Detroit lies in the heart of Michigan’s 13th Congressional district. The city has been a Democratic stronghold and an anchor for Black political representation on the state and national levels. In Congress, Representative Charles Diggs first carved out a space for African American representation when he won the seat in 1954.
“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,” said Diggs in an interview he did for “Eyes on the Prize,” the seminal documentary on the civil rights movement. “And then, once raising their level of consciousness and concern, began to move into legislative corrections.”
In the more than 70 years 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. Additionally, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib shifted districts and a vacancy emerged. Now, nine Democrats are on the ballot to lead the newly drawn district. Black political leaders have some choice words on the state of the race.
“I am pissed,” said Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus. “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 Councilmember and Sam Riddle, a longtime political consultant. Lorrie Rutledge owns a hair care company and John Conyers III is the son of the longest serving Black congressman in U.S. history.
In terms of candidates who have spent more than $100,000 on their campaign, 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, 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 $3 million 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 to run for governor in 2018.
Williams says Black Democratic representation from Detroit is being threatened.
“I’m not confident, but the bottom line is this – I’m worried,” says Williams.
Researchers of African American politics say it is not unusual to see a crowded field in an open race like the 13th’s.
“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,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist from Emory University.
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,” says Gillespie.
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,” says Gillespie.
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.