Voters in Metro Detroit will determine Tuesday whether Michigan will lose black representation in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in nearly five decades.
U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, a biracial freshman belonging to black and Asian congressional caucuses, faces a challenge in the 14th Congressional District from U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, a white Bloomfield Township resident who is backed by major labor unions as well as Detroit elected officials and black pastors.
Michigan is losing one congressional seat due to redistricting, forcing the two into a faceoff.
And in the new 13th District, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the longest serving African-American member of Congress, is running against four challengers, with polls suggesting his closest competition is Glenn Anderson, a state senator from Westland who is white.
Clarke and Conyers are running in Michigan's only majority-minority districts under the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protects minority political participation. If a white candidate wins in a VRA district, "it would definitely be an anomaly in American politics," said Devin McCarthy of voter reform think tank FairVote.
The two districts are among 33 nationally that are at least plurality African-American, McCarthy said. All but one in Tennessee are represented by African-Americans. Another 10 black congressmen hold seats in districts in which blacks do not hold a plurality.
Race came to the forefront in the 14th District contest when Clarke accused his challengers of "race-baiting" after a death certificate of his mother surfaced saying she was white and not African-American, as Clarke maintains she was. A supporter of another 14th District candidate, Brenda Lawrence, dug up the document because he said the people of a Voting Rights Act district deserve to know whether a congressman is black.
The spat made some voters wonder whether race should matter. Is it important for Detroit to have black representation in Congress?
"We better get to a point where race doesn't matter because truly the same issues are starting to affect each of us," said Sandra Dixon, an African-American Detroiter, who will cast her vote on character, not color, noting the need for jobs, better schools and public safety.
"The lines have to be blurred to a point where we collectively and cohesively get the job done. We can't keep letting race dictate what happens."
The S-shaped 14th District begins in southwest Detroit, incorporates the Grosse Pointes and northern Detroit in Wayne County, then crosses over Eight Mile and includes parts of Oakland County, including Southfield, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield Township and Pontiac. The 13th District in Wayne County includes River Rouge, Ecorse, Melvindale, parts of Detroit and Dearborn Heights, and Inkster, Westland and Romulus.
Peters believes he can win on effectiveness. "People want somebody who can get it done," he said.
In the 13th District, Conyers and challenger state Sen. Bert Johnson, who is black, say it's important the minority-majority districts have representatives that reflect their fabric, or else the Voting Rights Act would have never been put in place.
"We are talking about supplanting probably the largest voice in black caucus politics ever in United States history," Johnson said of Conyers. "There's a reason there's a protection on majority-minority seats."
Conyers, who backed the Voting Rights Act in his first term, believes African-American representation can't be ignored in voters' choices. "While I'm sensitive to this issue, I also have to be cognizant of the fact the majority of the people will choose who their representative is."
Anderson says he's also sensitive about minority representation but it's important someone can deliver for the entire district.
Michigan has had African-American representation in Congress since 1955 with the election of Charles Coles Diggs Jr., a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Redistricting after the 1960 census created a second majority black seat in Detroit. Conyers' election in 1964 made Michigan the first state since Reconstruction with two African-American members of the House.
Christopher W. Quinn, an African-American attorney from Grosse Pointe Park, says it's important someone who reflects the district represent him in Congress, though he says it doesn't mean a candidate of another race or ethnicity couldn't succeed if he understands the community. "To ignore the diversity of the new 14th Congressional District would be to ignore what makes it unique," Quinn, 37, said.
While a nonblack candidate winning in the 13th or 14th districts Tuesday would be rare, it signals voters might not be racially polarized.
"I think we've evolved where race isn't the primary focus anymore," said Franita Tolson, an assistant professor at Florida State University College of Law. "It's one of several factors that we throw into the pie. (Instead) political partisanship has become the great divider."
Indeed, a recent poll in the 14th Congressional District found three out of four surveyed said maintaining African-American and Detroit representation is important. However, respondents also favored Peters over Clarke, pollster Eric Foster said.
John Goci, a Westland businessman also challenging Conyers, hopes the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 signals voters looking past color.
"I don't have a problem with a black president," said Goci, an immigrant from Kosovo who is white. "And I don't think Detroit ought to have a problem with a white, or Indian, or any other race representing them."