Primary vote could mean no Black Detroit member in Congress

FILE - In this June 20, 2018, file photo, Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar gestures during a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thanedar won Michigan's 13th Congressional Democratic primary on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, topping a field of nine candidates in a district that covers most of Detroit and potentially leaving the city next term without Black representation in Congress for the first time since the early 1950s. (Michael Buck/Wood-TV8 via AP, POOL, File) (Michael Buck)

DETROIT – State Rep. Shri Thanedar won Michigan’s 13th Congressional Democratic primary, topping a field of nine candidates in a district that covers most of Detroit and potentially leaving the predominantly Black city next term without Black representation in Congress for the first time since the early 1950s.

Results from Tuesday’s election show Thanedar, an immigrant from India, defeating state Rep. Adam Hollier and attorney Portia Roberson. Martell Bivings, who is Black, ran unopposed in Tuesday’s Republican primary for the 13th District, but is a longshot to win the general election in the heavily Democratic district.

Detroit has not been without a Black representative in Congress since before Charles Diggs Jr. took office in 1955. Diggs was joined in Congress in 1965 by Democrat John Conyers, who retained his congressional seat for more than 50 years.

Detroit is about 80% Black and all of the other candidates in the primary were Black.

“This race was not about me,” Thanedar said in a statement Wednesday. “Michigan’s 13th Congressional district is one of the poorest in the country, and I will fight for economic and racial justice in Congress.”

The 13th District — redrawn through redistricting after Michigan lost a seat following the census — is currently represented by Democrat Rashida Tlaib, who ran in the redrawn 12th Congressional District and won Tuesday.

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in January finalized the U.S. House and legislative maps that will last 10 years. The plans are fairer politically to Democrats but have drawn criticism from Black legislators and the state’s civil rights department because they slash the number of seats where African Americans account for a majority of the voting-age population.

A federal lawsuit subsequently filed on behalf of a group of current and former Black state lawmakers in Detroit seeks to block the newly drawn districts, contending they illegally dilute the voting strength of African Americans. Thanedar’s victory confirms that claim, according to Nabih Ayad, an attorney for the group.

The suit alleges violations of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the Michigan Constitution. The No. 1 map-drawing criteria for the panel was to comply with the 1965 law, which bans discriminatory voting practices and procedures.

“We’ve been alleging this all along, that it will take a miracle for some of these individuals to win,” Ayad said Wednesday. “This is no surprise. Why should they be the sacrificial lambs. It's a very, very sad day for the African American power base that worked for decades to get where they are.”

Former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo has been vocal against the redrawn districts and was one of the candidates who failed to advance in the Democratic 13th Congressional District primary Tuesday.

"At a time when the Black community is reeling from a rollback of voting rights and Black women — who already face inequity with maternal health and barriers to safe abortion care — deal with the impact of the Roe v. Wade reversal, Black representation in Congress for Michigan and for Detroit matters now more than ever,” Roberson said Wednesday. “Many people woke up this morning justifiably concerned.”

University of Michigan political science professor Ken Kollman said the crowded field of candidates, and a lack of coordination in the district and among groups of voters, may have been major factors in Thanedar's win.

“I would assume to many voters in Detroit it's a big deal and I'm sure it is something that's a big disappointment for many voters in Detroit,” Kollman said of the possibility of the city having no Black voices in Congress. “Whether it will lead to different representation on substance or issues depends a lot on how the particular people who represent Detroit act in Congress.”

“Detroit members of Congress have been very important and active in things like the Congressional Black Caucus, and very visible Black leaders in the country,” he added.

Roberson said there would be talk about Black candidates dividing the vote in the primary, and that the political establishment had tried to "manufacture a consensus African American candidate.”

“The first step in having a consensus candidate is picking the most qualified candidate,” she said. “That did not happen in this race.”

Thanedar, an entrepreneur, moved to Detroit from Ann Arbor and was elected in 2020 to Michigan's 3rd House District. He spent more than $10 million of his own money to run for governor in 2018 but finished third that year in the Democratic primary. Thanedar’s campaign website says he contributed $5,040,404 to his campaign for Tuesday's race.


The story has been corrected to say Rashida Tlaib represents the 13th Congressional District, not Brenda Lawrence.