Independent-minded Michiganians fill new redistricting commission

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Many of the 13 Michigan residents selected to serve on the state's new commission tasked with redrawing political boundaries have voiced independent views and made no political contributions, according to a Detroit News analysis.

On Monday afternoon, the state randomly selected the 13 commission members — four Republicans, four Democrats and five non-affiliated individuals — from a pool of 180 semifinalists. Five of them were from Metro Detroit. 

The semifinalists had been narrowed down from more than 9,300 individuals who applied to serve on the panel that will redraw the state's U.S. House, state Senate and state House boundaries after the 2020 census. The new lines will take effect for the 2022 election.

Stephen Blann of the firm Rehmann helps Michigan randomly select 13 individuals to serve on the state's new redistricting commission to draw political lines after the 2020 census on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

Previously, those decisions were up to the Michigan Legislature and governor, giving politicians the ability to influence what their own districts would look like. In 2018, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment to shift the power to the new commission.

Of the 13 individuals selected Monday, three appeared to have made political contributions in the last 10 years, according to publicly available disclosures. And only one appeared to have made a contribution to a candidate.

Democratic commission member M. Rothhorn, 48, of Lansing appeared to have given $100 to the Voters Not Politicians campaign, which is the group that supported the redistricting commission proposal.

Some of the semifinalists who were large campaign donors or didn't actually want to serve on the panel didn't make the final, random cut.

It was up to the applicants to identify themselves as Republican, Democrat or non-affiliated. Most of the 13 commission members emphasized on their applications that they don't view themselves as 100% tied to a political party.

"I have most of my adult life considered myself an independent, however, I have a tendency to agree with a lot of conservative views," wrote Rhonda Lange, 47 of Reed City, who is one of the panel's four Republican members. 

Republican commission member Cynthia Orton, 54, of Battle Creek said on her application that she generally agrees with Republican principles but doesn't "vote along party lines."

Democrat Dustin Witjes, 31, of Ypsilanti said his party affiliation doesn't have "any weight on this." He said on his application that he's never voted a straight ticket to his knowledge.

"My end goal would be that a random sampling of individuals out of a district will yield approximately 50% of each of the two main parties," Witjes wrote.

On her application, Juanita Curry, 72, of Detroit, who's a pastor, said while she affiliates with the Democratic Party, she doesn't "encourage others to follow me."

Ten of the selected commissioners are white, two are Black and one is Middle Eastern, according to their applications. Seven of the 13 commission members are male.

They range in age from 27 to 73 years old. Three commission members are 73, according to Secretary of State data, but the average age of the panelists is 55 years old.

Of the five commission members from Metro Detroit, three were from Oakland County and two were from Wayne County. No other county was home to more than one commission member.

Anthony Eid, 27, of Orchard Lake is one of the five non-affiliated members of the commission.

"There are candidates in each party that I support for different reasons," Eid wrote in his application. "It is important to look at individuals instead of 'teams' during our political process."

Janice Vallette, 68, of Highland, another non-affiliated member, wrote on her application that the district lines shouldn't be manipulated to favor one party over another.

"The districts should be drawn to be as fair as possible," Vallette wrote.

Monday's selection of the 13 commission members ends a months long process of recruiting and sorting through individuals to serve on the commission.

State officials received more than 9,300 applications, which were narrowed to 200 through a random process that was crafted to make the pool demographically and geographically reflective of the state. The leaders of the Michigan House and Senate rejected 20 of the 200 semifinalists, setting up Friday's random selection.

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

"It’s exciting to see that the fair, impartial and transparent process voters envisioned is working as it was intended," said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians.

In the coming months, members of the commission will have periods of both full time and part time work, and they'll paid about $40,000 for their efforts.

The new proposed political boundaries will require a majority vote for approval, including at least two commissioners who affiliate with each major party, according to the constitutional amendment.