DOJ files voting rights suit against Eastpointe

Jennifer Chambers and Joshua J. Paladino
The Detroit News

Eastpointe — No black resident has ever won office for council, school board or legislative district in this Macomb County city, even though one-third of its electorate is black, according to the federal government.

Kevin Lancaster, 51, of Harrison Twp., senior pastor of the Love Life Family Christian Center, talks to The News in front of more than 30 crosses he's collected for the last 10 years. The pastor is among those who are speaking out about a federal complaint against the city of Eastpointe, alleging that its at-large city council elections are racially discriminatory.

The U.S. Justice Department blames Eastpointe’s electoral process, saying electing members by citywide popular vote — instead of by district — is racially discriminatory and violates the Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a federal complaint seeking to end the practice, which city officials say has been in place since 1929.

“Eastpointe has racially polarized voting patterns, with white voters consistently opposing and defeating the preferred candidates of Eastpointe’s sizable black community,” a Justice Department statement said on Wednesday.

The complaint alleges a history of general racial discrimination in Eastpointe, which in the past was called East Detroit, including race-based residency requirements and proposals to close streets connecting to Detroit. The lawsuit is not based on any complaint filed against the city nor does it name a complainant, as is the case in other civil lawsuits filed by the government.

Asked why the Justice Department targeted Eastpointe for the civil action, federal officials declined comment but pointed to two similar cases outside the state where they filed similar actions: Lake Park, Florida, and Euclid City School District in Ohio. Eastpointe appears to be the first Michigan community to face such a lawsuit.

Eastpointe City Manager Steve Duchane, who is named in the federal lawsuit along with the City Council, said Wednesday the city’s black residents have never formally expressed concerns.

Duchane called the Justice Department’s actions “reprehensible in the fact that without actually engaging the community and the voters, they started labeling people again.”

The city manager said he believes Eastpointe’s voting process was singled out by the Justice Department for perceived racial issues within Macomb County.

“The assumptions are that Macomb County is known for racism, but I haven’t seen evidence for that — and that blacks vote for blacks and whites vote for whites.”

Duchane said if and when a district voting system is enacted, the city may need to spend up to $50,000 to change polling precincts, register new voters and issue new voting cards.

‘Why Eastpointe?’

In the lawsuit, the federal government has proposed that Eastpointe allow voters to select their candidates within four districts, instead of as an entire community. Officials in the complaint noted the city’s black community “is sufficiently numerous and geographically compact” to make up the majority in a proposed district.

The city of 32,000 residents is one of Metro Detroit’s fastest growing melting pots, with a black population that has increased 34 percent in 16 years.

The Justice Department provided Eastpointe with a proposed map that showed four voting districts broken down by registered voters by race. The map shows large blocs of black voters along Eight Mile in the south portion of the city and in its northeast corner. Each of the four districts contained some smaller areas with concentrations of black voters.

“The Justice Department continues to have positive discussions with the city of Eastpointe and remains hopeful that a settlement will be reached,” federal officials said in a statement. “As Eastpointe’s next regularly scheduled city council election is set for November 2017, the department’s filing was necessary to preserve the ability of a court to hear this case in a timely manner.”

Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University, said questions on the timing of the complaint — just days before a new presidential administration enters office — can only be answered by the Justice Department. But Selder said the decision to file was made by career justice department attorneys follows the current philosophy in the White House.

“The decision reflects the Obama administration, which strongly supports voting rights cases. Let’s see what the Trump administration does,” Sedler said.

Alexandria Bibb-Williams, a black resident who unsuccessfully ran for a city council seat in 2015, said a change to the city’s voting system is needed. She came in last in a field of three with 20 percent of the vote in 2015. Sarah Lucido received 48 percent of the vote and John Marion got 32 percent.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to do it, but the city needs to diversify,” said Bibb-Williams, who owns the AR Bibb & Associates insurance agency in Eastpointe and is an 18-year resident of the city. “And the city should have someone of color on the council. I believe that. Something needs to be done to give African-Americans in the city more of a voice in its government.”

Bibb-Williams said she plans to make another bid for the City Council in the future. “I’ll run again.”

But some in Eastpointe are frustrated their community was singled out by the federal government for intervention.

The Rev. James Friedman, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Eastpointe and Greater Christian Ministries International, believes minority residents will get elected on their own without help from the government.

“Why Eastpointe?” he said Wednesday. “What is it that Eastpointe has done?”

Kevin Lancaster, a pastor at Love Life Family Christian Center, is a member of PACE: Police and Community for Equality. Lancaster said he wants community-based organizations to handle issues of representation in government. He said PACE has been working on getting representatives who reflect the racial diversity of the community.

Lancaster, who is black, added he doesn’t believe splitting Eastpointe into four districts is the solution to the lack of black representation in local government, but he is happy the Justice Department is bringing awareness on the issue.

“We have to get people out to vote,” Lancaster said. “We have to get people to run as well.”

Resident Sara Putnam, 33, who is white, said she hasn’t heard any complaints from neighbors about a lack of black representation in the government.

“I have one white neighbor, three black neighbors, and everyone gets along,” Putnam said.

The Detroit experience

Kurt Metzger, a demographer, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit and mayor of Pleasant Ridge, compared Eastpointe with Detroit, which also at one time elected its city council members on an at-large basis. For years, he said, the city’s Hispanic population was unable to elect a Latino candidate until the city switched to a district-based system.

“It wasn’t until they came up with the districts that they were able to elect a Latina,” he said, referring to Raquel Castañeda-López, who was elected to the City Council in 2013. “It didn’t guarantee that southwest Detroit was going to elect a Latino, but they had the numbers there, and it became the residents’ responsibility to come up with a candidate and support the candidate.”

Metzger thinks Eastpointe must switch from its at-large voting system to a district-based one.

“I’m never going to push that the feds tell cities what to do,” he said. “Being a local mayor, I don’t want someone coming in and telling me my city has to go to a district system. I’m not sure we need to. But at the same time, a city where you have a community that’s been growing for 30 years that isn’t represented is problematic in a lot of ways. Nobody speaks for that community.”

Duchane said the lawsuit was not a surprise because the Justice Department informed the city of its concerns in a Nov. 18 letter and Justice officials came to Eastpointe in December to meet with city officials.

“We asked them to propose to us a consent judgment that we could look at,” Duchane said Wednesday. “We don’t find ourselves terribly at odds with this, but it goes against the city charter, which we can’t change without a vote of the people. There is some (public) support for trying something new and some concerns about this being a quick turnaround.”

A federal judge can order the change to voting by district without a vote of the people, he added.

The Justice Department’s suit against Eastpointe is expected to be discussed at the Tuesday City Council meeting, Duchane said.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department said it continues to have discussions with the city of Eastpointe on the issue.

“We remain hopeful that we can reach a resolution, but if not, we will continue to move the case forward,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said Wednesday.

Staff Writers Holly Fournier and Charles E. Ramirez contributed.