Jacques: Benson’s ‘nonpartisan’ persona on line

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

When I spoke with Jocelyn Benson ahead of the November election, the Democrat assured me that if elected secretary of state, she would be collaborative and nonpartisan. Since the office is charged with overseeing elections, that’s essential.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Now that Benson is the state’s chief election officer, however, this doesn’t appear to be her modus operandi.

After only a month in office, she’s moving forward with a settlement in a gerrymandering suit brought prior to the 2018 election. 

More:GOP asks Supreme Court to block Dem settlement in gerrymandering suit

The League of Women Voters sued the state in 2017 over districts drawn by Republicans in the wake of the 2010 Census, claiming they were shaped in too partisan a manner. The trial is scheduled to start Feb. 5.

The deal Benson has forged with Mark Brewer, the attorney for the League of Women Voters and former Michigan Democratic Party chair, would impact 11 state House districts, which seems a relatively small number and leaves out Senate and congressional districts also mentioned in the suit. Those House districts do have wild shapes, which are hard to defend. 

Yet the ones Benson and Brewer have chosen would have a disparate impact on seats currently held by Republicans. And that’s got members of the GOP fuming. Brewer also happens to be Benson’s political mentor.

The settlement would have direct influence on the 2020 election, by forcing the Legislature to rework the districts.

It’s telling that districts highlighted as most egregious by the plaintiffs — including Michigan 14th congressional district — are left out in the settlement. The 8th and 11th congressional districts, which were just won by Democrats after being GOP strongholds, are also off the list.

“Benson and Brewer cherry-picked districts for the 2020 election,” says Republican political consultant Stu Sandler. “The whole thing is a partisan sham and the most overtly political move a Michigan secretary of state has ever made.”

If the settlement is approved, the impact will be much greater than just the 11 targeted districts. As pollster Richard Czuba told Bridge, redrawing one district impacts the districts next to it, creating a domino effect. Benson argues that by excluding Senate and congressional districts, she made the settlement as narrow as possible, limiting upheaval. 

Michigan Republicans have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and stay the federal lawsuit while the court considers two other cases involving gerrymandering out of North Carolina and Maryland.

Regardless of how this plays out, it’s concerning that Benson is acting in such a seemingly partisan manner, especially since she’ll be overseeing the formation of a new “independent” commission that will be charged with redrawing districts following the 2020 Census. 

Benson claims resolving the lawsuit quickly is what’s best for Michigan taxpayers and that the agreement is “limited in scope.” She says she wasn’t happy this case landed on her desk so early in her tenure, knowing very well the political implications.

“My conclusion was simply that I could not in good conscience argue in court that these districts are constitutional,” Benson says.

But given her ties with Brewer, the deal looks bad. And it’s going to be extremely difficult for her to earn her skeptics’ trust.