Concerns about Michigan's emergency managers and potential voter suppression efforts compelled State Sen. Bert Johnson to send a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, following Holder's Sunday address to the annual NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit.
Johnson, a Democrat who currently represents Highland Park in the statehouse, is running for Congress this year. He belongs to a Highland Park-based coalition called the Financial and Academic Reinvestment Commission, which opposes emergency managers. (The Highland Park School District has been run by a state-appointed emergency manager since February.)
With Republicans dominating all three branches of government in Michigan, Johnson said, "those of us who value democracy and basic voting rights" had little recourse but to appeal to the U.S. attorney general.
Johnson wants Holder and the U.S. Department of Justice to look into "unconstitutional provisions" in Public Act 4, the 2011 law that allows wide power for emergency managers selected by the governor to replace elected officials in financially troubled cities and school districts.
"These all-powerful, unaccountable officials are being appointed in urban communities throughout the state, under the premise of local 'mismanagement,' despite the state's continued systemic disinvestment in these communities," Johnson wrote.
U.S. Rep John Conyers made a similar request to Holder last December, questioning Public Act 4's constitutionality. Conyers claimed the law violated the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from passing laws that impair the obligation of contracts, and also alleged Michigan officials had applied the law in a discriminatory fashion against cities with large African-American populations.
Johnson (a blogger for HuffPost) is running against Conyers for the newly redrawn 13th congressional district seat. In a March letter to the Michigan Citizen, Johnson chided Conyers for taking so long to respond to Public Act 4 and for failing to challenge the appointment of an emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools in 2009 under former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
In his letter, Johnson also requested that the Justice Department investigate the "potential for mass voter suppression tactics" in Detroit during this year's fall elections.
He noted proposed cuts to many city departments under the financial consent agreement the city signed with the state to avoid an emergency manager. "To comply with this agreement, Mayor [Dave] Bing has submitted a budget with 25 percent cuts across the board, including to the city's election department," Johnson noted.
At a Friday City Council hearing, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey warned those cuts would impair the city's ability to hold elections, the Free Press reports.
Johnson told The Huffington Post last week he did not believe the city "got the best deal" from the consent agreement, and criticized the state for using "scaremongering" tactics to get it passed.
"I'm not sure that a clear-cut, clean bankruptcy free of politics would not have been the best option," he said. "It was never explored."
Detroit's consent agreement allows the state significant oversight in city affairs, and will remain on the books even if Public Act 4 is successfully challenged.
Opponents of the law recently submitted over 200,000 signatures in an effort to overturn the law through a referendum, but the state Board of Canvassers deadlocked on the certification of the petitions after a challenge from a conservative group.