Detroit's 14th district will send a Democrat to Congress

This race is more important than average

Jul 1, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Half of Detroit is certain to have a new congressman next year, one who will represent Hamtramck, West Bloomfield, Grosse Pointe Farms, Keego Harbor, and Pontiac.

Not to mention a whole string of other communities. What do these places have in common? Ah, well — nothing.

Nothing, except they collectively have a lot of Democrats, and the legislature cobbled this bizarrely shaped district together as part of its gerrymandering scheme.

What the controlling Republicans wanted to do was create as many GOP and as few Democratic districts as possible, and since they have total political control, they succeeded.

Two years ago, more votes were cast statewide for Democratic candidates for Congress than for Republicans, but thanks to how the districts were drawn, that meant we got nine Republicans and five Democrats. (Naturally, had they been in power, the Dems would’ve tried to do the same.)

But whatever else happens, it’s absolutely certain that the bent coat hanger-shaped 14th district will send a Democrat to Congress next January, even though Republicans, presumably to be cute, have nominated Christine Conyers, niece of you-know-who.

We also know that the next congressperson, unlike the current one, will be black, since all the candidates are.

And what’s clear is that for the voters, whoever wins will be their third congressman in three terms. For the last two years, these folks have been represented by Gary Peters, who beat another congressman, Hansen Clarke, in a primary.

Michigan lost a seat in Congress after the last sentence, meaning the two men were forced to fight like gladiators for one seat. Peters outspent and out-organized Clarke, and beat him, 47 percent to 35. Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, who seems to enter every race there is, finished a weak third.

Now, however, Peters is running for the U.S. Senate, and the race is wide open. What’s unusual is that there are three major candidates, and, as one State Rep. Rudy Hobbs says, “there are no issues we absolutely disagree on.”

Nor do the candidates appear to dislike each other. Brenda Lawrence’s granddaughter and Hobbs’ daughter are longtime friends. Virtually everyone seems to like the charismatic Hansen Clarke, even those who think he sometimes hovers in outer space.

There’s also a fourth candidate, Burgess “Dwight” Foster, who has an entertaining website but is a complete unknown. 

This race is more important than average, given Detroit’s needs, and the state’s struggle to regain its economic footing.

Whoever does win the Aug. 5 primary is likely to hold this seat until at least 2021, and possibly for long after that. Handicapping the contenders:

Hansen Clarke has probably the best-known name district-wide. Now 57, he spent years in the legislature, then defeated Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, aka “Kwame’s Mommy,” in the Democratic primary in 2010. Of all the candidates, he’s the one you would probably most like to talk with over dinner.

Two years ago, he solidly beat Gary Peters by more than a 3-2 margin in the Wayne County half of the district. But Peters annihilated him 4 to 1 in Oakland County. 

After that, Clarke disappeared from public view, resurfacing at the last minute this time just before the filing deadline. 

“I wasn’t going to do it,” he told me. “But people came to me in my neighborhood, at my church. They said, ‘Hansen, you have to run.’”

Now he says he’s fully committed to the race, appearing enthusiastically at forums. If he wins, he says he’s learned lessons that will make him a better congressman; he intends to spend more time with constituents and on regulatory reform. 

Clarke has raised essentially no money, but he could still win if the other two major candidates divide the Oakland County vote.

State Rep. Rudy Hobbs is only 39, and thinks that’s an advantage; it gives him time to potentially accumulate seniority and power. He is enormously respected in government circles. If races were decided by endorsements, he’d win by a landslide.

After a brief stint as a first-grade teacher, Hobbs started in politics by working for Congressman Sandy Levin, went on to be a policy analyst for the state, and finally got elected to the legislature, where he almost became minority leader this year.

He’s smart, funny, and down-to-earth. Everyone from the unions to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin wants him to win. His problem is that outside his little state house district, few know his name.

Brenda Lawrence, 59, was elected mayor of Southfield in 2001, soon after African-Americans became a majority of the population. Residents love her; they agree she’s done a good job keeping city services up in a tough economic climate. As a result, she has never had any trouble winning re-election, even though she seems eager to get the hell out of her current job. In recent years, she has run (unsuccessfully) for Oakland County executive, lieutenant governor, and Congress.

Warmly personable, she notes that, as a mayor, she has been forced to work across partisan lines, something sadly lacking in Washington. “To me,” she says, “public service is one of the most honorable positions you can have in America.”

Amen to that. Some think that being the only woman in the race gives Lawrence an edge. Others think she and Hobbs will divide the suburban vote and give Clarke the nomination.

Rudy Hobbs, on the other hand, has surprised people before. Primaries are notoriously hard to predict, but this much is clear: Voters better elect an effective advocate for Detroit.

With Carl Levin and John Dingell retiring, the entire area will need a strong voice in Washington more than ever.  

Never forget:  I was happy last week when we finally left the Victorian Era, and Gov. Rick Snyder signed two new bills permitting women to (gasp!) breast-feed in public places.

Snyder, being the calculating politician he is, couldn’t possibly have said something along the lines like “breast-feeding is beautiful and natural.” Instead, he partly justified it on the grounds that breast-feeding would help prevent obesity.

Meanwhile, it seems more and more likely that same-sex marriage will be fully legal before long. We are seeing real progress in human and civil rights.

Yet we shouldn’t forget that exactly half a century ago, more than a thousand college students headed south to Mississippi for what came to be called Freedom Summer.

Mississippi was a terrorist state back then, where African-Americans were legally treated as subhuman. They could lose their jobs, be evicted, lynched, even, just for trying to register to vote. The students went down to try to encourage them to do just that. They were taking their lives into their own hands.

Three of them paid with their lives. Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney were arrested by local police and turned over to the Ku Klux Klan, who murdered all three after first torturing Chaney, who was black.

They buried them in an earthen dam. The 44-day search for the three missing men mesmerized the nation and the world. Their deaths focused attention on the hellish world of Mississippi, and things changed fairly quickly.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed even before their bodies were found six weeks later. The Voting Rights Act followed the next year, after Detroit housewife and activist Viola Liuzzo had paid with her life. The world changed for the better.

Changed in part because Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney, and Liuzzo gave their lives. And because of a few surviving Michigan heroes who took the risks and went down to Mississippi too, such as attorney Dean Robb and, especially, retired Wayne County Judge Claudia Morcom.

They deserve to be remembered. 

And we owe it to ourselves not to forget.