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Crowded 13th Congressional District race could leave Michigan without a Black member of Congress

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Michigan’s 13th Congressional district stretches from the Grosse Points all the way downriver as far west as Romulus. Detroit lies in the heart of the district.

The Democratic stronghold has been an anchor for Black political representation on the state and national levels.

But that could change this year.

Detroit has been the center of Michigan’s Black political voice in Congress for nearly 70 years. It was a space first carved out by Representative Charles Diggs who won the seat in 1954. In an interview he did for “Eyes on the Prize,” the seminal documentary on the civil rights movement, Diggs says his role in Congress was to change the narrative on race on a national level.

“Our main thrust there was to raise the consciousness of Americans, Black and white, about this whole question of segregation and discrimination and inequities, politically, economically, socially,” Diggs said

Since Diggs’ arrival in Congress, Michigan has always had a Democratic Black delegate. But on the eve of the 2022 midterms, some political leaders say that representation is at risk.

The race started when Michigan’s only African American representative, Brenda Lawrence, announced her retirement. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib shifted districts too, and a vacancy emerged.

Now, nine Democrats are on the ballot to lead the newly drawn 13th district.

Keith Williams is the chair of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus.

“I am pissed,” Williams said, “you got too many Black candidates in the race and we’re going to split our vote.”

It’s a crowded field, diverse in backgrounds and experiences. There’s Sharon McPhail, a former Detroit City Council member, and Sam Riddle, a longtime political consultant. Lorrie Rutledge owns a hair care company and John Conyers the Third is the son of the longest serving Black congressman in U-S History.

In terms of candidates who have spent more than 100-thousand dollars on their campaigns, there’s Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Detroit school board member and former state lawmaker. And Michael Griffie, a civil rights attorney.

There’s also State Senator Adam Hollier and Portia Roberson, the CEO of the non-profit Focus:Hope.

The 13th has more African American candidates than any other congressional district in Michigan. But the only non-Black candidate in the race is outspending them all.

Born and raised in India, State Representative Shri Thanedar spent three-million dollars of his own money towards his campaign according to recent filings. That’s twice the sum of what his opponents have spent so far combined. And that’s after the former businessman spent 10-million dollars to run for governor in 2018.

Keith Williams says Black Democratic representation from Detroit is being threatened.

“I’m not confident,” Williams said, “but the bottom line is this - I’m worried.”

Researchers of African American politics say it is not unusual to see a crowded field in an open race like the 13th’s. Andra Gillespie is a political scientist from Emory University.

“It is a function of pent-up demand within the district, and pent-up ambition of a lot politicians who are looking to take their careers to the next step,” Gillespie said.

As a result, the ticket could be split, and a non-Black candidate could rise to prominence. Gillespie says voter turnout and name recognition could be determining factors.

The question will be, are Black voter preferences so strong that they want an African American candidate that they’re actually willing to coordinate?” Gillespie asked.

It’s hard to say if that’s happening in the 13th. Members of Detroit’s political class have split their endorsements. Gillespie says younger Black politicians have criticized the lack of guidance they received from older generations of leaders.

“This is still a criticism that is being levied against the Democratic Party writ large today when we look at the age of the leadership nationally,” Gillespie said.

While there’s still a lot of uncertainty about who will come ahead in the 13th , Michigan could still see Black representation in Congress. But it may shift away from the Democrats and from Detroit.

John James, a Black Republican, is running for Congress in the 10th district. It covers parts of Macomb and Oakland counties, but not Detroit. James ran for the U-S Senate twice and lost.

Eli Newman is a Reporter/Producer for 101.9 WDET (part of the MPRN network), covering breaking news, politics and community affairs.
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