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Will Districts Resolve the Democratic Deficit in Detroit, or Encourage Political Empire Building?

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The complaint is pervasive: State and local politicos are unresponsive. They ignore public opinion when crafting policies. Meanwhile, elected officials claim to represent the views of their constituents, to be the "decision-makers." Turns out, the majority of local and state officials are, in fact, ignoring majority public opinion when crafting policy. The result is chilling. There is polarized policy being imposed on unpolarized voters all over the country, and Michigan ranks among the states where this happens most frequently.

Two professors from Columbia University who study how well elected state and local officials translate public opinion into policy, have determined that Michigan ranks fourth in the nation among states in which elected officials are most likely to shrug at what the people want, then make policy decisions to suit their personal, ideological and political agendas. Dr. Jeffrey R. Lax and Dr. Justin H. Phillips study "how well states translate public opinion into policy. Using national surveys and advances in subnational opinion estimation... [they] estimate state-level support for 39 policies across eight issue areas, including abortion, law enforcement, health care, and education." Their paper is titled "The Democratic Deficit in the States."

In fact, the two profs uncovered a significant "democratic deficit."

In the November 2011 general election, 10 percent of Detroit voters went to the polls. There are, according to Wayne county election officials, 552,182 registered voters in Detroit. No doubt, like in other Michigan cities, the voter rolls are crowded with the names of people who've long ago moved out of the city, and addresses of houses that don't exist anymore.

It's one of the givens of running for office in Michigan. The voter rolls are a disaster. It makes running for office difficult and expensive.

So, the first question needs to be this: How many registered voters does Detroit actually have? In the November 2010 general election, there were 562,674 registered voters in Detroit, according to elections officials. That means, between 2010 and 2011, elections officials purged just 10,000 people from the voter rolls in a city that has lost a significantly higher percentage of its population.

Next, in the August 2009 city council race 95 people ran for nine seats. There were 72 write-in candidates, as well. Assuming all of the candidates would be evenly divided between the newly drawn districts and two at-large seats, that's going to make for some rollicking city council campaigns.

Should the number of regular and write-in candidates remain steady, there will be easily over a dozen people running for a single city council seat in each of the seven newly drawn districts, plus an equal number of write-in candidates running for the same seven council seats and the two at-large seats. The 2009 city council winners each raised between $334,000 and $20,000 to run for office. Perhaps only the first dozen or so city council candidates who run in August 2012 will be able to fundraise to those levels to make their candidacies viable.

Will one of the maps of the proposed districts (below) improve representation, or simply cut down on the number of candidates who run, and encourage concentrated political empire building financed with money from outside the city of Detroit?

Courtesy of the Detroit Free Press.

Alex Garza, chairman of the Young Democrats of Southwest Detroit, told the Freep: "The biggest thing right now is diversity on the council. None of the council members live in southwest Detroit."

Regardless of Garza's concerns about diversity, logic dictates that the number of candidates who run will decrease significantly. Why? The incumbents told the Detroit News that the districts had been drawn to balance populations represented and to keep ethnic groups blocked together (where they are blocked together). That's all well and good, but it's a fact that money is a huge influencing factor in local elections.

While Council member Charles Pugh got the most votes in 2009, and raised a little over $50,000 to run, Council member Gary Brown raised over $334,000 to run in 2009, most of it from donors outside the city. Brown blew $289,811 and captured 41,000 votes (That's over $7.00 per vote, and he came in third). Such an incumbent will be able to financially overwhelm "local" candidates who choose to run in the district in which Brown runs.

According to 2009 campaign finance forms, Brown was financed primarily by the residents of West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills and other overwhelmingly white Detroit suburbs. Living in one of the newly drawn districts, and running to represent the residents in that district will not make Brown of that district anymore than his 2009 campaign win proved he was of Detroit. Brown will surely, once again, raise the majority of his money (if he runs) from donors not only outside his district, but outside the city of Detroit. However, with a base of donors willing to pony up $300,000 to keep Brown in office, running in a district will make him no more responsive to the people of Northwest or Southwest Detroit, say, than he is right now.

Again, according to the Freep: "In all four district options, Councilwoman JoAnn Watson lives in the districts that represent southwest Detroit... All four district maps being considered by the council would create a district in southwest Detroit where the number of Hispanic/Latino residents nearly equals the number of black residents. But in one map -- option 4 -- Hispanics/Latinos outnumber black residents."

Watson raised over $35,000 when she ran in 2009, much of it from the PACs of the city's various unionized employees. If unions are forced to give $100,000,000 in concessions, as Lansing has demanded in exchange for holding off on the appointment of an Emergency Manager, it could cut into Watson's support among unions, and create an opportunity for a Hispanic/Latino challenger who can turn out the vote.

What will be interesting to watch in the 2012 elections for Detroit City Council will be to see which of the winners pulls in the most in campaign donations from her/his own district. The whole idea behind the charter change and the move to districts, is that it will foster a closer connection between representatives and their constituents.

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