extreme poverty, and connect my long career as an entrepreneur to my ability to fight for policies that will lift others out of poverty.”

Williams calls Thanedar a “carpetbagger.” The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, who backed Thanedar for his state House seat in 2020, wants an African American to represent the northwest Detroit congressional district where he resides. He told the Advance that there is a “big difference” in his support of Thanedar for a state House seat and his congressional bid.

“What we have to tell people is not to support Shri Thanedar,” said Sheffield, who is Black. “He’s brown-skinned, but he’s not Black.”  

Donna Givens Davidson, Detroit Eastside Community Network CEO, is optimistic that a field of Black candidates can yield a primary winner who looks like her in the 13th District.

“We have to mobilize Black people to vote. But [candidates] have to be prepared to bring their A-game and have to be able to build coalitions,” the nonprofit leader said.

Lawrence, who has represented a significant portion of the newly created 13th District and has served in Congress for 30 years, said that a successful candidate must be able to raise at least $1 million and understand that dual residency in D.C. and the district is important.

“I will be supporting an African-American candidate that can win. … If we don’t stand up and come together and get behind one candidate, we could lose that seat,” said Lawrence.  

We can't let these folks who can't win with their selfish ambition get in the way of Black political progress by splitting the Black vote.

– Keith Williams, Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus chair

Greg Bowens, a veteran political consultant who is advising former Detroit Police chief Ralph Godbee, a 13th District Democratic candidate who is Black, said that the growing political diversity in southeastern Michigan congressional districts makes it more difficult for Black officials to continue to lead metro Detroit districts.

“Asians should be represented in the [state] Legislature and in Congress,” said Bowens, who worked as a consultant to Lawrence during her first run for the U.S. House in 2014. “They should have the same opportunity. Indian-Americans should have the same opportunity. But that opportunity should not be at the expense of the Black community.”

Godbee announced his candidacy at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit last week.

“Too many people are being left behind from Detroit to Downriver,” said Godbee. “Today, we launch a campaign where everyone matters and we all get a seat at the table.”

Other African-Americans who are considering a run for the 13th District are Michigan Civil Rights Commission Chair and Detroit attorney Portia Roberson, former University of Michigan Board of Regent Shawna Diggs, and Detroit attorney and Teach for America-Detroit official Michael Griffie. 

‘I’m not against Rashida Tlaib, but she’s not Black’

The Democratic primary for the 12th District is less crowded — for now — as a current member of Congress is running there.

Tlaib, a former state House member and daughter of Palestinian immigrants, lives in the 13th District, but plans to move into the 12th to run in 2022. Under law, candidates don’t have to live in the districts they represent, but it’s considered a disadvantage not to.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib attends President Joe Biden’s remarks on his American Jobs Plan and the Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck at the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, where the truck will be produced, on Tuesday, May 18. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

Former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson (D-Detroit), who is Black and previously ran for Congress, has said she will vie for the 12th District seat this year.  

Another declared candidate is former state Rep. Phil Cavanagh, who is white. Other possible candidates include Westland Mayor Bill Wild, who is white and previously ran for Congress; Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, who is Black; state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), who is white; and state Rep. Kyra Bolden (D-Southfield), who is Black.

Michigan lost a congressional seat following this year’s census. Rick Blocker chairs the current 14th Congressional District Democratic Party that represents a portion of Detroit, as well as Grosse Pointes and portions of Oakland County. 

As a Black man, he believes that African Americans should represent Detroit-area districts.

“We need Black representation,” said Blocker, who is working to meet with Detroit-area leaders to identify a consensus Black candidate for the 12th District. “We are an 80% Black city. To not have somebody Black is bad. This is a time when we should be unapologetic. I’m not against Rashida Tlaib, but she’s not Black.”

A member of “The Squad,” Tlaib has supported a progressive agenda, like her predecessor, Conyers, the former dean of Congress and the Congressional Black Caucus. Although he was revered in the Detroit Black community, Conyers resigned from office in 2017 amid a sex harrassment scandal and died in 2019. 

Former U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI), January 29, 2008 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tlaib defeated a field of Black candidates in 2018 to win a two-year term. Former Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who is African American, won an election to complete Conyers’ unexpired term. Tlaib successfully defended her seat against Jones and others in 2020. 

Lawrence, who resides in the new 12th District, has not endorsed Tlaib for the seat. 

Tlaib spokesman Denzel McCampbell pointed out that Tlaib has been supported by Black voters in the past. 

“She doesn’t have the specific lens of a Black American,”  McCampbell said in a statement, “but serves with an open door and open mind, actively seeking input and partnership with Black residents, leaders, organizations and stakeholders.” 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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