Amash: Partisan redistricting an ‘ugly’ process

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Rep. Justin Amash

Lansing — Drawing Michigan’s current congressional boundaries in 2011 was an “ugly” process that was largely governed by Republican lawmakers with more seniority than himself, West Michigan GOP U.S. Rep. Justin Amash said Wednesday.

The libertarian-leaning congressman from Cascade Township sought to clarify his position in the wake of a Detroit News report highlighting internal and external pressures put on map makers who crafted districts approved by the GOP-led Legislature seven years ago.      

Amash was among the incumbents who had raised concerns over proposed boundaries, according to emails and the sworn deposition of congressional map maker Jeff Timmer, which were disclosed as part of a federal lawsuit alleging partisan gerrymandering.

Rather than bolster his own district, “I was trying to prevent what I viewed as a political gerrymander,” Amash said Wednesday.

“I firmly believe there should be an independent process for drawing districts. They should be based on geographic considerations, and they should be as compact and contiguous as possible.”

In particular, Amash told The News he was wary of early draft maps that proposed splitting up Grand Rapids, an increasingly Democratic city, and the final version of the map that did split up his home of Kent County in what he called an “unnatural” way.

“There are even more troubling things that happened in the Detroit metro area, but I always felt the maps should be drawn in a way that is less political and more based on geographic considerations,” the 38-year-old lawmaker said. “Unfortunately, the senior members of the delegation controlled the process very heavily, and so did the Michigan Chamber.”

Amash is Michigan’s only congressional Republican who is not part of a legal effort to dismiss the federal lawsuit, which alleges GOP officials diluted the voice of Democratic voters by “cracking and packing” them into a smaller number of winnable districts.

Detail of Michigan Congressional maps.

In a June 2011 email revealed in a recent legal filing, GOP strategist Greg McNeilly told Timmer that Amash “is concerned with Calhoun,” referencing the county southeast of Kent that includes Battle Creek.

“I took it to mean that adding recently former Congressman Mark Schauer into his district was a concern,” Timmer testified.

Schauer, a Democrat, 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.

Amash told The News he viewed the shift as an attempt to “draw the districts more politically and perhaps help some of the other members of the delegation by taking areas out of my natural district, the Kent County area, and giving me areas that are much further away.”

Timmer provided McNeilly with 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.

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.

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

While he supports an “independent process,” Amash has not weighed in on a Michigan ballot proposal that would create an independent redistricting commission to draw new political boundaries each decade instead of the Legislature. The Michigan Republican Party opposes the measure.

Michigan law currently allows whichever political party holds power in the state Capitol to control the process. Republicans led the effort in 2011 and 2001, drawing maps with help of redistricting guru Bob LaBrant, who was then legal counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce business advocacy group.

Without naming colleagues, some of whom have likely since retired, Amash said senior members of the GOP congressional delegation “sidelined everyone else” while working with the chamber to draw the current U.S. House boundaries.

“I’m sure the Democrats have a similar process if they control the Legislature,” he said.