Democrats Forced to Face Issue of Race
House Democrats could endure an unprecedented number of primaries this cycle that pit white and black Members against each other thanks to redistricting.
The emerging Member-vs.-Member contests stand to stir tensions between the Congressional Black Caucus and the broader Democratic ranks as well as fracture state delegations.
Republicans controlled redistricting in many high-stakes states this cycle, giving Democrats little say in the makeup of the new districts. Recently passed maps in Michigan, Missouri, California and other states will likely force races between white and minority Democrats.
“It’s infinitely easier to put an urban district, which is represented by an
African-American, with a suburban Democratic district and force a shoot-out among people who philosophically are twins,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said. “That creates an awkward situation inside the Democratic Caucus.”
The tension boiled over in the Illinois delegation last week. Months after local Democrats passed an aggressive new Congressional map, the delegation’s three black Democrats publicly questioned whether it complies with minority representation standards set forth in the Voting Rights Act.
But Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his colleagues are not questioning whether their own majority black districts pass muster. Jackson said he thinks the Latino population may be large enough to create a second majority Hispanic district in addition to that of Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Another such district would dilute Gutierrez’s base.
Other Illinois Democrats — especially Gutierrez — are furious that he’s bringing up these concerns months after the mapmaking process. Jackson’s concerns also play into a Republican lawsuit to overturn the map.
Tension between the two Illinois Members spilled onto the House floor last week when Gutierrez angrily confronted Jackson Thursday during votes. On Friday, one Member described a palpable hostility between Jackson and Gutierrez on the floor. At one moment, Gutierrez walked toward Jackson, who immediately stood up and walked the other way.
Gutierrez didn’t want to comment on the situation with Jackson, declining to make eye contact during most of a brief interview.
“I don’t want to just shoot off at the mouth as some Congressmen do,” Gutierrez said. “I want to carefully consider, otherwise those who speak without carefully considering what they have to say, come off as buffoons, and I certainly don’t want that.”
Much of the racial tension is the result of bad political luck because the GOP controls most of the remapping efforts this cycle. But population movement provoked these circumstances in many states.
As urban population has declined in the past decade, more districts represented by black Members have been pushed into the suburbs — and into the districts held by white Democratic colleagues.
“What you’re seeing, I think, is certainly the case of city districts needing to go out in the suburbs to get more population,” Kimball Brace, a Democratic redistricting expert, said in a phone interview. “And it’s likely that you’ve got African-Americans in the city needing to be put out further.”
That’s the case in Michigan’s redrawn 14th district in greater Detroit. The city lost 25 percent of its population during the past decade.
Michigan Republicans dismantled Rep. Gary Peters’ (D) current district, and he opted to run against fellow Democratic Rep. Hansen Clarke, a CBC member.
Clarke won his seat in Congress last year by defeating then-Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a former CBC chairwoman, in the Democratic primary.
Clarke and Peters appear congenial about their upcoming contest. Just off the House floor Friday, Peters put his arm around Clarke, who affectionately referred to his white opponent as “brother Peters.”
But a race in Southern California pitting a white Member against a member of the CBC isn’t shaping up to be as friendly. Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson, a member of the CBC, faces fellow Rep. Janice Hahn and Assemblyman Isadore Hall in the new 44th district Democratic primary. An independent redistricting commission redrew the district as a
minority-opportunity district — almost 50 percent of the citizen voting-age population is Latino.
Richardson pointed out that the independent redistricting commission designed the district as an opportunity for minorities like herself.
“I think when you have a Section 2 Voting Rights district, it gives the electorate an opportunity to have someone who understands that,” Richardson said. “You can’t fake it and make it living the life that I’ve had to lead. Neither can you fake it and make it what my constituents have had to do.”
Missouri Democrats could also see a race between a white Member and black Member, although party strategists have made it known they want to avoid the contest.
A Republican-drawn map in that state left Rep. Russ Carnahan (D) without many good options to re-election. Carnahan, who is white, can run for the open GOP-leaning 2nd district or challenge Rep. William Lacy Clay (D) in the urban 1st district.
Clay, a former CBC chairman, will presumably have the support of that organization — and maybe even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC has indicated it will help Carnahan if he runs in the 2nd district.
But if Carnahan challenges Clay, the DCCC will be in a tricky position.
“In every case, the DCCC policy has been to be agnostic on Member-to-Member primaries,” DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said Friday in a brief interview.
During the last round of redistricting a decade ago, 16 Members were pitted against each other in eight districts. All of them were white.
“We’re at a different political makeup in the country,” Cleaver said. “We’re at a different political makeup in Congress. We didn’t have 43 Members of the Congressional Black Caucus [in 2002].”
But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the CBC’s Redistricting Task Force co-chairwoman, saw it differently. She blamed Republican state legislators around the country for targeting their districts.
“I believe we’re under siege,” Lee said. “It’s happening in the South, it’s happening in the Midwest. I believe minorities are under siege because of the redrawing of the lines by state legislatures.”