Why Michigan needs the 'law of the jungle'

Feb 21, 2018 at 1:00 am
Michigan House of Representatives chambers.
Michigan House of Representatives chambers. Shutterstock

Want to serve in Congress?

Want a chance to snag a seat — even though you don't have much in the way of cash or connections?

Don't despair! Now's your chance, and you may never have a better one. Back In December, John Conyers, who had served in the House of Representatives for more than half a century, was finally forced out after allegations of a long history of harassment.

With that, everyone decided to or is exploring the option to run for his seat: Brenda Jones, the city council president. State Senator Ian Conyers, the congressman's great-nephew. John Conyers III, the old man's son, notable for having the qualifications of a dragonfly. State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo. State Sen. Coleman Young II, fresh from his humiliating defeat in the race for Mayor of Detroit. Former State Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

That's six, and there are bound to be a few no-names and maybe a couple others who climb aboard before the April 24 filing deadline. All these are Democrats, by the way.

Someone will put a Republican name on the ballot, but thanks to extreme gerrymandering, even if it's Abraham Lincoln with the papers to prove it, the GOP can never win here.

No, the Aug. 7 Democratic primary is the only election that counts. With that many candidates, it won't take a lot of votes to win, and turnout in Michigan's August primary elections is always dismal; usually not much more than one-fifth of the registered voters.

Four years ago, 48,701 were cast in the Democratic primary here; with this many well-known candidates, you possibly could win the primary — and a seat on Congress — with as few as 10,000 votes.

That's nice work if you can get it, most of it indoors. This is a narrowly black majority district, and was designed to elect an African-American congressman. But it is entirely conceivable that the vote could be so split that someone who wasn't typical of the district, or acceptable to most voters, could slip into first place.

Normally, there then would be a runoff, especially if nobody has anywhere near to a majority. But not in Michigan. Once you are in Congress, by the way, you suddenly have vast new advantages as an incumbent, and congressmen in Michigan tend to stay... and stay.

Conyers, for example, was there almost 53 years, despite showing clear signs of something that looked like dementia for the past couple decades. John Dingell served for 59 years.

Whoever wins this seat in November could be there till 2070. People deserve something better than a representative who may be the choice of no more than a tiny handful of voters.

Well, there is a way to do that, though it would take a state constitutional amendment to move us to what is often referred to by the perhaps unfortunate name of a "jungle primary" system.

Here's how that would work: The top two finishers in any primary would face off against each other in November — regardless of party. That's been happening for years in Louisiana, where November elections sometimes pit two Republicans against each other. They now have a similar system in California, the nation's most populous state, where the GOP has become astoundingly weak. Two years ago, when Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate, she defeated a fellow Democrat, Loretta Sanchez, in November.

Such a system would give voters better representation. Thanks to gerrymandering, most of our legislative and congressional districts are effectively dominated by one party. A jungle primary would also be better for voters in the Ninth Congressional District, where three strong candidates are attempting to succeed Sandy Levin.

They include the congressman's son Andy, a lawyer who now runs a clean energy firm called Levin Energy Partners, and who has held a number of appointed state jobs.

He faces State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, 50, 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.

The third candidate, State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren, 57, also an attorney with an ability to work with Republicans in the legislature; he finally got them to pass a law to pay compensation to innocent people who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned.

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

A November runoff between the top two would make sense.

But instead, whoever squeezes out a win in August will face a hapless Republican who, thanks to gerrymandering, is unlikely to get much more than a third of the vote.

Up till now, few have shown any interest in trying to amend the Michigan Constitution to allow a top-two primary.

But if we get some bizarre winners this year, and the Voters Not Politicians anti-gerrymandering amendment doesn't become law, turning to the "law of the jungle" may look more attractive.

Half a cheer for Snyder: Republicans have few, if any principles, as the past year of getting behind their fuhrer shows.

But they do have strong prejudices and half-baked beliefs, and one of their most holy is the belief that it is always better to privatize something than to have a nasty socialist government do it.

Except when it's not. Barely four years ago, to considerable fanfare, the Snyder administration announced they were outsourcing prison food service to a division of Aramark, the pricey, mediocre food provider for a bunch of institutional banquets. They signed a contract, and to make sure they made money on the deal, Aramark — which is based in Pennsylvania, no Pure Michigan here hired only the dregs of society for largely next to nothing. In return, the prisons got lousy food, maggots in food service areas, and security so loose Aramark employees fraternized with inmates, smuggled contraband, had sex with inmates, etc., etc.

After a year and a half or so, an exasperated Snyder administration switched the contract to Trinity Services Group, based in Florida. They paid Trinity $13.7 million more than they had been paying Aramark... and they got lousy food, maggots in food service areas, and security so loose Trinity employees fraternized with inmates, smuggled contraband, had sex with inmates, etc. etc.

Finally, Snyder at least changed course. No, he didn't come right out and say he screwed up, majorly... he just said "I don't think it turned out to be a good solution." Got to love that Ricky!

That, however, was more of an admission than the governor made when he canceled his great scheme for saving the poor kids of Detroit — the EAA.

Nearly forgotten now is that Snyder wanted to take the EAA statewide, and had asked the legislature to give him that authority. For once, they did the right thing and ignored him.

But it took years of test scores dropping and cost overruns for Snyder to finally throw in the ol' overdrawn checkbook. The 15 long-suffering EAA schools were quietly folded back into what's now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Ellen Cogen Lipton, now running for Congress, deserves massive credit for exposing what a scam this was.

But Snyder deserves half a cheer too, for at least tacitly admitting both the EAA and prison food privatization were turkeys and pulling the plug. That's more than a lot of politicians have been able to do with failed policies; look up War, Vietnam in the index.