Detroiters prepare for public hearings on redistricting in Michigan

For years, Detroiters have chafed under policies that ignored or negatively impacted residents in the nation’s largest majority Black city, community leaders say. But now, as Michigan’s redistricting commission prepares to draw new congressional and legislative districts, many in the city are eager to seize the once-in-a-decade opportunity to do away with the gerrymandering they believe has shortchanged residents. 

“Right now, I expect Lansing to not care about anything that happens here,” said Donna Givens Davidson, president and CEO of the Eastside Community Network.

Lines drawn by Republicans in 2011 produced districts that allowed state lawmakers to push through measures hostile to the interests of Detroiters, she said, pointing to Michigan’s emergency manager law that enabled the wide-reaching state takeover of Detroit’s finances as one example. 

A majority of Michigan voters in the 2012 election repealed the law, which authorized appointees of the governor to supersede local officials. But during the lame-duck session, Republicans in the Legislature went on to pass a similar law without the support of any Democrats. While the Republican lawmakers who controlled both chambers at the time had commanded a majority of votes statewide in the 2010 election, the passage of the emergency manager law in 2012 occurred after GOP candidates for the Michigan House received only 45.56% of all votes cast statewide compared with 53.32% of votes for Democratic candidates. The party still ended up with a 59-51 Republican majority in the chamber.

Givens Davidson said GOP bills currently before the Legislature that propose new restrictions on absentee voting and political fights over the allocation of federal COVID-19 relief dollars illustrate “a party that represents the minority of Michigan residents having that much control because of how they’ve drawn their lines.”

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr holds Order #42 giving all authority back to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council. Republican lawmakers passed an emergency manager law during a lame duck session after GOP candidates for Michigan's House lost the majority of votes but won a majority of seats.

Michigan voters amended the state’s constitution in 2018, taking away redistricting responsibilities from politicians and placing them instead in the hands of a group of randomly selected citizens. Many are unfamiliar with the new process and it’s occurring at a time when Detroit has continued to lose population, creating challenges for community input and uncertainty about the city’s representation. But community leaders have hailed the independent process as a political victory for Detroiters. 

Anika Goss, the CEO of Detroit Future City, said fair maps can play an important role in addressing the city’s economic challenges. 

“The city of Detroit doesn’t have that capability to do it on its own,” she said. Instead, Goss said state and federal policies are needed. A recent report by the organization highlighted the need to attract employers, expand the number of jobs in the city paying above a median wage to workers without college degrees, and stem the city’s population loss. 

“If we had the representation that understood and was representing the needs of Detroiters, then the incentive for moving into Detroit and providing those kinds of middle-wage jobs would be much higher,” she said. 

It’s not clear whether Detroit will still have two congressional districts or end up with just one. Detroit’s population on its own is not large enough to constitute a district, but the entire city could be included in a single district. The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will also redraw the city’s legislative districts. Detroit is currently home to 10 Michigan House districts and five Michigan Senate districts.

More:Here’s how you can have a say in how Michigan’s new districts are drawn

More:Gerrymandering split up communities in the past. New redistricting process aims to keep them together.

More:Your questions about Michigan’s new redistricting process answered

A rare chance for community input

Michigan’s 14th Congressional District — which is currently represented by Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield — snakes from Detroit’s southern border to Grosse Pointe and then up through Oakland County all the way up to Pontiac. 

Kevin Deegan-Krause, a political science professor at Wayne State University, has joined an effort to get a proposal on the 2018 ballot that would change the way Michigan redraws the district lines for state and federal elected officials. He uses a Lego-based depiction of the 14th congressional district as an illustration of how gerrymandering is happening in Michigan.

“The city of Pontiac really doesn’t have anything in common with Grosse Pointe,” Kermit Williams, executive director of Oakland Forward, an organization dedicated to removing economic and social barriers facing communities of color in the county, said during a Feb. 25 panel on redistricting hosted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy. 

Michigan’s 14th Congressional District is often held up as an extreme example of “packing,” concentrating a group of voters expected to vote similarly in a single district to create safe seats in surrounding districts. 

Meanwhile, other districts have divided communities that would prefer to stay together in the same district such as the Hispanic population in southwest Detroit, which is divved up between different Michigan House districts. Oscar Castañeda, the statewide organizing coordinator for the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, or DHDC, said the current lines are an example of “cracking,” which dilutes the political power of a group of voters by splitting them up between multiple districts. 

“We should have a place where we have our population united,” he said. 

With the current maps, southwest Detroiters “don’t have representation that specifically advocates for Latino issues and rights,” said Sandy Gaytan, the community organizing coordinator for DHDC. 

The redistricting criteria offers a chance to change that.

When drawing the new lines, the commissioners must consider communities of interest, which are vaguely defined in the Michigan Constitution but include geographic communities united by shared public policy concerns. 

No other state prioritizes communities of interest in redistricting as highly as Michigan, said the commission’s communications and outreach director, Edward Woods III. Districts that reflect communities of interest ranks third in the seven criteria the new districts must meet. 

“It’s a good attempt to try to recognize there are circumstances beyond simple geography that need to be considered,” said Jeff Timmer, a partner at Two Rivers Public Affairs who helped draw the current districts in Michigan. 

Givens Davidson agreed, pointing out that industrial activity that affects Detroit residents in the 48217 zip code, where the Marathon Petroleum Co. facility is located, extends to those living just outside the city in surrounding communities. 

“A city line does not determine air quality,” she said.

The Marathon Petroleum refinery in southwest Detroit. Donna Givens Davidson, the President and CEO of Eastside Community Network said that the facility's impact on air quality affects Detroit residents and those just outside the city. Michigan's new redistricting criteria will allow communities that share public policy concerns like air quality to tell Michigan's redistricting commission they want to stay in a single district.

Detroit’s communities of interest

Kurt Metzger, the mayor of Pleasant Ridge and a longtime demographer, said it’s generally easier to gerrymander cities. Population density and patterns of racial segregation create more opportunities to split up communities for partisan gain, he said.

But those two features of cities will play a prominent role in ensuring fair districts run through the metro area this time.  

“You’ll really start to see communities of interest probably come to the fore when you get into southeast Michigan,” Metzger said, pointing to the ethnic and racial diversity found in the region. And communities of interest will likely play a bigger role in determining how to draw the lines for Michigan Senate and House districts, he said, since those will encompass smaller populations than the state’s congressional districts. 

Over the coming months, community organizations such as DHDC and the Eastside Community Network will engage residents to draw their own communities of interest for the commission. 

In its pitch to the commission to keep southwest Detroit together, Gaytan said DHDC might highlight the need to ensure the community benefits economically from development projects slated along the riverfront, the environmental and public health impacts of industrial pollution in the area and the unique needs of immigrant communities, such as access to bilingual education.

Goss said Detroit’s middle-class neighborhoods — the census tracts identified by Detroit Future City where more than half of households are middle or upper-middle class — could also constitute communities of interest kept intact within the new legislative districts. 

“You would have an area that would have a strong middle-class neighborhood with near-middle class neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods surrounding it so that you then have someone who is advocating for growth for the entire district,” she said. 

Anika Goss, Chief Executive Office of Detroit Future City, said the new redistricting process could ensure Detroit's middle class neighborhoods secure effective representation, helping them expand and create more economic opportunity for the city's residents.

A new, unfamiliar process

Meeting with neighborhood groups across the city to talk about the commission’s work, Norman Clement, the founder and executive director of the Detroit Change Initiative, finds that many Detroiters haven’t even heard of the word redistricting. But they’re all too familiar with the decades of line drawing by partisans.

“When we say redistricting, they say, ‘what’s redistricting?’ But when you say gerrymandering, they know what gerrymandering is,” he said.

Castañeda has confronted a different kind of language barrier: There is no direct translation for “redistricting” in Spanish. 

“I have to use like three words at the same time and every time I say something different,” he said. 

Gaytan, the community organizing coordinator for DHDC, added that many noncitizens also feel disconnected from the redistricting process. 

“We’re trying to get them to understand that this is something that is going to be good for their children, it’s going to be good for them, it’s going to bring them resources,” she said. 

Sandy Gaytan, community organizing coordinator for the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, stands in front of a poster for an upcoming town hall with the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Two districts or one for Detroit? 

One big unanswered question hovers over the redistricting process in Detroit: Will two or one congressional district run through the city? 

The city’s current population stands at 665,369, according to 2020 census estimates. Each congressional district in Michigan will represent about 775,726.

The migration patterns of former Detroiters out of the city could provide a guide for pairing the city with other communities, said Givens Davidson. Metzger said parts of southern Macomb County, including parts of Warren, Eastpointe, Roseville and Center Line have seen a steady influx of Detroit residents. 

But the middle-class African American families that have moved out of Detroit to other municipalities in the metro area don’t necessarily have much in common with Detroiters, Goss said. “They are operating at a certain income level, housing level and meeting their needs very differently,” she said. 

Other municipalities near the city’s border such as Hazel Park or Ferndale may not share the city’s racial demographics but may have more in common with the city’s residents when it comes to the level of income and wealth in the community, Goss said. 

Regardless of how the new districts pair Detroit with surrounding communities, she hopes that the redistricting process won’t leave the city with a single representative in the U.S. House.

“Detroit in and of itself is not a monolith,” she said. “The two representatives that we have represent two very different parts of Detroit,” she added, referencing Lawrence and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

While census estimates show Detroit has continued to lose population over the last decade, it is still Michigan’s largest city.  

“Detroit is a major city, so we definitely need more than one representative,” Goss said. 

How to participate in Detroit’s hearings

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will hold two public hearings in Detroit. The first will be held 5-8 p.m. Tuesday (doors open at 4 p.m.) at The Village Dome at Fellowship Chapel, 7707 W. Outer Drive. The second will be held 5-8 p.m. Thursday (doors open at 4 p.m.) at TCF Center, 1 Washington Blvd. 

The link to sign up to speak can be found at www.michigan.gov/micrc. Those without internet access can sign up to speak by calling 211. Those wishing to speak to the commission remotely — by video or by phone — must do so by noon on the day of the public hearing. Those wishing to speak to the commission in person can sign up at the table near the entrance of the public hearing venue until 7 p.m. 

To provide written testimony or submit a map to the commission, go to the public comment portal at www.michigan-mapping.org. 

Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at [email protected] or 313-296-5743. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.

Become a subscriber.

Comments are closed.