Redistricting commission gets respectful earful at meeting in Dearborn

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
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Dearborn — Richard Custer was as blunt as he could be to the panel charged with resetting the Michigan's congressional and state voting districts.

"You people are 50 years late," said Custer, 80, of Wyandotte. "This should have been done a long time ago. When you put the Democrats and or Republicans in charge of something, they are going to take it to their advantage. It's a natural thing."

Members of the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission got a respectful earful on Thursday from scores of residents for the first voting district meeting in the Metro Detroit region.

From longtime union stalwarts to Arab and Black residents, those who spoke talked about the commission drawing fairer districts that is responsible to voters, includes people of color and resists special interests to accepts the will of the public.

Community members gather for the meeting of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission at the Dearborn Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn on Thursday.

Custer, the first speaker, was among many of pointed out that several of the last elections the Democrats got more collective votes but "we do not control the House or the Senate."

"Sixty-one percent of the people in this state want this change," he said. "Tear up this current plan. Start all over. Don't try and rig it."

Thursday's public hearing was the eighth of 16 public hearings that will help guide the process of redrawing Michigan voting districts for congressional, and state House and Senate seats. The last hearing was held Tuesday in Flint.

Heather Urbaniak, 43, of Trenton, said she spoke because she recognizes the importance of having districts that represent the majority of people that live in them.

"Please consider the right of citizens to elect persons that represent local values and understand local issues and not be overwhelmed by more densely populated, geographically smaller portion of a district," she said.

Brigitte Fawaz-Anouti of Dearborn Heights, center, holds a copy of her comments she plans to make at the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in Dearborn on Thursday.

Residents were allowed up to two minutes to talk about their priorities for the new voting maps that are redrawn once a decade. The hearing was held in Dearborn, which is located in the 12th Congressional District and is represented by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn.

The hearings are considered listening sessions that will guide the 13-member Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission regarding "communities of interest" that should be left intact in districts that also balance equal distributions of population and geographic contiguity. The commission has a goal of collecting 10,000 public comments submitted at the meetings and through a portal on the commission's website.

Gerrymandering is "a long-term systemic problem with our democracy," said Jamiel Martin, and that the commission can lead the charge to change that problem.

"I believe that the best way for this commission to be effective is to not take any of the current maps into consideration and to be brave enough to chart their own course with all fresh maps," said Martin, 47, of Detroit and a member of the AFL-CIO. "Frankly, anything that is non-partisan will be better than what we've been getting."

Pauline Montie, 73, of Trenton, concurred with Urbaniak's viewpoint, contending to the commission that local representation is important.

"Nobody sees those people until they need to be re-elected," she said of some of the districts that traverse many cities and towns. "It's time for use to have local people in our area that represent us instead of these people that split up like that.

Michigan voters approved the creation of the commission through a constitutional amendment ballot initiative in 2018 to replace the former system, which allowed the political party in power every 10 years to redraw the maps. Opponents of the old system argued the party-led system resulted in gerrymandered districts that weighed in favor of the controlling party. 

The 13-member panel is made of four Republican members, four Democratic members and five nonpartisan members.

To Brigitte Fawaz-Anouti, 55, of Dearborn Heights, the changing of voting maps are "long overdue." She wants more representation for Arab Americans and making sure services would go to the people who need it.

Middle Eastern residents, she said, are lumped up as "white" on the U.S. Census, and that Arab Americans "lose out" on millions in needed benefits.

"We've been talking about gerrymandering for decades, and finally it's becoming a reality and we really need to revisit these lines," she said.

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