Mostly outside groups pour $13.8M into redistricting proposal

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
A growing number of states are considering changing the criteria or methods used to draw congressional and state legislative districts. Pictured: North Carolina Republican state Sens. Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson review historical maps during the Senate Redistricting Committee in 2016.

Millions of dollars in outside money — much of it from liberal and left-leaning advocacy groups — is flowing into a ballot campaign to change the way political boundaries are drawn in Michigan. 

The Voters Not Politicians campaign, which has been flooding the television airwaves with commercials for Proposal 2, raised more than $13.8 million between July 21 and Oct. 21, according to a new disclosure report filed with the state on Friday. 

It is more money than the $11.1 million in private cash that Democratic front runner Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing has raised since 2017 in her run for Michigan governor. It also exceeds the more than $9 million in private money that Republican Bill Schuette raised for the cycle.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund — a liberal nonprofit from Washington, D.C., that  is not required to disclose its own donors — contributed $5.5 million to the Michigan ballot campaign in early October. It supports "clean energy and climate solutions," according to the Great Nonprofits website, and is overseen by Eric Kessler, a former Clinton administration environmental policy staffer. 

The Sixteen Thirty Fund this election cycle has been creating and financing groups all over the country that have launched attack ads criticizing Republican U.S. House incumbents over their votes on President Donald Trump's tax cuts and trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, according to a July 29 Politico article.

The fund also was behind Demand Justice, which unsuccessfully battled to block the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, according to Politico. 

"Added together, the Sixteen Thirty Fund groups have been among the most prolific political advertisers of 2018," Politico reported.

A Houston-based group called Action Now Initiative contributed $5.1 million to the redistricting campaign, according to the filing. The nonprofit is run by billionaire philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, a former Enron natural gas trader and hedge fund manager who considers himself a moderate Democrat, according to the Dallas Morning News.

An opposition group that launched television ads this week has reported roughly $1.2 million in contributions from the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to the powerful DeVos family of west Michigan. 

Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians speaks to supporters at the Michigan Capitol on May 24, 2018.

But that last-minute funding pales in comparison to the cash receipts for the Voters Not Politicians initiative, which would amend the Michigan Constitution to create a citizen committee that would draw political boundaries each decade, a process state lawmakers currently control. 

“Out-of-state special interests are trying to buy Michigan’s Constitution, but our Constitution is not for sale” said Tony Daunt of  the Freedom Fund and Protect My Vote opposition committee.

“Voters Not Politicians? More like D.C. Special Interests Not Voters.”

The Voters Not Politicians committee, which began as a grassroots operation before attracting national attention, touted Friday’s campaign finance report by highlighting a running total of 14,000 individual contributions averaging $64 each. 

“What they inspired led to investment from around the country from individuals and institutions that believe in the right of voters to choose their politicians – not the other way around,” campaign executive director Katie Fahey said in a statement.

“Our strong filing is a true testament to the tremendous amount of hard work that our volunteers have put into this campaign from the beginning and the support for redistricting reform from every part of the state.”

Proposal 2 would amend 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 “non-affiliated” 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.

Other top donors supporting the ballot initiative include Service Employees International Union Health Care, which gave $500,000, the same amount contributed by Kathryn Murdoch, co-founder of the Quadrivium Foundation in New York and Stacy Schusterman, president of Samson Energy Company in Kentwood.

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Twitter: @jonathanoosting