Finley: Benson risks credibility on Brewer deal

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Jocelyn Benson became secretary of state barely a month ago promising to run a people-focused office devoid of partisanship. 

She risks forfeiting that claim so early in her tenure unless she scuttles the deal she's negotiating with her political mentor to settle a lawsuit challenging Michigan's congressional and legislative district maps.

The League of Women voters is suing the state to overturn the districts drawn after the 2010 Census, charging Republican interests overly influenced their shaping. The trial is set to begin Feb. 5.

The League's attorney is former Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer, who was one of Benson's top funders in the 2018 election and who also coached her into politics.

To have Benson, a Democrat, negotiating with the former Democratic chairman on a settlement that would upend the results of the 2018 election — and quite likely give Democrats control of the Senate — stinks to high heaven.

Benson should back out and let the court decide this.

The League has a compelling case, thanks to correspondence obtained from Republican-leaning interests that suggests a clear intention to slant the 2010 redistricting in the GOP's favor.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

But the remedy the League seeks, and Benson is preparing to give Brewer, would trigger perhaps the biggest partisan donnybrook this state has ever seen, disenfranchise voters who went to the polls last fall and leave the Legislature in chaos.

And by the time all of the legal challenges are resolved, the issue will have disappeared with the redrawing of districts to comply with the 2020 Census. Those maps will be sketched by a new, supposedly independent commission put in place by voters in November.

Benson and Brewer have apparently cooked up a deal that would redraw fewer than 34 of the state's 162 congressional and legislative districts, but one that would heavily impact the Republican-controlled Senate.

The settlement calls for cutting in half the four-year terms won by the mostly GOP senators in the affected districts and force them to run again in 2020, when a larger presidential election year turn-out would favor Democrats.

But it's not as simple as that. Before the elections, new districts must be drawn. Since only some districts would be part of the settlement, the challenge would be to draw new lines without cutting into neighboring districts that aren't being changed.

Population and demographic shifts have also occurred since the 2011 redraw. Districts that were solidly Republican then lean Democratic now. That was clearly illustrated in the 2018 election, when two congressional seats and several state House and Senate seats formerly held by Republicans shifted to the Democrats.

Another complicator: The redrawing will be done under the old law, which gives the responsibility to the Republican-controlled Legislature. That will bring even more lawsuits.  

David Daley of FairVote, a non-partisan election reform group, told Bridge Magazine that the remedy is beyond anything he's ever seen. 

"The new secretary of state appears to be saying ‘let’s make a deal’ because there’s enough evidence the state will lose," he told Bridge. "But it’s also in her political interest to come to that conclusion.”

And that's the risk for Benson. Do this deal with Brewer, and she'll be tagged as a partisan hack. That's a label that's tough to shake.

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