Michigan redistricting spat exposes competing interests in Democratic coalition

Michigan’s redistricting commission wrapped up its first-ever effort to redraw political boundaries last month with a series of bipartisan votes adopting district lines that give Democrats their best chance in years to recapture control of the state legislature.

The maps create a competitive battleground for control of a state Senate that has been in Republican hands since 1984, and a state House that Democrats have controlled for only four of the last 23 years. At the congressional level, it gives Democrats the ability to control or compete for seven of 13 U.S. House seats, compared with seven of 14 seats they control now. 

“Under these new congressional and state legislative districts, the Michigan Democratic Party renews its commitment to fighting for equality, fair representation and justice while celebrating Michigan’s diverse population,” state Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said in a statement.

ADVERTISEMENT

But in the midst of cheers coming from state and national Democrats and from the reform groups that led the charge to establish the commission, one group offered a discordant note: This week, a group of Black Democratic state lawmakers from Detroit said they would sue over the new district lines, which they allege disproportionately dilute their power.

“The largest African American majority city in the nation has received the very short end of the stick,” Nabih Ayad, the lead lawyer for the Democratic legislators, said at a press conference this week. “The new redistricting map lines have unfairly discriminated against the city of Detroit, its residents and its elected officials.”

Ayad represents six sitting and two former state legislators from the Detroit area. 

“They are fighting for their own spaces in this democratic system, and it takes leadership like that to say this is not right and this is why we need the court’s intervention to be able to provide some justice,” said Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP. 

The dust-up exposes a historical tension within the Democratic Party that appears regularly during the decennial redistricting process. While Black majority districts virtually always elect Democratic legislators, those districts are frequently drawn in such a way that Democrats are unable to maximize their potential gains in legislative seats. 

Dividing Black majority precincts and communities between different districts might expand the number of Democratic-majority districts, but at the expense of districts where Black voters make up a sufficient population to elect their chosen representatives.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I hope that my colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle are not being blinded by the fact that they have the opportunity to win the [state] House to where they’re going to allow the disenfranchisement of Black people,” state Rep. Tenisha Yancey (D), one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said at the press conference.

District lines drawn by Republican legislators a decade ago established 11 state House districts where Black voters made up a majority of the voting-age population. The new maps drawn by the commission creates only seven, though another six have populations that are more than 40 percent Black. The proposed state Senate map does not include any majority Black districts. 

“With the districts having significant decreases in the amount of Blacks that are of voting age, I do think it would be more difficult for African Americans to keep the same level of representation and or grow their representation,” Landrum told The Hill in an interview.

Former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines State courts become battlegrounds in redistricting fights New Hampshire Republicans advance map with substantially redrawn districts MORE, who now chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, praised the commission’s work.

“The commission process can be messy – it requires scrutiny, public input, accountability from diverse communities seeking equal representation, and well-balanced debate. No one gets everything they want, and everyone has to compromise. But that is how a commission is supposed to work and, in turn, it is a reflection of how American democracy should function,” Holder said in a statement. He called the commission’s work a “success.”

Proponents of the new redistricting commission say the map lines they produced bucked a decades-long trend of behind-the-scenes remapping meant to protect incumbents and shore up the majority party’s grip on power.

“The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has struck a blow to ‘politics as usual’ in the state of Michigan by adopting citizen-drawn maps,” said Nancy Wang, who heads Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the 2018 ballot measure that created the redistricting commission.  

But, she acknowledged, “the process is not over. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Constitution anticipates that there may be important legal questions for a court to decide. If the Michigan Supreme Court decides that there is something fundamentally flawed about the maps, then under the Constitution, the maps will go back to the Commission for further action.”

Republicans have been relatively quiet on the new map lines. The state Republican Party’s communications director said last week the group was “evaluating all options to take steps necessary to defend the voices silenced by the commission.” 

But Republican legislative leaders and party officials, who sued unsuccessfully to overturn the voters’ decision to establish the commission, have not announced any new legal action. 

Dennis Lennox, a Michigan-based Republican strategist, said his party needed to take action in the face of maps that put control of the legislature at risk of a Democratic takeover.  

“Republicans are foolish not to challenge it this cycle, because of course it’s really difficult to challenge the constitutionality of the commission 10 years from now,” Lennox said. “For Republicans, their majority is at stake. Any Republican in Michigan who thinks these maps are good for them is smoking something.”

ADVERTISEMENT

On the congressional level, the new map creates two districts in and around Detroit in which the voting age population is between 44 percent and 45 percent Black, seats currently represented by Reps. Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines House Democrats inquire about possible census undercount in Detroit, other communities Hillicon Valley — YouTube takes some heat MORE (D), who is Black, and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden announces green buildings initiative Tlaib blasts Biden judicial nominee whose firm sued environmental lawyer House Democrats inquire about possible census undercount in Detroit, other communities MORE (D), who is of Palestinian descent.

Detroit has a long history of sending prominent Black politicians to Congress, including John ConyersJohn James ConyersA presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day Michigan redistricting spat exposes competing interests in Democratic coalition Detroit voters back committee to study reparations MORE, the dean of the House before his resignation; Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick; Hansen Clarke; Barbara-Rose Collins; George Crockett; and Charles Diggs, the first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But Lawrence said this week she would retire at the end of this Congress, and Tlaib is planning to run for her seat.  

“When you have Black elected leaders who are doing right in the community when they’re put up against so many stereotypes, it does provide guidance and leadership for young people who are interested in serving their communities,” Landrum said.