‘Nonpartisan’ redistricting board has partisan ties

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – A majority of leaders behind a “nonpartisan” plan to reform the Michigan redistricting process have supported partisan Democrats in the past, fueling criticism from a conservative group opposing the effort.

Seven of 10 board members of the Voters Not Politicians petition committee have given at least a combined $5,649 to Democratic candidates and causes since 2005, according state and federal campaign finance records compiled by the Michigan Freedom Fund.

None have given to Republicans or third-party candidates.

The group’s “anti-gerrymandering” petition proposes amending the Michigan Constitution to create an independent citizen redistricting commission that would redraw legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years.

The task is currently managed by the state Legislature. Republicans controlled the process in 2011 and have maintained healthy majorities in subsequent elections despite narrow collective vote margins statewide.

Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, argues past political contributions by board members show the purported good government effort is “just another attempt by liberal activists to change the rules because the Democrats can’t field candidates or develop a message that resonates with the voters of Michigan.”

Committee President Katie Fahey dismissed the criticism and questioned whether the Freedom Fund, which has past ties to the conservative Republican DeVos family of west Michigan, would stand to lose power and influence if voters approve the potential ballot proposal.

“I don’t know what our board has done,” Fahey said Thursday morning during a taping of “Off The Record” on WKAR-TV. “We’ve never asked for a membership card when people come to the table asking what party they are, and I think if you look at our policy, it directly shows there’s an even playing field now.”

Fahey was quoted in national news stories last fall after flying from Grand Rapids to New York for what she thought was going to be an Election Night victory party for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who instead lost to Republican President Donald Trump.

She wore a red pantsuit to the event, which she said she got last-minute tickets to through a friend, but describes herself as an independent who has voted for Republicans as well.

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, who served as a Republican but now identifies as independent, is supporting the petition drive and has spoken at recent town halls, Fahey said, and grassroots supporters around the state have joined the cause.

“I think (the reason) we have literally thousands of volunteers is because we’re kind of in the new age of looking beyond party politics,” Fahey said.

“Party politics has gotten us into this mess, and we’re looking at people as coming to the table to rise above that to do something good for our state, do something good for fellow Michiganders, and to create a solution that’s actually going to work and let people be listened to again so that we have competitive elections again in our state.”

While the group verbally eschews party politics, several leaders have active political histories.

Walt Sorg, an advisory council director for the ballot committee, ran for the state House as a Democrat in 2012. Records show he has given at least $1,472 to Democratic candidates.

Finance director John Hanieski, former chief economist for the Michigan Department of Commerce, has given $3,399 to Democrats since 2005, including contributions to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and past nominees Virg Bernero and Mark Schuaer.

The donor records and past activities of board members are “a much more reliable indicator of their true intentions than anything they’ve told the media thus far,” Daunt said.

The petition drive proposes amending 11 separate sections of the Michigan Constitution to create a 13-member redistricting commission that includes four self-identified Democrats, four Republicans and five others who are “nonaffiliated” or independent.

Every 10 years, the Michigan Secretary of State’s office would randomly select commissioners from a pool of registered voters who submitted a publicly available application and were not disqualified by Republican or Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

Despite the complexity of the petition, Fahey said the group is not having any trouble gathering signatures. It has collected 50,000 through two weeks, she said, and is on pace to collect more than the 315,654 valid signatures needed to make the ballot.

While the committee has not raised enough money to hire paid circulators, Fahey said it has an extensive volunteer network that features 13 regional directors and more than 200 captains who each oversee between 12 and 35 circulators.

“And we’re adding to them every day,” she said.

The Board of State Canvassers approved the petition for circulation earlier this month, setting the stage for what GOP consultant Jamie Roe argued is an attempt to “rig the system” because Democrats “can’t win elections.”

Fahey said the effort has been nonpartisan from the start. It began as a Facebook group called “Michiganders for nonpartisan redistricting reform,” she said.