GOP gerrymanderer: My maps fueled toxic politics that produced Trump

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LANSING — Michigan’s gerrymandered political districts fueled extremist politics and helped give rise to President Donald Trump and his enablers in Congressaccording to a consultant who helped draw them.

Consultant Jeff Timmer drew political district maps in 2011 that favored Michigan Republicans. He says the maps have some ‘culpability’ for the toxic politics of the past decade. (Courtesy photo)

"I do admit some culpability in the whole redistricting and gerrymandering," said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who is now a prominent Trump critic with the Lincoln Project, a political action committee of former Republicans formed last year to prevent the president’s re-election.

Timmer helped draw uncompetitive “safe districts” for the Republican Party in 2011, which he said allows candidates to focus on winning their primary and appealing to “the more extremes of their party in order to win election.” 

Primaries typically have far lower turnout than general elections, when candidates in more competitive districts must cater to centrist voters. 

"That has contributed to the toxicity of the politics we see today,” Timmer told Bridge Michigan. “Trump didn't create all the factors that were there for him to take advantage of and were a catalyst for what we've seen over the past four or five years.”

Independent experts agree and contend hyperpartisanship was on full display this week in Washington, D.C., where Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the Electoral College count that certified Democrat Joe Biden as the President-elect. 

 

In the House, 139 Republicans — nearly two-thirds of the caucus — voted to reject Biden electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania, which are among the states where Trump has falsely claimed victory but failed to prove his unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. 

A similar challenge to Michigan failed without Senate support. 

The three Michigan Republicans who objected – U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman of the 1st congressional district, Tim Walberg of the 7th district and Lisa McClain of the 10th district – represent some of the state’s most politically lopsided districts. 

Trump won each by wide margins but lost to Biden statewide. 

"I think you can draw a straight line from extreme gerrymandering like we've had in Michigan and the sort of really shocking, radical behavior that's been exhibited... by those three members of Congress," said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians. 

"That's what gerrymandering does: It makes people, once they get into office, completely immune from any sort of accountability or consequences from the electorate."

Walberg, McClain and Bergman each condemned Wednesday's violence at the U.S. Capitol. 

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In a series of statements, the lawmakers argued they were doing the bidding of their constituents by objecting to election results and demanding an emergency audit.

"My focus for that forum was a method to provide greater transparency and raise concerns on behalf of my constituents who lack faith in the electoral process," Walberg said. “This vote was never about overturning election results."

Project REDMAP

Timmer was a key player in a shadow Republican group that met behind closed doors to draw Michigan's legislative and congressional district maps that are still in use today, although not for long. 

The Voters Not Politicians initiative, approved by voters in 2018, created a new independent commission that will soon draw new districts for the next decade. 

As with other states, Michigan redraws political districts after the decennial census. The 2011 map makers faced some legal restrictions, but little political resistance.

Under state law at the time, the districts were approved by the state Legislature and governor’s office, both of which were controlled by Republicans. 

Similar dynamics played out nationwide under the GOP's REDMAP initiative that focused on flipping state Legislatures in 2010 in order to control the redistricting process. 

The resulting Michigan districts, first implemented in the 2012 election cycle, were rigged to "historical proportions," benefitting Republican candidates at the expense of Democratic voters, according to federal judges who briefly invalidated the maps in 2019. 

2019: Redistricting guru: Michigan’s maps are legal, even if process was political
2017: Gerrymandering in Michigan is among the nation’s worst, new test claims

Timmer defended the maps during trial in that federal lawsuit, which was appealed and dismissed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandering claims are state-based "political questions beyond the reach of federal courts."

During the trial in Detroit, Timmer testified his team followed applicable laws governing the redistricting process.

Two years later, Timmer admits they took advantage of gray areas to draw favorable districts for Republicans when possible. 

“Most of the maps were guided by objective standards and guardrails," he said. "But where subjectivity existed, yes [we gerrymandered]. Of course. It was legislation. And you legislate to your advantage when you have the votes to do so."

Internal emails revealed in court showed Republican mapmakers openly discussing plans to change district boundaries to benefit specific lawmakers. 

In one email, a GOP staffer discussed drawing districts to “cram ALL the Dem garbage” into four southeast Michigan districts in order to meet the “obvious objective – putting dems in a dem district and reps in a gop district.”

In another email, Bob LaBrant, a GOP redistricting guru and a former Michigan Chamber of Commerce executive, bragged the group “spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond.”

His prediction did not bear out: Michigan’s 14-member congressional delegation is now evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, a reality experts say points to shifting demographics that eroded the durability of the GOP gerrymander. 

LaBrant, who has also emerged as a Trump critic, declined to join Timmer in accepting responsibility for outcomes of the gerrymander, telling Bridge Michigan he is not interested in "self-flagellation."

"I played the game by the rules that were at hand," he said, citing court-prescribed processes, known as the Apol Standards, that had guided the Michigan redistricting process since 1982.

But if he had the opportunity to redo the maps, LaBrant suggested he would draw more competitive districts for lawmakers like Walberg, who he said was a known "extreme ideologue" dating back to his time in the state Legislature.

"We gave him a big favor when we took Calhoun County out of the 7th [District,]" LaBrant said. 

Service to party

By moving Calhoun into the neighboring 3rd Congressional District, the new maps drew Battle Creek Democrat Mark Schauer out of the district, helping Walberg avoid a rematch with the former congressman he had narrowly defeated in 2010. 

"They screwed me out of that seat," said Schauer, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014 and spearheaded a national Democratic effort to push redistricting reforms in various states.

"When a Tim Walberg or Jack Berman or Lisa McClain are in safe seats, they can focus on either satisfying their personal political agenda or the agenda of their base, which tends to be the more extreme and conservative wing of their party,” Schauer told Bridge. 

Experts say gerrymandering has a direct impact on the development of public policy in partisan bodies like Congress and the Michigan Legislature, where Republicans will return a six-seat majority to the state House even though Democratic candidates combined to receive 42,000 more votes than their GOP counterparts in the November election.

That has been a reality for years in Michigan, as Democrats typically receive as many or more votes as Republicans in statewide elections but have been in the minority in the Legislature since 2010. 

"There's all this kind of really extreme behavior in service to party, and we can't go down this road because then you're not actually doing the business that you need to for people," said Wang, of Voters Not Politicians.  "You're not fixing the infrastructure. You're not lifting up our K-through-12 schools."

While it’s not clear what kind of maps they'll produce, Michigan's new independent redistricting commission will at least do so in a transparent fashion, Wang said. 

The 13-member commission is expected to produce new maps this year after data from the 2020 U.S. Census are made public and Michigan finds out whether it will lose a congressional seat because of faster population growth in other states. 

The public will have 45 days to review any maps from the commission, where at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two Independents must vote to enact the final product. 

"We want people to see how their government is supposed to work," she said, noting commissioners will be required to consider public input and explain their rationale for mapping decisions in writing, among other things. 

"That kind of structure forces the commission to act in a way that restores public trust."

Timmer, the former Republican mapmaker, predicted redistricting commissioners will have difficulty drawing more balanced maps because of self-grouping by voters. 

Democrats tend to live in large cities and, increasingly, suburbs. That's helped Republicans tighten their grip on rural Michigan, a natural geographical advantage.

"I don't think that the ability to change much exists," Timmer said. "But when you're tinkering around the edges, where some of these races are decided, like legislative races within 1,000 votes, you can make a big difference."

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Comments

NowThatsUgly
Thu, 01/07/2021 - 8:51pm

Timmer, like many others right now, has jumped ship and admitted the errors of his past. Too late for us and him. He helped create this ugliness and then testified to prolong it. The people of Michigan have paid the price. TIMMER, and his governor, THE POISON NERD, are toxic, and we won't forget that.

Don
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 6:04am

Please, just stop with the lies already.

How is it that Republican districts are "some of the state's most lopsided districts" but Democrat areas aren't?

Why isn't the author of this piece, even aware of the very basics of our government and culture? "Republicans will return a six-seat majority to the state House even though Democratic candidates combined to receive 42,000 more votes than their GOP counterparts in the November election." House seats aren't a state wide vote, voters in Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids don't get to vote on House members for Gladwin or Sault Ste Marie. It doesn't matter how many more votes Democrats get in Detroit compared to Sault Ste Marie, the Soo still gets to choose their own elected officials.

What fueled the toxic politics that produced Trump was a prolonged attack on our country by the Democrats. Labeling half the country as "a basketful of deplorables" in "flyover country", the constant attacks in the media of a political rival to the Democrats, the labeling of all law enforcement as racist killers, and numerous other actions on the 50%+ of the country that disagrees with you.

People can, and will, take so much, when they've finally had enough and start to defend themselves, to fight back, they aren't the ones responsible for "starting" anything.

Almighty Dollar
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 10:08am

Don,

Go and actually read Hillary Clinton’s actually comment on deplorable’s. It is highly nuanced, about 5 paragraphs long, and doesn't mention flyover country.

Instead of claiming “lies”, try starting with facts. It makes for a more logical and less emotional argument.

Just sayin'
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 1:33pm

If you don't agree they are deplorable by now, you are must support treasonous Benedict Donald who exposed us to Russian cyber hackers, out of control Corona, and terrorists overtaking the Capitol.

Rick
Sun, 01/10/2021 - 10:23am

Trumpies making 'America Great Again'. They had to destroy the country to save it.

Josh
Sat, 01/09/2021 - 2:56pm

Hi Don,

"How is it that Republican districts are "some of the state's most lopsided districts" but Democrat areas aren't?"

They are; that's exactly the problem. I suspect you have some misunderstanding of how gerrymandering works and why it's a problem. I apologize if this is old news to you, but just in case it's not, here's a simplified example:

Imagine if Michigan had 100 voters, half D and half R. The state is divided into 4 districts which must be of equal population. Of course they want control of state politics, so they divide up the districts thusly:

District 1: 25 Democrats
District 2: 8 Democrats and 17 Republicans
District 3: 8 Democrats and 17 Republicans
District 4: 9 Democrats and 16 Republicans

They now have 3 out of 4 safe Republican districts. All the districts are lopsided, but Republicans will always have the majority in congress.

This means that in every district, representatives are no longer competing with the other party. Instead, they compete within their party against primary challengers. This has the effect of radicalizing the legislature (for both parties) for the reasons mentioned in the article.

"House seats aren't a state wide vote, voters in Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids don't get to vote on House members for Gladwin or Sault Ste Marie. It doesn't matter how many more votes Democrats get in Detroit compared to Sault Ste Marie, the Soo still gets to choose their own elected officials."

This is all correct. However, because of the gerrymandering, this means that large numbers of voters are effectively disenfranchised. Democrats may be nearly 50% of the electorate, but they are not proportionally represented in the state congress.

Of course this isn't just a Republican thing. In other states Democrats have pulled the same shenanigans. The availability of "big data" and the technology to exploit it have really blown up in the last decade, allowing for much more granular targeting of districts. That's why the Michigan organization that got Prop 2 passed in 2018 was called "Voters Not Politicians": We're at a point now where politicians are choosing their voters, when it should be the other way around. It's why redistricting reform had a big moment in the period following the 2016 election. I think pretty much everyone who understands the problem and isn't a professional political operative agrees gerrymandering is corrosive to democracy.

George Hagenauer
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 10:04am

Given the high vote for the Voters Not Politicians proposal , gerrymandering and the current type of political discourse is not popular in the state. And yes the Democrats need to start addressing the needs especially of rural people in a respectful manner. In Wisconsin that was first done by rural progressives without Democratic support through ongoing education at the local level. On issues like health care as high a percentage of rural Wisconsin is on government supported health care as is inner city Milwaukee. Those type of facts are not usually discussed . The effect of their efforts can be seen in swings in Wisconsin against Trump in many rural areas (though some of that is Trumpism ignoring rural issues in some of their actions the past 4 years) If similar activities occur in Michigan you may see major changes as gerrymandering is weakened. An interesting problem here is that Trump's policies on immigrants and the fact that conservative policies have not created the type of economy in many areas that attract people may have resulted in a drop in population (either real or relative to other areas) and the probable loss of a congressional seat reducing Michigan's power in Congress. It will be interesting to see if ideology will buffer the effects of that .

Anonymous
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 1:34pm

Oh please, does respect mean they get disproportionately more road funding than where the roads need to be fixed the most?

Henry saur
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 10:11am

Hopefully gerrymandering will be a thing of the past for Michigan. Winning elections by suppression and “dirty tricks” need to be rejected and the true will of the people not the will of political “leaders(are they really leaders?)” should prevail . Looking forward to a better political process for Michigan.

Michigan Love
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 1:36pm

Amen! Next we need campaign finance reform. People who love people not corporate lobbyists should write our laws.

Timmer's a Joke
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 10:25am

Timmer has burned all of his bridges and is now begging for attention from whoever will give it to him in order to make a living. He should just come out of the closet and admit that he's always been a democrat. He's become a clown and a complete joke.
As far as "gerrymandering" goes, it will still happen, only the democrats will be the ones doing it because they now control the process via the Secretary of State's office.

EB
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 10:32am

Jonathan Oosting wrote:
Democrats typically receive as many or more votes as Republicans in statewide elections but have been in the minority in the Legislature since 2010.

Republicans have controlled the State House since 2010 but they've controlled the State Senate continuously since 1984. It's been 37 years since any Michigan governor has signed any bill that wasn't first approved by Republicans. Republicans took control of the State Senate long before gerrymandering happened in Michigan and it's unlikely that fairly drawn district maps will reverse this dominance.

Republicans controlled the gerrymandering process in 2001, but didn't have control of the Michigan Supreme Court or the AG seat. As they've done in the past, the Michigan Supreme Court would have likely thrown out district maps in 2001, if they were as undemocratic as they were in 2011. Also the AG at the time, Granholm, would probably not have defended the legislator's maps in court. Republican 2001 gerrymandering was effective but not nearly as effective as their 2011 gerrymandering, when Republicans completely controlled all three branches of state government.

Rural area population is much older than urban areas and getting older. The young leave because good paying jobs are scarce. The old arrive, migrating to life in the woods after retirement. Unless the old start voting for Democrats, rural Michigan will remain very red and the only district elections that will continue to matter are the Republican primaries.

It's tribal, maybe sectarian is a better word: no one with a (D) next to their name wins general elections in northern rural Michigan. If rural Michigan Democrats want to govern, they need to win Republican primaries, the only rural elections that matter. RINOs do this now, but not enough to make much difference in county governance, township governance or the the State Legislature.

KJMC
Sat, 01/09/2021 - 9:34am

There's no reason to believe Democrats will start winning rural northern Michigan seats with redistricting. That's not the problem at all. The problem is that in southern lower Michigan, most of the seats should be won by Democrats, since the majority of the electorate in southern lower Michigan votes Democrat. If the commission is doing their job, the changes will be in southern lower Michigan, where the Democrat voters were most heavily stacked and cracked.

Anonymous
Tue, 01/12/2021 - 4:04pm

Yes! Just look at New York and Virginia.

Wondering
Sat, 01/09/2021 - 1:05pm

Is that why northern Michigan, outside of the vacation areas of Democrats, looks like Michissippi, no affordable reliable broadband?

Just look around
Tue, 01/12/2021 - 4:07pm

Voting for Republicans hasn't helped anyone in Northern Michigan, just like working class people voting for Trump makes no sense. What you save on taxes, you lose in good jobs and thriving year-round communities.

EB
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 10:45am

I pay attention to Jack Bergman, since he represents my Congressional district. He's radical, as right wing as any politician in the entire country. It's conceivable that someone could win a race against him, but only in the Republican primary, since general elections are meaningless in the 1st Congressional District. If you want your vote to make a difference up here, you best be voting in the Republican primary.

Jim
Sat, 01/09/2021 - 6:28am

The 1st District was a fairly evenly split district up until the 2011 Republican redistricting. Robert Powers was a very moderate Republican and he was succeeded by Bart Stupak a very moderate Democrat. Extremist within either party would not make it through the primary. Since redistricting it is now reliably 60+ Republican and 40- Democratic . We now have the seditious Jack Bergman as rep, an extremist that never would have made it through the primary before redistricting.
Look at the gerrymandering of the Michigan districts. District 5 almost looks like a salamander, where "gerrymander" got it name.
https://www.michigan.gov/documents/cgi/congress10statewide_371463_7.pdf

Anonymous
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 1:30pm

They are complicit seditionists.

Jmlkuehn
Fri, 01/08/2021 - 5:21pm

Thanks Jonathan for a very good review. It is true that due to self-sorting, our New Independent Redistricting Committee will not be able to eliminate all very red or very blue districts, it will have a balancing effect over time. However, several other election reforms, like Top 5 open primary elections and Ranked Choice Voting in the fall general election, can also help to significantly eliminate the overwhelming influence of the more extreme base of both major parties. Currently, party run primaries in "safe" districts generally draw only about 20% of the districts registered voters of that party; winning with that small minority is all a candidate needs to be assured of winning in the general election in the fall. With Top 5 open primaries, the parties no longer run the primaries - all candidates compete against each other, and the Top 5 candidates, regardless of party, go on to the general election. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is used in the fall. Voters rank their choices (1,2,3, etc.) , and through a simple process, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated, and their voters second choice votes are distributed to the remaining candidates. This is continued until a candidate with 50%+ is reached. For more information on this, please refer to Rank MI Vote website rankmivote.org

Pat Nelson
Sun, 01/10/2021 - 9:26am

1) THANK YOU "Voters not Politicians" for working so hard and effectively to take us to a more fair form of government upcoming.
2) Thank you, Mr. Timmer, and others who are admitting how unfair the system has been and its costs.
3) Shame on Walberg, and his ilk, who supported Trump's misleading voters and now hides behind those voters to try to justify his own behavior.

RICK
Sun, 01/10/2021 - 10:22am

The Republicans - constantly looking for 'voter fraud' while they quietly commit voter fraud by gerrymandering our state. Morally bankrupt. Like Trump.

Shame on GOP
Tue, 01/12/2021 - 4:11pm

They lie, commit voter suppression, voter fraud, and even sedition.

Thanks
Tue, 01/12/2021 - 3:50pm

Schauer's loss was our collective gain, much like Stacey Abrams in Georgia. They are both now national heroes and role-models.