Former Michigan House speaker backs anti-gerrymandering initiative

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
From left: Mickey Knight, Rick Johnson, Barb Byrum and Bill Bobier pose for a selfie at a Voters Not Politicians press conference.

Lansing — A trio of former Michigan Republican lawmakers on Wednesday spoke out in support of a ballot proposal that would create an independent commission to redraw political district boundaries every 10 years instead of elected officials.

Political parties — most recently the GOP — have "gerrymandered" districts to consolidate power in a process that has contributed to "hyper-partisanship" in the state Legislature and Congress, they argued at a press conference organized by the Voters Not Politicians ballot committee.

“We need change,” said Rick Johnson, a LeRoy Republican who served as speaker of the state House during the 2001 redistricting process and was a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign.

“This might not be the only change, but I hope it’s something. This country and this state can’t continue down the road we’re on right now because we’ll all be broke. There won’t be a legitimate unit of government that can stand this stuff that’s going on.”

Johnson was joined at the event by two other Republicans, former state Reps. Bill Bobier and Mickey Knight, and Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democratic former state lawmaker who was vice chair of the House Redistricting Committee in 2011.

Their criticism of current redistricting rules comes one week after a national Democratic group pumped $250,000 into the ballot campaign, fueling GOP allegations the effort is a partisan ploy. The Michigan Republican Party is officially opposing the proposal.

Bobier, who supported current redistricting rules codified in 1996 but now says Michigan maps look “pretty perverted,” dismissed criticism from the Republican Party, which controlled the redistricting process in 2001 and 2011.

“When you’re in control, you want to keep control,” he said.

Proposal 2, as it will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, would turn map making over to a citizen commission of four Democrats, four Republicans and five self-identified independents who would be selected under a process overseen by the secretary of state.

The commission would be barred from creating districts that give “a disproportionate advantage to a political party,” as determined by “accepted measures of partisan fairness,” according to the language of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Michigan GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said the party opposes the initiative because “it creates more problems than it solves.”

“VNP places the power of redistricting out of the hands of elected officials who are held accountable to voters and into the hands of a randomly selected group who will be unelected and unaccountable with no qualifications, eliminating checks and balances,” she said in an email.

Ballot initiative opponents have also criticized the proposal because of commission costs, restrictions on legal challenges and prohibitions on who could serve. Anyone who was a partisan political candidate, party official, lobbyist or paid consultant could not serve within six years. Neither could their immediate family members.

“It claims to be non-partisan, but would allow people like Mike Duggan (Detroit’s Democratic mayor who technically holds a non-partisan office) to serve, but not someone like my mother, who has never been involved in politics, because I am an elected precinct delegate and she is related to me,” Anderson said.

Because of legislative majorities, Republicans controlled Michigan redistricting in 2001 and 2011. But that wasn’t the case in the early 1990s, when Knight served in the state House and said Democrats helped split up African-American strongholds in Muskegon and Muskegon Heights to make his and a neighboring district more competitive.

“The purpose of that was so the Democrats could potentially have both seats,” he said. “I continued to serve for 12 years, so my seat remained Republican. The other switched almost every election and was probably one of the most expensive seats in the state because of campaign expenditures.”

Computer technology has made gerrymandering easier to pull off in recent decades, the former lawmakers said. By packing Democratic voters into a smaller number of districts and creating more “safe” seats for Republicans, map makers reduced the incentive for candidates to appeal to moderate voters, they argued.

“You get in those primaries and you’ve got to compete with the wingers, because that’s where the turnout comes from” Bobier said. “I think you can almost correlate the way the maps are drawn precisely with the amount of partisanship.”

While Republicans controlled the process in 2001, Johnson said he reached across the aisle to work with then-Democratic House leader Kwame Kilpatrick, who would later serve as Detroit mayor before heading to federal prison on corruption charges.

They struck a deal that Kilpatrick would get to draw lines for Detroit districts that Johnson knew Republicans would have no chance of winning anyway, he said.

“I’m sure he drew the lines for his supporters in the city and not his non-supporters in the city,” Johnson said. “It’s not about the people.”

The Michigan Republican Party “can say what they want” about the proposal, Johnson added. “I don’t give a damn. I’ll say what I think is right. I always have.”