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Can Black candidates win in Michigan’s new districts? It may be a struggle

mailers
Political mailers being circulated in Michigan’s new 8th state Senate district, which pits incumbent Sens. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, and Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit, in a primary face-off. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)

She’s a battle-tested campaigner who skyrocketed to national prominence after a video of a recent Senate floor speech went viral. He’s a hardworking native Detroiter who chairs the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus.

One of them has to lose.  

The new 8th state Senate district in southeast Michigan pits incumbent Democratic Sens. Mallory McMorrow of Royal Oak and Marshall Bullock of Detroit against each other in the Aug. 2 primary.

senate map
A map of Michigan’s new 8th state Senate district (Screenshot, Michigan Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission)

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Both entered the Senate in 2018 as underdogs, Bullock in the primary and McMorrow in the general. They live on opposite ends of the district, say they’re disappointed they have to run against each other and have pledged not to dive into personal attacks. 

“Obviously, it’s a bummer to be drawn in with a colleague — Marshall and I are friends,” said McMorrow, whose campaign has had a competitive edge in fundraising and name recognition since a video of her floor speech denouncing an attack from a Senate colleague was viewed by millions of people across the globe. 

Bullock chalked it up to an “unfortunate set of circumstances” caused by redistricting.

“I am very much involved and engaged and love my other 15 colleagues in the current Senate caucus…it's unfortunate, but we’ve got to do what we got to do,” he said.

In the aftermath of the legislative and congressional redistricting process that occurs every 10 years, races pitting incumbents against each other are not uncommon once the lines are reshuffled. Some potential conflicts are resolved by incumbents moving into another district.

But the 8th Senate District primary, which is heavily Democratic, is a high-profile example of the double-edged sword Michigan’s redistricting process presented to Democrats, particularly in the state Legislature. 

The lines drawn by an independent redistricting commission last year are, on paper, more competitive and present an opportunity for Democrats to make statewide gains — perhaps even a path to eke out a majority in the state Senate, where Republicans have held a commanding majority for decades.

Majority-minority districts shrink

Redistricting shrunk the number of Michigan’s majority-minority districts, those where people of color comprise a majority of voters. Before 2021, Michigan had 17 such districts — two in Congress, five in the Michigan Senate, and 10 in the Michigan House.  The new maps now have five majority-minority districts, and all of them are in the House. 

Here’s a look at highlights of changes:

  • U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence is the only Black member of Congress in Michigan. She’s retiring at the end of the term.
  • In the state Senate, there are five Black lawmakers: Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit, Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, and Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, are running for re-election. Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, is running for Congress, and Sen. Betty Jean Alexander, D-Detroit, did not qualify for the ballot. 
  • There are 15 Black House lawmakers, two of whom — Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, and Kyra Harris-Bolden, D-Southfield — are running for another elected office. Three are term-limited out of office. Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, was drawn into the same new district as Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, but did not qualify for the ballot. Three are running for reelection unopposed in the Democratic primary, and six are running against one or more primary opponents.

But doing so could mean any gains come at the expense of Black candidates who now must compete in districts with one foot in big cities and another in neighboring suburbs.

Before the 2021 redistricting process, Michigan had 17 majority-minority districts — two in Congress, five in the Michigan Senate, and 10 in the Michigan House. 

The new maps now have five majority-minority districts total, and all of them are in the state House. 

The 8th Senate district “is more or less perfectly emblematic of what you have to do in order to maximize the number of competitive seats,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democrat and CEO of the political consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

The commission did that by splitting up larger urban areas that are more densely populated and stretching districts into the suburbs, Hemond continued.

The Legislature now has 20 Black lawmakers, but come January, it “is going to look quite a bit whiter,” Hemond predicted.

Before the citizens panel, districts were drawn by the party in power in Lansing — and Republicans who devised the maps have said urban Democrats helped draw safe seats for Black lawmakers at the expense of more competitive districts elsewhere in the state.

Members of the newly created citizens redistricting commission have defended the legality of its work, and a majority of its members view the results as a big improvement over current political maps, which were drawn by the GOP-majority state Legislature. 

A federal three-judge panel ruled the 2011 maps constituted a “political gerrymander of historical proportions,” but the districts remained after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts have no place in deciding partisan gerrymandering cases.

“Our job as commissioners on this independent citizens redistricting commission wasn’t to pick winners and losers of elections, it was simply to make a level playing field,” said Anthony Eid, one of the commission’s five independents and an Oakland County resident. 

“I really do believe that we’re going to end up with more minority representation generally…We’re just going to have to let it play out.”

‘Peril’ for Black candidates?

Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, recalls a former colleague who frequently made note of the number of Black women in the state Legislature. 

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She wanted to get photos, Yancey told Bridge, “because she didn’t know when this was happening again.”

Yancey, who led an unsuccessful lawsuit against the state’s redistricting commission over its handling of metro Detroit legislative and congressional districts, now fears her former colleague was right.

“Once we lose the seats, it's going to take decades to get them back,” said Yancey, who is term-limited.

Detroit has the highest percentage of Black residents of any big city in the United States, and it has been represented by an African American in Washington D.C. for nearly 60 years.

During the redistricting process, members of the 13-member independent redistricting commission struggled with how best to map out the city, landing on a plan that included two Detroit-centric congressional seats, the 12th and 13th. 

In the state legislative maps, the commission split the city among several districts that extend deep into the suburbs in Oakland and Wayne counties. Detroit is spread across eight state Senate districts and 15 state House districts.

The maps also slashed the number of legislative districts where an outright majority of residents are Black.

Backlash was swift. Many activists voiced concerns during the redistricting process that the commission’s work violated the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to eliminate barriers to voting and representation.

“Our candidates are in peril,” said Keith D. Williams, the chair of the Black Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party,

The redistricting commission’s lawyers argued that Black Detroiters could still elect their candidates of choice under the maps and could, in fact, have more voting power than before, as their communities are no longer packed into a smaller number of districts. 

Who is right? 

That question hinges on whether the commission’s decision to move away from majority-minority districts to better comply with the Voting Rights Act works as intended. 

Historically, mapmakers have drawn districts where a minority group makes up at least 50 percent of the population in regions with high minority populations to comply with the Voting Rights Act and increase the likelihood that the minority candidate of choice will be elected. 

The commission operated under the theory that the same effect could be reached by unpacking the districts, citing data from previous elections showing significant crossover between Black residents and white residents in the metro Detroit region. 

By pairing Black communities with like-minded white voters, the commission’s attorneys argued the new lines could increase the clout of people of color and allow them to elect candidates of their choice without concentrating them into fewer districts.

Nationally, only 18 of 53 members of the Congressional Black Caucus were elected in districts that are majority African American, while in 2020, racial minorities won 19 of 20 legislative races in Michigan districts where Black people comprised 35 percent of the population, according to the Associated Press.

Some experts counter that the redistricting commission had insufficient primary election data to determine whether minority voters’ picks prevailed in the new configurations. 

“If you look at primary turnout in these districts, primary turnout is typically lower in Detroit than it is in these suburban communities,” said Hemond, the Democratic consultant. “There is a strong incentive for candidates, whether they reside in the city of Detroit or not, to spend the bulk of their time and money campaigning outside the city.”

So far, the commission’s work has withstood court challenges, although a federal lawsuit challenging Voting Rights Act compliance is pending. 

A high-stakes race

The high stakes are best illuminated by an 11-mile drive from Birmingham to West McNichols Road in Detroit, which cuts through most of the cluster of communities contained in the new 8th Senate District.

Birmingham, Berkley, Royal Oak, Pleasant Ridge, Ferndale — all are anchored by Woodward Avenue. Neighboring communities Oak Park, Clawson and Royal Oak Township round out the Oakland County portion, while the Detroit section extends to the border of Highland Park and southwest to Interstate 96.

The district of 267,500 residents is 40.6 Black and 48 percent white. Detroiters comprise 35 percent of the district, a total of 93,965 residents.

Both McMorrow and Bullock have long called their communities home and said moving to run in a different district wasn’t a reasonable option for them. 

Mallory McMorrow holding a baby shaking a man's hand
Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, shakes hands during a campaign event. She says she’s working to earn the trust of Detroit voters in a new district that is split between the city and suburbs. (Courtesy photo)

Their Senate records are similar, and they’re both hearing the same concerns from voters in their district — they said their constituents are nervous about Roe v. Wade being overturned, frightened and frustrated by the increase in gun violence with little movement towards meaningful action.

Bullock, whose previous district was majority Black and majority Detroit residents, said he  hopes voters in new districts without either of those benefits will still be heard — not just in Detroit, but in Grand Rapids, Flint and other areas where there are large minority populations.

“I saw (proposed) maps that I thought personally looked fair…but I don't feel like it played out that way, and it did a disservice,” he said. 

He said he hopes his strategy four years ago — hard work, door knocking, visibility and straight talk on the issues — pays off. 

“We're all out here doing our duty that is best, and we'll leave it to the Lord the rest,” he said. 

McMorrow said she knows she’s not going to be the right choice for everyone in the district. When Black voters have asked whether they can trust her to be an advocate for their communities, she said she points to her record of working with Detroit lawmakers on flooding response, infrastructure and anti-racism efforts, as well as her focus on constituent services.

“I acknowledge up front…I’m a white, suburban mom in a district that is now much more diverse than the district that I currently represent,” she said. “It's really going in and being humble and saying, ‘This is what I have to offer, but of course, you should be skeptical, not only of me, but of anybody who is running to represent you.’”

McMorrow currently represents about 40 percent of the 8th district in her current seat. A handful of communities in the new district — Ferndale, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak Township — are currently part of fellow Oakland County lawmaker Sen. Jeremy Moss’ district. 

Moss, D-Southfield, is running in the neighboring 7th district. Initially, sitting Democratic Sen. Rosemary Bayer was also drawn into the 8th. Bayer, D-Keego Harbor, opted to run in the 13th state Senate district. 

Bullock’s current district is entirely in Wayne County and in addition to portions of Detroit includes Allen Park, Lincoln Park and Southgate. 

Marshall Bullock at microphone
Sen. Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit, speaks on the Senate floor. He says he’s used to being an underdog. (Courtesy photo)

Brandon Simpson of Detroit is running unopposed in the district’s Republican primary, and will face either Bullock or McMorrow in November.

National recognition, local focus 

As a state lawmaker, McMorrow has advocated for stricter gun policies, abortion protections, allowing for greater remote flexibility in the Legislature and expanded options for electric vehicles. 

She also was one of three women to come forward with a sexual harassment complaint against then-Sen. Pete Lucido. A Senate investigation later determined the reports were credible. 

McMorrow, though, is now best known for her sudden rise to political stardom.

A fellow lawmaker, Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, in April accused McMorrow in a fundraising email of “wanting to groom and sexualize kindergarteners.” 

McMorrow’s response — a floor speech that rebuked the use of Christianity to marginalize others, detailed her own background as a “straight, white, Christian, married suburban mom” and challenged her colleagues to “not let hate win” — was viewed on social media millions of times and shared by prominent Democrats including  Hillary Clinton. 

Then came the TV hits, the profiles in national media outlets, the massive uptick in campaign donations. McMorrow’s campaign estimates more than $500,000 in fundraising to the campaign and related political causes has come in since the video was posted. 

A Politico Magazine profile dubbed McMorrow as “the Democrat who could solve her party’s identity crisis.” In addition to events in her district, she’s making appearances in other states and in Congress — on Wednesday, McMorrow was slated to testify before the U.S. House Oversight Committee to discuss the impacts of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade in Michigan. 

The main difference on the campaign trail, McMorrow said, is that she gets recognized when she’s knocking doors now. And she’s excited about the prospect of a more regional approach to governing. 

McMorrow said she sees more similarities between the communities contained in the new district than those in her current seat, which she won in an upset victory over former Republican Sen. Marty Knollenberg, or if Detroit was wholly separated from the suburbs. 

“Metro Detroit is a region, but we haven't had the ability in the Legislature to really advocate for the region, pushing for things like regional transit, pushing for things like economic development…understanding that sometimes people live in Oakland County and work in Detroit and vice versa,” she said. 

Crossing Eight Mile

Bullock has spent a lot of time getting to know the Oakland County portions of the district he now hopes to represent, attending city council and commission meetings in each city, door knocking and generally making himself as visible as possible. 

To do that, he has to repeatedly travel over Eight Mile Road — a boundary that historically hadn’t been crossed in state legislative districts during the redistricting process. 

The redistricting commission took a vastly different approach to Detroit than previous cycles, drawing districts that split up portions of the city into districts with neighboring communities in Oakland and Macomb counties.

Like many Detroit elected officials during the redistricting process, Bullock was critical of any approach that could minimize the city’s influence in the Legislature and Congress, and he continues to have concerns about the future possibility of no state lawmakers representing Detroit who actually live in the city.

But for now, Bullock is focused on moving forward, trying to educate voters about the redistricting process and highlight the importance of having people with firsthand knowledge of Detroit’s needs and history in the Legislature. 

“At this point, (redistricting is) over, and so you’ve just got to do what you got to do,” he said. 

Bullock said he is used to being the underdog. A longtime juvenile justice advocate who previously worked for the Detroit Department of Neighborhoods, Bullock in 2018 ran against a sitting lawmaker, then-Rep. Fred Durhal, Jr., for an open Senate seat in the Democratic primary. 

As a senator, Bullock has worked to secure funding for Detroit-area public works projects, supported auto insurance reform and has advocated for affordable health care services. He’s known for his willingness to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle and chairs the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus. 

If he’s reelected, he wants to work on obtaining more money for roads, improve behavioral health services and diversionary options for youth and address education inequities.

Bullock had his own moment of stardom last month, when his pithy statement regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade made the rounds on Twitter.

“This is some bullshit,” Bullock said.

Scrutiny on Congress

At the congressional level, observers are closely watching the two districts containing parts of the state’s biggest city — particularly the 13th Congressional District, where a nine-way primary could be the best chance for a Black candidate to continue representing Detroit. 

Most candidates in the race are Black, including state Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit; Portia Roberson, the CEO of the Detroit-based nonprofit Focus: HOPE; former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo; Michael Griffie, a Teach for America-Detroit executive; and John Conyers III, the son of the late congressman.

Also running is state Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, an Indian-American businessman who spent $10 million in 2018 on an unsuccessful bid for governor. He has loaned himself millions to run for Congress, and has said he would represent the needs and issues of Black voters if elected. 

In the 12th District, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey is challenging incumbent Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. 

It’s long been a challenge for line-drawers to keep two majority Black congressional districts centered on Detroit due to ongoing population decline, said Dave Wasserman, senior House editor of The Cook Political Report. The impact of having two Detroit-centric districts where neither have a Black majority remains unclear, he said. 

“It’s possible that at some point in the next decade, one or both districts will be represented by someone who's not Black,” Wasserman said. “It's not clear whether redistricting will be the main reason for that.”

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Michigan isn’t the only state that’s struggled with the question — in Ohio, for example, the need to create a Cleveland-centric district meant the new district is now under 50 percent Black, Wasserman said. Because answers to questions over how to allocate representation based on race are often settled in court, he said the rules around race and redistricting “have not been imposed consistently across state lines.”

On the Republican side, two Black candidates are making high-profile bids for public office: Oakland County businessman and third-time candidate John James, who is the favored GOP nominee for the 10th Congressional District, and John Gibbs, who has mounted a challenge to sitting U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. Both candidates have the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

Michigan Democrats need to own the concerns of Black residents and help remedy the situation by investing more resources in Black candidate recruitment, fundraising and more, said Williams, chair of the Democratic Party’s Black Caucus.

“African Americans are the backbone of the party, and they cannot deliver on anything unless African Americans are participating and voting,” he said. “It can't just be lip service. It's got to be resources. Because they always come to us when things are needed — we just need to get our fair share and get help when we need help.”

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