Monday, Nov 12, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

Why Democrats won’t take control of the Mich. State Senate

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LANSING — There’s reason to think 2018 may be a very good Democratic year statewide. Gov. Rick Snyder is terribly unpopular statewide, and the GOP-controlled legislature’s ratings are worse.

Congressman Dan Kildee of Flint is widely expected to run for the state’s top job, and possesses a fair amount of charisma, strong speaking skills, and gets high marks for innovative urban policy ideas, including establishing one of the state’s best land banks.

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Naturally, everything may look very different then. But just imagine for a moment that Democrats win the governorship easily, recapture the secretary of state and attorney general’s offices, and win a majority in the Michigan House of Representatives.

All that may well happen — but even if it does, very little is likely to change after the new team takes office in January, 2019.

That’s because Republicans will still control the state senate.

Oh, every state senate seat will be up for election the year before, and technically, it is possible that the Democrats could win control. In theory, the Vegetarian Party could too.

But neither is happening. That’s because the Michigan State Senate is so outrageously gerrymandered it is virtually inconceivably that Democrats could ever take control. Democrats actually got a majority of the votes cast for senate in 2010.

But Republicans got 26 seats to their 12. Republicans now have 27 seats. Michigan Democrats haven’t controlled that body since 1983, before one of their forlorn little band, State Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights, was born.

The way things are set up now, this will never change. Democrats in a good year might indeed gain a few seats, though nowhere near the 20 they’d need to flip control.

Those state senators elected next time will be the ones who will vote on redistricting maps in 2021. They will do everything they can to ensure that the gerrymandering that got them into office continues — meaning the vicious circle seems certain to go on.

Yet, over the last year, Michigan was handed a chance — two chances — to change things dramatically in a way that would help restore truly representative democracy.

But Democrats, progressives, and unions blew it.

They didn’t even try.

They could have capitalized on growing voter dissatisfaction to collect signatures and get a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to turn redistricting over to a nonpartisan commission.

Fourteen states do their redistricting that way, and such commissions play a role in other states as well.

Excited by this ruling, the League of Women Voters of Michigan held a series of dozens of educational forums across the state. 

All that was needed was some public interest group or groups to have thrown their weight and wallets behind a campaign that could have been called, say, “Restore Democracy to Michigan.”

Did they fear the wrath of the voters? Not in the least. Lawmakers in secure districts have little incentive to worry about public reaction — especially when they are term-limited out in a few years, after which many end up working for special interests.

Reforming the way districts are drawn could change all that. But incredibly, nobody came forward to try to lead a campaign.

Early this month, Judy Karandjeff, president of the League of Women Voters, said she was giving up on any effort to get a proposal on the ballot this year. “There was a lot of interest but not a lot of agreement on how to move forward.”

That may have been the Democrats’ best chance for change, given that turnout is always highest in a presidential election year.

A similar thing happened to a drive that would also have immensely helped democracy by adding Michigan to the list of states where elections are conducted by mail.

Jackie Pierce of Pellston was the leader of an ordinary citizens’ group called Let’s Vote, Michigan, which sought to get another amendment to hold elections by mail, as Oregon and Washington and a few other states do. Such states report higher turnout, better informed voters, and save millions on the cost of elections.

But once again, there was no interest in helping to fund their efforts. The group got ballot language approved, but on March 2, Ms. Pierce announced they were giving up. “Much of the support we counted on hasn’t come through. The union officials are more concerned about a few other things,” she posted on Facebook.

When you look at the setbacks unions have suffered in Michigan lately, one wonders what those things could be.

When one looks at the record, it seems clear that Michigan politics and government would be far different with truly competitive districts, in a state where it was easier to vote.

Repealing term limits might also provide more incentive for lawmakers to make good long-term policy decisions.

What’s baffling is why this year, in all three cases, those who have the most to gain by changing the system wouldn’t even try.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: omblade@aol.com.

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