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Redistricting group finds new targets while holding tight to grassroots

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A grassroots group that convinced voters to create a new commission that will redraw Michigan's voting boundaries has turned its sights on the state's strict term limits. 

And it's working with some unlikely allies to loosen those rules and tighten others. 

Last fall, Voters Not Politicians confirmed it was in early talks regarding term limit and transparency reforms with Republican legislative leaders and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — the very groups that fought Voters Not Politicians in court in 2018 over a ballot initiative aiming to end gerrymandering. 

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

The changes in focus and the partnerships emerging from the new priorities have been controversial among some supporters, but leaders remain committed to the plans. 

“It didn’t make sense for us to completely close off one avenue if it would at the end of the day mean Voters Not Politicians could meet our objectives,” said Nancy Wang, the group’s new executive director. “There is a lot that we can do with the Legislature.”

Nancy Wang

It's unusual for a grassroots group that formed around a single issue to have staying power after achieving its goal, said John Sellek, who owns the Lansing public relations firm Harbor Strategic. The odds worsen during an election year when volunteers may be pulled to other political issues or candidate campaigns. 

But the difficulties don't make the task impossible, especially considering the track record of Voters Not Politicians, Sellek said. 

"They were very careful to stick to their policy and not politics, and that's what left the door open to work with other groups," Sellek said. 

After the 2018 victory

In July 2018, hundreds of people rallied outside the Hall of Justice in Lansing to support an initiative that would create an independent citizens redistricting commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries and end partisan gerrymandering. 

Inside the hall, the ballot initiative’s lawyers argued in favor of the petition’s suitability for the November ballot, challenging arguments from the GOP-led Legislature and Michigan Chamber that it was too far-reaching to be considered on the ballot. 

More than a year later, after justices allowed the initiative on the ballot and voters passed the measure with 61% support, Voters Not Politicians, GOP legislative leaders and the Michigan Chamber found themselves in the same room discussing potential collaboration.

The meeting of minds between the one-time adversaries came after months of work to implement the redistricting commission amid legal opposition, as well as town halls and volunteer interaction that began to shape the group’s next efforts.

Immediately following the 2018 election, Voters Not Politicians set to ensuring proper implementation of the law, a task that required immediate attention as the Legislature sought to make changes during its lame duck session in December. 

The group Voters Not Politicians turned in more than 315,600 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office in Lansing on Monday.

Once Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson started to implement the law through department changes, educational materials and mailings, volunteers with Voters Not Politicians pitched in. 

In 2019, the group recruited nearly 10,500 people for an email list communicating how to apply for the commission, published an online tool kit related to the redistricting panel and held 173 presentations on the topic in Michigan.

A former law professor at the University of Michigan, Wang was one of the first people to respond to a Facebook post from VNP founder Katie Fahey in 2016 that launched the redistricting commission push. She volunteered for two years before taking over for Fahey, who moved on to The People, a national government reform group.

The group’s efforts at the ballot box were aided by $16.4 million in contributions during the election cycle. The money included contributions from nearly 31,000 individual donors, but $11.1 million of the money came from two dark money groups, the Sixteen Thirty Fund and Action Now Initiative. 

Last month, Voters Not Politicians announced new funding, including $360,000 from The Kresge Foundation and The Joyce Foundation to implement the redistricting commission.

New priorities, new partnerships

At the group’s Voters Against Corruption town halls, Voters Not Politicians explained the redistricting process but also delved into the public’s low trust in government, Michigan’s low ranking for government integrity and the state’s weak laws regarding financial disclosure, open records, conflicts of interest and lawmaker and lobbyist interactions.

Part of the presentation included the end of term limits, one of the clearest common threads among Voters Not Politicians, lawmakers and the Michigan Chamber. 

The meetings among the group, the chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering are ongoing and are exploring the possibility of floating an initiative to can loosen Michigan’s term limits and curb lame duck legislating sprees. 

The group also has examined new personal financial disclosures for lawmakers and a “cooling off period” between when legislators leave office and when they become a lobbyist. The group could also seek to expand the Freedom of Information Act to apply to the Legislature. 

The key for success moving forward is narrowing the priorities and finding an issue about which volunteers are passionate enough to commit to in the midst of a hectic campaign season, Sellek said. 

"Can they pick an issue that keeps most of its grassroots together?" he said. "It's hard to capture that magic multiple times in a row.”

The chamber is “big enough and strong enough” to undertake term limit reform alone, but its preference would be to partner on the initiative, even with nontraditional partners, said Rich Studley, president and CEO for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. 

“If every time we disagreed with an individual or group about an important public policy issue and decided we couldn’t work with them on another issue, after 60 years, we wouldn’t have very many groups to work with,” Studley said. 

He expects the groups will unveil a plan, if they’re able to reach consensus within the next two months.

For its part, Voters Not Politicians saw an opportunity to find common ground in term limit reform as well as changes to other financial disclosure and lobbying reforms, said Wang. The group sees a path to obtaining the objectives this year. 

“All of our work falls under the work of good government reform, policies that strengthen our democracy and put people at the center of our political discourse,” Wang said. 

The group’s partnership with old foes isn’t a retreat from past policy stances or a free pass for the Michigan Republican Party, which is challenging certain provisions of the redistricting statute enacted by voters in court, she said. 

“They are working against the people,” Wang said of the GOP lawsuit. “They are trying to undermine the initiative that two and a half million people passed.”

An 18-foot hog has made appearances in the Lansing area to protest efforts to scale back Michigan's term limits.

Expanded vision resisted

The group’s willingness to work with Shirkey, Chatfield and the chamber has not been without censure, even from within Voters Not Politicians. 

Scott Tillman supported term limits prior to volunteering for and donating to Voters Not Politicians’ effort to end gerrymandering in Michigan. When he heard of the group’s intent to loosen or end term limits, he was surprised and took swift action. 

Tillman looked up the addresses of individual donors to Voters Not Politicians and, with financial help from U.S. Term Limits, sent out letters to more than 3,500 people criticizing the group’s stance on term limits and their willingness to work with Shirkey, Chatfield and the chamber. 

Tillman also has driven a giant 18-foot hog to a few Voters Not Politicians town halls to illustrate how term limits will benefit lawmakers and lobbyists similar to “hogs lining up at the trough for more money.”

“Was I naïve to expect VNP to continue to work for the people and against politicians and elite political insiders?” Tillman wrote in the letter.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com