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GOP emails: Let's 'cram Dem garbage' into southeast Michigan districts

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Bob LaBrant

Lansing — Republican aides suggested ways to contain “Dem garbage” to four congressional districts in southeast Michigan and joked about how one district could be shaped to give “the finger” to a Democratic congressman, according to 2011 emails revealed in a federal lawsuit alleging GOP gerrymandering.

The emails show Republicans “packed and cracked” legislative and congressional district maps to benefit GOP candidates and hurt Democrats, attorneys representing the League of Women Voters argued in a recent court filing.

The full emails provide better context, and one of the emails was from a GOP aide who wasn't involved in the map redrawing process, a lawyer representing the state told The Detroit News.

In a May 2011 email, Jack Daly, chief of staff for then-U.S. Rep Thaddeus McCotter, told Michigan Chamber of Commerce legal counsel Bob LaBrant and consultant Jeff Timmer that lines should be redrawn to swap some voters in Wayne County with others in West Bloomfield to ensure Democrats are in a “dem district and reps in a gop district” and increase the black population in black districts.

“In a glorious way that makes it easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties into only four districts," Daly said in another email first reported by Bridge Magazine. "Is there anyone on our side who doesn’t recognize that dynamic?”

The emails suggest a strategy to pack Democrats into certain districts, giving Republicans an easier path to victory in other areas of the state. Democrats represent the 9th, 12th, 13th and 14th congressional districts in Metro Detroit spanning the four counties referenced in the emails. 

“Consultants to the Michigan Legislature left a written trail of not only partisan intent but in fact partisan animus” in an apparent effort to gerrymander districts favorable to GOP candidates, said plaintiff attorneys, including former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer.

The GOP communications show Republicans “intended to do a gerrymander,” Brewer said Wednesday.

“It really is helpful to our case,” he said. “It demonstrates that the Republicans were openly gerrymandering congressional districts.”

Under current Michigan law, whichever party holds power in Lansing at the start of a decade can control redistricting, a process critics say gives partisans an avenue to draw districts for political gain.

The full emails, which are only referenced in the federal filing, provide greater context to the comments, said Peter Ellsworth, a Lansing-based Dickinson Wright attorney who is representing the state in the lawsuit.

The committee redrawing the districts often received “unsolicited comments" like Daly's, but neither Daly nor McCotter were involved in the redistricting efforts, said Ellsworth, who was part of the 2011 redistricting effort and could be deposed in the current lawsuit.

“You can’t attribute these comments from Daly to the map drawing process,” he said.

Still, the idea that Democratic voters are highly concentrated in southeast Michigan is not new, Ellsworth said, and to change that reality would essentially involve a “reverse gerrymander.”

'Giving the finger' email

Other Republicans who drew the current boundaries also have publicly denied any overt bias and say existing laws such as the Voting Rights Act already limit manipulation. But the plaintiff lawyers said the emails referenced in the federal lawsuit suggest otherwise.

Another unnamed person emailed Timmer in June 2011, according to the filing, and noted that a district had a finger-shaped extension away from the base between Mound and Van Dyke down to 15 Mile.

“perfect. it’s giving the finger to sandy Levin. I love it,” said the email referenced in the lawsuit.

Since the lines have been redrawn, longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak has beaten his Republican opponents by 28 percentage points in 2012, 24 points in 2014 and 21 points in 2016.

The piece of land referenced near Macomb County did resemble a finger, Ellsworth said, but was not intentionally drawn like that to give Levin “the finger.” The land was “not of political import,” he said, and “didn’t make any difference in terms of the composition of the district.”

In a May 2011 exchange first reported last week by The Detroit News, LaBrant told a legislative aide to then-Congressman Dave Camp, R-Midland, that Republicans would "accommodate whatever Dave wants in his district."

"We've spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond," LaBrant wrote, referencing the congressional majority Michigan Republicans now enjoy.

Republicans held a 9-6 delegation majority after the 2010 elections, but Michigan lost one congressional seat because of declining population. New maps forced then-Reps. Gary Peters and Hansen Clarke, both Democrats, into the same newly redrawn 14th District encompassing parts of Oakland and Wayne counties. Peters won the 2012 primary and general elections, but Democrats lost a seat.

'A great, fair map'

Republican strategist Jamie Roe, who responded to LaBrant's "9-5 delegation" email in 2011, said Thursday he does not remember the details of the eight-year-old discussion. But he said he does not think Republicans gerrymandered legislative or congressional district boundaries, calling it a “process” that adhered to state laws.

“I think we have a great, fair map,” Roe told The News. “There are competitive races all over the state. I don’t understand what the problem is.”

The U.S. Department of Justice pre-cleared the Michigan maps in early 2012, which was required because of past voter discrimination issues in Clyde and Buena Vista townships. In a notice of consent, Obama-era department attorneys said the maps did not violate the Voting Rights Act of 1973.

The Michigan Republican Party declined comment on the new emails. Spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said "no one at MRP has any direct knowledge of what occurred."

LaBrant and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce helped steer the 2011 redistricting effort and has done so for nearly three decades. The chamber is one of the main opponents to the November ballot initiative and has contributed to all five Republican-nominated justices considering the proposal’s eligibility.

Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley called for all Michigan residents to be treated with respect in a Thursday tweet addressing the emails. 

"In 2011 Jack Daly was a Congressional aide with no relationship to the MI Chamber. We were not aware of his negative remarks about Democratic voters then and categorically reject them now!" Studley said in the tweet. 

Both Timmer and LaBrant declined comment on their emails because of pending depositions in the federal case. LaBrant said he did not know Daly well, only that he “was some sort of North Carolina political operative” on McCotter’s payroll who fancied himself a redistricting expert.

The Detroit News was unable to reach Daly.

Former state Rep. Pete Lund, a Shelby Township Republican who chaired the House Redistricting and Election Committee that approved 2011 maps, said attorneys advised him not to talk to reporters during the ongoing lawsuit.

“I’d be happy to after it’s over,” Lund said. “In fact, I’d love to.”

Other emails included in the federal lawsuit indicate Michigan Supreme Court Justice Beth Clement, while still working in Gov. Rick Snyder’s office as chief legal counsel, was scheduled to meet with attorney LaBrant and other top GOP legal minds in June 2017 regarding redistricting.

The meeting was canceled but was to be rescheduled. It’s not clear from the emails included in the suit whether the meeting ever took place.

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