GOP pressure shaped state's district maps, court records show

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
“I think your map protects all nine incumbents and it looks good,” GOP redistricting guru Bob LaBrant, then a Michigan Chamber of Commerce official, told congressional mapmaker Jeff Timmer in a May 2011 email. It came as pressure from within and outside the Legislature began to rise.

Lansing — Republican mapmakers who drew Michigan's current political districts were pressured to appease lawmakers and made changes to help gain legislative approval, according to documents and depositions in a federal lawsuit. 

The documents show mapmakers in 2011 gave top party officials the partisan vote history breakdowns of new districts, shared proposed maps with an interest group linked to the DeVos family, entertained suggestions from at least one GOP donor and faced backlash from incumbents vexed at how their districts were redrawn.

“I think your map protects all nine incumbents and it looks good,” GOP redistricting guru Bob LaBrant, then a Michigan Chamber of Commerce official, told congressional mapmaker Jeff Timmer in a May 2011 email. It came as pressure from within and outside the Legislature began to rise.

But Republican then-U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter of Livonia and U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of West Michigan, in particular, were “concerned and at times opposed or threatening to be opposed and disrupting the legislative process” by lobbying lawmakers against the plan, Timmer, a GOP consultant for the Lansing-based Sterling Corp, said in a sworn deposition.

Detail of Michigan Congressional maps approved by Republican-led Legislature in 2011.

The transcripts were revealed by attorneys for congressional Republicans as part of a motion to dismiss the suit alleging partisan gerrymandering. They reference emails that shed light on a redistricting process that Michigan law allows to be controlled by whichever party holds power at the start of any given decade. 

Republicans led the process in 2011 and hired mapmakers who used advanced software to draw the lines. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Democratic voters, alleges Republicans drew maps to benefit their candidates by "packing or cracking" Democrats into a smaller number of winnable districts

Brian Began, a Republican staffer who helped draw state House districts, emailed Timmer and state Senate mapmaker Terry Marquardt in June 2011 with a “map that we will likely use as it doesn’t primary two Dems in Wayne County so long as they vote our way.”

Began, in a sworn deposition, said he did not remember “the context” of his email. But records show three Wayne County Democrats — then-state Reps. Doug Geiss, Andrew Kandrevas and Paul Clemente — ended up voting for the Republican-drawn maps.

The trio cut a deal with Republicans after learning Detroit Democrats were attempting to negotiate their own agreement with the GOP that would have carved up the Wayne County suburbs, including his hometown of Taylor, Geiss told The Detroit News. 

"A pox on all of their houses," Geiss said, still frustrated by the process seven years later. "This is not what democracy looks like. It left a bad taste in my mouth and does today. Democrats and Republicans should not be in control of that process."

Timmer, the congressional mapmaker who is a prominent figure in the new court documents, did not respond to an interview request.

Records first reported by Bridge Magazine show his Sterling Corp. firm was paid $170,000 to draw maps and help raise money for the Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute, a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors but spent about $1 million on GOP redistrict efforts in 2011.

Congressional pressure

McCotter and his chief of staff Jack Daly regularly shared suggestions with Timmer as he drew congressional maps, according to the documents. In a previously reported message, Daly celebrated a proposed map that would make it “easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties into only four districts.”

McCotter, who resigned in 2012 after a petition signature fraud scandal kept him off the primary ballot, wanted to preserve the shape of his district as much as possible, Timmer said. The Livonia Republican was keenly interested in how the new maps would affect potential opponents.

"I know that Thad felt he could get elected anywhere in that district, but he was more concerned about who might run against him in a primary,” Timmer said in his deposition. 

Then-state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat now running for governor, blasted the GOP congressional map prior to a 2011 vote, alleging districts were drawn to protect McCotter and suggesting that "future generations of school kids might learn about them as examples of gerrymanders.”

Republican lawmakers defended the map, noting it would preserve two African-American majority districts while minimizing districts that break up counties or municipalities. 

“What we have in front of us is a fair, a legal and a constitutional plan for our new congressional districts,” state Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, said before the vote.

Timmer repeatedly insisted that his top priority during the redistricting process was adhering to the “Apol standards,” the court-ordered redistricting rules codified by the Michigan Legislature in 1996.

But he acknowledged legislative leaders “would make alterations” to secure votes and said the rules were not strictly adhered to on legislative maps in at least two instances.

Clinton Township was split in an unusual way after requests by Republican lawmakers from Macomb County, he recalled. Two more townships than necessary were added to a Livingston County district on the state Senate map, he said.

'Rock solid' Republican

In one 2011 email, Timmer said Amash was threatening to "scuttle" the plan by lobbying state lawmakers against it. The congressman and former state lawmaker had "concerns about territory" in Kent County and that the map also drew Democratic former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer into his district, Timmer explained in his deposition.

Schauer had traded terms with GOP U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton but did not run again after his home in Battle Creek was drawn out of the 7th Congressional District and into Amash’s 3rd District.

Greg McNeilly, a GOP strategist who works for the DeVos family's Windquest Group, wrote Timmer in June of 2011 to say that “Amash is concerned with Calhoun.” McNeilly, who told The News he was not working directly for Amash or on his behalf, told Timmer that LaBrant had suggested they talk. 

Amash: “I was trying to prevent what I viewed as a political gerrymander”

Timmer provided McNeilly with what he said was requested information detailing partisan vote totals in the proposed Amash district from 2006 to 2010. In one email, Timmer said the seat was “still rock solid.” Republican operative Jamie Roe said in another email that Amash's district was “still the second best seat in the state” for Republicans.

The deposition revealed that Roe, who was chief of staff to GOP then-U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, celebrated in an email a draft map he said looked like it was “giving the finger” to U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, a Royal Oak Democrat.

Roe was describing a section of Sterling Heights that was included in Miller’s new district. No one lived in the area but it had “good companies,” he said in an email.

Roe asked Timmer to keep a strip between Mound and Van Dyke in Sterling Heights in Miller’s district “so that we can continue to represent General Dynamics, the Chrysler plant, and the Ford Transmission plant.”

Roe has been a vocal critic of a November ballot proposal that would create an independent commission to draw maps and has argued “politics is really not part of” the current process. He said he has not been a fan of Levin, who is retiring.

But his 2011 comments do not prove any effort to gerrymander, Roe argued, noting the “middle finger” created in the map was home to zero voters but was an important part of Macomb County’s defense corridor that Miller “liked fighting for" in Congress.

“I do politics for a living,” he said, explaining why he described proposed districts in terms of partisan voting histories. “Of course I’m going to note the partisan nature, but that’s not a determination of how it was drawn.”

The emails show Republicans were "quibbling over how gerrymandered their district would be, not whether it would be gerrymandered," said Mark Brewer, an attorney in the federal lawsuit and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Advocacy group pressure

In one email, Timmer asked another mapmaker to forward a proposed district map and partisan voting history to the Great Lakes Education Project, an advocacy group founded by now-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a former major GOP donor and state party chair.

Another email described in the deposition showed GOP donor Jon Cotton, president of Meridian Health Plan Inc., offering input on legislative maps in an email thread that included Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak.

“Can we still have the map drawers draw a favorable Republican district with the Pointes all together?” wrote Cotton, who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms.

The suggestion was not incorporated because it would have reduced the number of majority-minority districts, said Timmer, who told attorneys he was likely referring to Cotton when he referenced “GP$$ folks” in one email to Schostak.

Timmer also said GOP operative Stu Sandler delivered draft maps and other information to Schostak during the redistricting process.

LaBrant, the former legal counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce who helped shape GOP redistricting efforts for more than two decades, told Timmer in a May 2011 email that “Dale at the RNC has drawn a 10-4 map” for Michigan. It apparently was designed to help the GOP win 10 of the state's 14 congressional seats.

But "your map protects all nine incumbents and it looks good,” said LaBrant, who separately told a legislative aide to then-Congressman Dave Camp that "we've spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond."

Michigan Republicans retained nine U.S. House seats in 2012 and have enjoyed a 9-5 delegation majority since the state lost one seat that year due to population losses.

Emails show that when Timmer provided draft maps to various interested parties, he often included election data charts breaking down how many Republican votes were cast within proposed districts during past elections.

“Any GOPer should fare quite well here,” he said of the way McCotter’s district was drawn in one draft map. “All GOP seats improve except Congressional Districts 2 and 3,” he said in another email. 

Timmer denied a political motivation in his own map making. He testified that he provided vote history data assuming the type of questions Republican lawmakers or staff would ask “once we satisfied the Apol criteria.”

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