Detroit lawmakers, pastors tell redistricting commission: Don't 'crack' Black representation

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — With the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission headed toward a vote on new political maps for congressional, state House and state Senate districts, an assemblage of Detroit pastors and politicians on Tuesday urged the commission not to dilute the Black vote.

"The city of Detroit right now is at a precipice," State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said during a news conference at the Shrine of the Black Madonna on Linwood. "We're talking about whether or not it will continue to have representatives that are from this community."

Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, gives his remarks during a press conference at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021 to urge the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw Detroit area maps to include majority-black districts.

The group's remarks come amid concern that the electoral maps as they stand, which will be voted on in Lansing and govern the state's elections for the next decade, could pit veteran lawmakers against each other in 2022. 

The vote could take days and comes after months of public hearings and feedback, map-drawing and comments for and against the new districts. 

Critics have voiced concerns about the proposed maps' dilution of majority-minority districts, district lines that combine or divide counties and the division of some communities of interest in favor of keeping others whole. 

If the commission chooses to act on any of those complaints and make map changes this week, a 45-day window for public comment could restart, pushing the approval of final district lines to February.

Hollier said Tuesday that it would be better for the commission to start over and open up a new comment period than to move forward with the maps as they're now drawn, and have the matter be settled in court.

The commission decreased the number of majority-Black districts in the proposed maps by stretching Detroit districts into the suburbs in an effort to increase partisan fairness and "unpack" past efforts to isolate the Democratic vote to certain districts.

Cracking is the process of spreading a party's supporters thinly across districts so their votes count for less and are generally cast for losing candidates. And packing is a process in which map drawers concentrate a party's supporters into certain, limited districts so their influence is contained and doesn't spread outside those areas.

Black leaders have argued the commission did too much to "unpack" Detroit area districts, making it unlikely African Americans in the unpacked districts would be able to elect a Black candidate of their choosing if they were combined with suburban, white Democrats. 

The commission's partisan fairness consultant, Lisa Handley, appeared to support the idea of moving away from Black voting age population percentages as the sole indicator of a minority group's ability to elect a preferred candidate in a report posted Monday. 

Instead, the commission could analyze voter turnout and patterns to determine the percent minority population needed to win a district or examine previous minority-preferred candidate elections to see if those individuals would win in the new districts. 

In a review of Wayne, Oakland, Genesee and Saginaw counties, Handley determined no county required more than 50% voting age population to get a Black-preferred candidate elected. In Wayne County, a "Black-preferred candidate would win every general election in a district with a (Black voting age population) of 35% or more." And in Oakland and Saginaw counties, a Black-preferred candidate would win with 40% Black voting age population. 

Handley said she could not produce the same tables for primary elections because the preferences in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary were too varied. 

"... it may become more challenging for Black-preferred candidates to win not only the general election but the Democratic primary — but only if voting in Democratic primaries is racially polarized," Handley wrote. "Unfortunately, it is not possible to ascertain exactly how much more difficult it would be — or even if it would be more difficult — given the lack of Democratic primary election data."

Hollier argues the commission is not considering data relevant to Detroit, which is the primary election results. 

"There is not a single Black member of the legislature that is elected from a general election," he said. "Right now, every single one of them is elected by a primary. And so when the commission's voting rights expert says they didn't have primary data, and that Black communities would still be able to elect the candidate they're choosing — they didn't do the data. They did not do the analysis."

Whichever maps the 13-member panel picks, the last three standing of the 15 proposed, are expected to be challenged in court — likely on a variety of different issues. 

More:Redistricting panel headed into final vote amid continued concerns over minority districts

State Reps. Helena Scott and Stephanie Young, two other Detroit Democrats, joined with Hollier on Tuesday. 

Young noted she was at a Rosedale Park board meeting Monday evening and fielded concerns that their district would be represented by a non-Detroiter. 

"Now we see, like every other time, that the devil is absolutely in the details," Young said. 

Detroit's clergy community was represented Tuesday by Bishop Mbiyu Chui of the Shrine, and Rev. Steve Bland, senior pastor at Liberty Temple Baptist Church and president of the Council of Baptist Pastors for the Detroit area.

Bland said Black people have gone "from picking cotton to picking presidents," but in Detroit are at risk of losing the ability to choose their own leaders. 

The activist community was represented Tuesday by Ken Whittaker, executive director of Michigan United, and Kandia Milton of the Black Slate. 

Kandia Milton, chair of the Black Slate, gives his remarks during a press conference at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021 to urge the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw Detroit area maps to include majority-black districts.

The Shrine, Milton noted, can be considered the origin point of Black political power in Detroit.

"The choice of this space is not only symbolic, it's substantive," Milton said. 

"In 1957, our founder, Rev. Albert B. Cleage, waged a battle to save the 13th Congressional District, which was under threat of gerrymandering in an effort to deny the area's growing black population their first congressional representative," Milton said. 

The Shrine fueled the 1964 election of John Conyers Jr. to that 13th Congressional seat, and the 1973 election of Coleman Alexander Young as Detroit's first Black mayor. 

"One of the things that the commission talked about, I think errantly, was the idea that you could separate Detroit from blackness," Hollier said. "The Shrine has always pushed back on that idea."

Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th District Democratic Party Organization, and a Wayne County Commissioner representing Detroit's east side, threatened litigation "if necessary."

"Michigan needs and deserves a congressional and state legislative delegation. That represents all the people of Michigan," Kinloch said in a Tuesday statement. "That's the only way to ensure every voice is heard. These current congressional maps are a serious step backwards, limiting the voice of African-Americans, and that is unacceptable.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.