Michigan Democrats Weary Over Redistricting

Four ‘Old Bull’ Democrats Have Weathered Redistricting Before, and Each Wants to Remain in Congress

Posted March 2, 2011 at 6:42pm

In Michigan, four Democratic Congressmen who are among the oldest in Congress are preparing for another brutal round of redistricting controlled by Republicans.

With their previous redistricting experience and seniority in the House, Reps. John Dingell, 84, John Conyers, 81, Dale Kildee, 81, and Sander Levin, 79, all say they plan on sticking around to seek another term.

Michigan has lost seats in every round of redistricting since the 1980 census, and this time it will lose one more. Levin, who was elected in 1982, is the newest of the four “Old Bulls,” so they’ve all survived previous cuts.

“We’ve been through this before, so it’s musical chairs,” Kildee said Monday. “When the music stops, there’s going to be 15 people and 14 chairs, and we gotta find out who’s standing and who’s sitting.”

During this round of redistricting, each of the four has insisted he will run for re-election, possibly an effort to keep state legislators from drawing them out of their districts. The youngest of them, Levin, is 20 years older than the next-oldest member of the state’s House delegation, Rep. Tim Walberg (R).

Republicans also controlled the previous round of redistricting, and they were effective in reshaping the delegation. A delegation made up of nine Democrats and seven Republicans after the 2000 elections became six Democrats and nine Republicans following the 2002 elections.

Dingell was the only one of the Old Bulls forced into a primary matchup with a fellow incumbent under the new lines. He defeated four-term Rep. Lynn Rivers by 18 points in the 2002 primary. In 1964, he defeated fellow Rep. John Lesinski in the primary following redistricting, getting 54 percent of the vote. Like Dingell, Lesinski replaced his late father in Congress.

Unlike Rivers, other Democrats bowed out following the last round of redistricting. Rep. David Bonior, then House Minority Whip, said he made clear his plans to run for governor before the new map was drawn, allowing legislators to carve up his Detroit-area district.

“I made it easy for everybody,” he said this week. “I was like a godsend to the delegation.”

Then-Rep. Jim Barcia, drawn into a district with Kildee, made a similar decision. Instead of challenging Kildee, he ran for his old seat in the state Senate and won.

“Both of us would have preferred to stay here, but when he looked at the demographics [of the new district], most of the Democratic voters, should he decide to primary, lived in my district,” Kildee recalled.

Michigan legislators will have to decide whether they want to keep Members who have so much seniority. Despite having three freshmen and a Member who lost but won again in 2010, the state ranks third in seniority behind Alaska and Massachusetts, according to University of Minnesota political scientist Eric Ostermeier.

Though the four Democrats are part of the minority, they still hold significant leadership positions. Levin, for example, is ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee.

“My focus right now is on the job at hand — spurring the economy and helping my constituents recover from the deep recession,” he said in a statement. “Over the years, I have enjoyed representing residents in Wayne, Oakland and now a full two-thirds of Macomb County, and while Republicans fully control the process in Lansing I intend to seek reelection and I challenge them to reapportion communities in a balanced way so that the voice of Michigan residents can be fairly heard.”

Likewise, Conyers serves as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. Dingell, unseated as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008, is still a senior Democrat on that committee. Kildee, a former teacher, is the second-most-senior Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee.

Kildee said he and his peers can offer valuable insight to newer members of the delegation. He referred to a Monday evening meeting the delegation had with new Gov. Rick Snyder (R).

“What was interesting last night is that John [Dingell] and I were able to add one dimension as having had some longevity here, but there were three freshman Members there, and they in turn were able to bring a very good perspective to the discussion,” he said.

Kildee said the four can talk with experience about how the government shutdown in 1995 affected their constituents, for example. And they can give advice.

“Do your homework, and follow your conscience,” Kildee, first elected in 1976, said he tells new Members. “If you follow your conscience, you don’t have to remember how you voted.”

Whether state legislators will choose to keep around a few aging Democrats or give preference to new blood is anybody’s guess, but on Tuesday, Dingell didn’t seem optimistic.

“I can only remember one good redistricting,” he said.

Asked whether he thought this would be another, he answered, “We’ll find out.”