Detroit is all but assured to lose Black representation in Congress for the first time in 70 years.
State Rep. Shri Thanedar, who is Indian American, and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, won two dynamic Democratic congressional primary races Tuesday and will likely go on to represent the majority-Black city in 2023. Tlaib was largely expected to sail to reelection over Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey, but Thanedar’s victory is sending shockwaves through the Detroit political scene after Black leaders warned for months that having too many candidates on the ballot would split Black votes in Detroit and propel Thanedar to Congress.
“This is a nightmare,” said Adolph Mongo, a longtime political advisor in Detroit. “I never thought I would live to see this day, and it ain’t a pretty day.”
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Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus, said it’s difficult to overstate the impact of losing a Black representative for Detroit.
“Psychologically, what it’s saying is that we don’t control our destiny anymore,” Williams said.
Detroit has had at least one Black member in Congress since Democrat Charles Diggs Jr. won the 13th District seat in 1954. John Conyers joined him a decade later and became the longest-serving Black congressman in American history before stepping down in 2017. Conyers was replaced by U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, who decided not to run for reelection this year.
“It’s a very emotional time and I’m not going to try to sugarcoat it,” said Rick Blocker, a Michigan Democratic Party official in Detroit. “We’re very disappointed that a city with the largest percentage of Black people doesn’t have any Black representation. As a Black person, and as a Black leader of an organization, I’m not happy.”
Thanedar, who invested millions of his own money in his campaign and collected virtually no donations from Detroiters, pledged to fight for economic and racial justice in Congress. He acknowledged in a statement that Michigan’s 13th District is one of the poorest in the country. Detroit voters and political observers who spoke with BridgeDetroit this week said Thanedar has a lot of work ahead to prove himself to people who are disappointed with his win.
“We must continue the fight against the special interests that seek to divide us and prevent us from achieving the basic rights that we all deserve,” Thanedar said in a Wednesday statement. “We have a lot of work in front of us, and you can count on me to continue fighting for our communities.”
Seventy-one percent of Wayne County voters and 75% of Detroiters did not support Thanedar in the Tuesday primary for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, according to unofficial results reported by the county. Thanedar won with 28% of the district’s vote, putting him just four percentage points ahead of state Sen. Adam Hollier, who conceded the race Wednesday morning.
“Today it really hurts, but now we must come together and make sure Democrats win up and down the ballot in November,” Hollier said in a statement.
Focus: HOPE CEO Portia Roberson finished third with 17% of the vote; followed by John Conyers III, who earned 9%; and Detroit school board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, who had 8%. Sharon McPhail, a former member of the Detroit City Council, had 6%, followed by lawyer and educator Michael Griffie with 5%, political consultant Sam Riddle with 2% and businesswoman Lorrie Rutledge with just 1%.
“We divided the vote, there’s no way to get around that,” Blocker said. “Too many people were in the race. We have to start taking a strategic look, and if you don’t have a chance of winning, you shouldn’t get in the race.”
Unofficial Wayne County results show more than twice as many people voted against Thanedar (56,597) than for him (22,302). Republican Martell Bivings, who is Black, ran unopposed in the GOP primary and will face Thanedar in November. He earned just 1,100 votes from Detroiters and 19,620 votes across the district.
“Shri Thanedar has a lot of work to do because there’s quite a bit of ill will toward him,” said Mario Morrow, a Southfield-based political strategist. “He won by default because the Black vote was split … He’s got a lot of work to mend the fences with the Black community and Black leadership. He did not receive any endorsements from high-level leaders in Wayne County.”
Thanedar was the top vote-earner in Detroit, but voters in the city supported Thanedar by an extremely tight margin. Hollier trailed by 78 votes in Detroit. Thanedar earned 10,248 votes, while a combined 31,291 voters were cast for other candidates.
Detroiters made up more than half of all votes cast in the 13th District primary, though only 8% of all registered voters cast a ballot.
“Detroiters have demonstrated that they’re not motivated to vote, that we have a problem with voter participation,” Morrow said. “Those who did not vote should be ashamed of themselves for not participating in the process because they do have to say the vote is powerful. You’ve got to fault the candidates, because they did not motivate their base to come to the polls.”
‘Everything is at stake’
Voters who spoke with BridgeDetroit reporters throughout Election Day said they could tell turnout would be low based on the activity at polling locations. Ranard Bynum, a 60-year-old eastside Detroiter living along the riverfront said he was disappointed to learn he was only the 105th voter to cast a ballot at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School with an hour before polls closed.
“Especially knowing what we’ve been through in the last four to six years, if there’s any other time it makes a difference, it’s now,” Bynum said. “Everything is at stake.”
Though Bynum declined to say who he cast a ballot for in the 13th District, he said it was definitely an African American candidate. Bynum said he was motivated to vote specifically to protect Detroit’s Black representation in Congress.
“This is the reason I voted, because there’s a huge chance of that happening,” Bynum said Tuesday before results came in. “Losing that representation is huge. The thing is, those that are going to be disenfranchised are the people who aren’t here. There’s a lot of people that aren’t showing up today.”
Patrick Orange, a 53-year-old Detroiter who lives a few blocks from his polling location near the intersection of Mack and Van Dyke, said Detroiters have no right to complain about the state of affairs if they don’t get involved in elections.
“I think (turnout) is poor,” Orange said. “You can quote me on this: It’s piss poor. It makes me feel bad because everyone always had something to say when it’s not going their way.”
Andre Johnson, a 68-year-old lifelong Detroiter living on the eastside, said there’s “definitely disillusionment” among voters in the city.
“The way that is going, people just don’t understand that their vote does count,” Johnson said. “It’s funny, they’ll turn out for the president, for the governor. For this one, it’s like, it doesn’t count or it’s not going to make a difference.”
He voted for Riddle. Johnson questioned the motives of Thanedar, Roberson and Hollier, saying Riddle proved his commitment to the common Detroiter.
Andrew Blake Newton, a 38-year-old proud third-generation Detroiter, said he voted for Roberson because she seems most qualified to be effective.
“She’s been working,” Newton said. “She’s a grown-up. She’s been in charge of people. Is she corny? Corny as f–k.”
Thanedar outperformed the other candidates outside Detroit, racking up wider margins in downriver communities. Thanedar moved from Washtenaw County to Detroit after losing a run for governor in 2018 and a state House race representing part of Detroit’s upper east side in 2020.
Thanedar spent $3.9 million on his congressional campaign, according to financial statements filed before the primary. The businessman and chemist loaned his campaign $8.2 million of his own money, giving him a massive campaign war chest that no other candidate could match. Thanedar only raised $1,119 from individual donors.
“He outspent everyone because he had the money and the resources,” Morrow said. “He bought the election. It’s something that’s not uncommon, but it’s uncommon in Detroit.”
Hollier spent $730,017 a few weeks before the primary and raised $899,511 from individuals throughout the campaign. His campaign benefited from national groups and Political Action Committees who launched attack ads against Thanedar and boosted Hollier’s candidacy with donations. The United Democracy Project, a super PAC tied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, spent $2.5 million supporting Hollier and $693,000 attacking Thanedar.
Roberson spent $393,107 on her campaign and raised $389,819 from donors.
Williams, the MDP Black Caucus leader, said there were efforts to bring the Black candidates together and consolidate support around one leader, but egos got in the way. Williams said he supported McPhail in the primary.
Hollier lost by 3,789 votes overall. There were 11,434 votes up for grabs just between the bottom four performing candidates.
“I blame all the knuckleheads that wouldn’t get out the race,” Mongo said. “(Thanedar) comes from Ann Arbor, bought a seat in the state House (of Representatives) and then buys a seat in Congress. We only have ourselves to blame on this … None of these people would get out. They all played spoilers.”
Mongo said Thanedar needs to reach out to his opponents and seek advice on how to engage Detroiters and build a political agenda that meets their needs.
But Blocker, the Democratic Party official, questions whether Thanedar can properly understand the experience of Detroiters who grow up in an environment lacking access to economic and educational opportunity.
“How can anybody who is not part of this experience empathize, how can you relate?” Blocker said. “It remains to be seen.”
Johnson described politics as a war. He said Democrats have lacked the backbone needed to stop the Republican Party from stripping the right to abortion and programs for the poor. Meanwhile, he worried the new political maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission will cause Detroit to be stripped of Black representation.
New maps erode Black power
Tuesday’s primary was the first congressional election using new district boundaries created by the independent redistricting commission. Civil rights groups argued the new maps intentionally split up Black voters in Detroit to disenfranchise them.
“It’s a cruel game that’s being played,” Johnson said. “We are one of the more dominant cities in the state, and we’re on the verge of losing representation for the majority of the people in the city, which would also mean for a majority of African-Americans within the state.”
The success of Black Democrats incumbents running to represent Detroit in the Michigan Legislature was a mixed bag. State Sen. Marshall Bullock, chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, was beaten by Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, in the 8th District primary. Bullock earned 70% of the vote in a small portion of Detroit included in the district but he received half as many votes as McMorrow.
State Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, won her primary in the 1st District covering west Detroit and downriver communities. State Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, also won her 2nd District primary. State Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, won in the 10th District.
Voters in Detroit are divided between the newly-drawn 12th District, which covers a portion of the city’s northwest side and the 13th District, which covers the city’s east and southwest neighborhoods.
Tlaib, D-Detroit, scored a blowout victory in the 12th District primary, handily beating Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey and two other competitors. Tlaib held a significant cash advantage over her challengers and sailed into the night as a clear victor with 64% of the vote.
Winfrey didn’t fare much better among her own constituents in Detroit. She trailed Tlaib with 29% to her 53%.
Tlaib will face Republican Steven Elliott, a U.S. Marine veteran and tattoo studio owner.
Democratic voters far outnumbered Republican voters in Detroit. While Tlaib had just under 16,000 votes from the city, Elliot only earned 369 in Detroit.