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Commentary

A movement in search of a leader

Jack Lessenberry

It’s clear that our grossly gerrymandered legislature is painfully out of touch with the needs and desires of Michigan citizens.

This shows up first in a partisan sense; both houses of the legislature have top-heavy Republican majorities even in years when a majority of the people vote Democratic. But that’s not the main problem. The boundaries are drawn in a way to ensure that virtually all districts are completely safe for one party.

This means that we get the worst of all possible worlds. We sometimes nominate and elect candidates who are criminals, incompetents, or both. The only real races in most cases are in the primaries, which have notoriously low turnout.

That means that all too often they are won by people with familiar names or who are supported by a small group of ideologues. The result is a legislature that has refused to do anything meaningful to fix the roads, even though surveys show that is voters’ top priority.

We have lawmakers eager to pass new restrictions on same-sex couples, but who have not been willing to adequately fund education, and ignore the need for prison reform.

But now we can do something about this.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the people can bypass dysfunctional legislatures and create independent commissions to draw congressional and legislative boundaries.

The people of Arizona did that, and an enraged legislature tried to stop them. Fortunately, the state’s highest court said no. Yesterday, Jocelyn Benson, dean of Wayne State University’s law school, had a column in the Detroit Free Press spelling out how important this was.

“The most powerful component of our democracy is ensuring that informed, eligible and engaged voters can freely elect their representatives,” she wrote, adding, “There’s no reason we can’t follow suit in Michigan, amend our state constitution, and become a national model for fair and impartial redistricting.”

She ended by saying, “it’s up to us to use the initiative process,” to fix our broken system. Dean Benson is absolutely right, but left something out. After the court decision, Louis Finkelstein, a teacher at Lawrence Tech, wrote to ask how he could help change things.

Well, this is a movement in search of a leader, and whether she wants to or not, I think Benson might be the best candidate for the job. She is smart, ambitious, and savvy. She’s the author of an acclaimed book, and lost a close election for Secretary of State five years ago. Getting an initiative on the ballot would take a lot of work, and those now in charge of our fundamentally corrupt system will do whatever they can to keep the status quo.

The forces of change need all the help they can get, and a visible face to rally around. More than half a century ago, a drive for a new Michigan constitution succeeded because it was led by a charismatic auto executive who embraced the need for change.

His name was George Romney, and that launched his political career. I don’t know what Benson’s future plans are.

I do know that if she led a movement that gave representative democracy back to the people, that alone would be bigger than anything many governors and senators have ever done.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essay are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Michigan Radio, its management, or its licensee, the University of Michigan.

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