Our chance to take government back

Shri Thanedar is a remarkable fellow who grew up in poverty in India, came to America, made a fortune, lost it, and then founded another successful business in Ann Arbor.

Now, he says he wants to give back to the community and help fix the state — and thinks the best way for him to do that is to run for governor. So Thanedar sold off a majority share in his business, Avomeen Analytical Services, and threw $3.3 million into a campaign for the Democratic nomination next year.

Thanedar seems to be a genuinely nice man with good values and decent politics. He wants to fix education and infrastructure in this state, and protect the rights of everyone, including transgender citizens. He does not, however, have a chance.

There are two reasons why it's very hard to imagine him winning the Democratic nomination, much less the general election — one fair, and one unfair. First, the unfair reason: Thanedar speaks in fluent, but strongly accented English, and is Hindu. That shouldn't disqualify anyone, but in our current xenophobic mood, with Donald Trump whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, it probably would be politically fatal.

However, there's also a quite legitimate reason not to vote for him: Thanedar has no experience at all in government.

For some unknown reason, there are two things many people seem to think they can do without knowing anything about it: Open a restaurant or become governor.

You see the result of the restaurant failures in the bankruptcy filings. The political ones are more costly.

Our current governor, like our current president, came to power without a day's worth of government experience. Jennifer Granholm had very little as well, and none with the legislature.

How's all that worked out for us?

You know. But there is something Thanedar could do that could make a huge difference for the better in this state.

He could fold his campaign, and, instead of wasting that $3.3 million on consultants and commercials, give it to a group called Voters Not Politicians.

Voters Not Politicians (VNP) wants to end the thoroughly corrupt system we now have that allows politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.

Boundaries for legislative and congressional districts are redrawn every decade the year after the census is taken. This is done by the Michigan legislature, which has usually been controlled by the Republicans.

Five years ago, the last time this happened, the GOP controlled every branch of government when redistricting was underway. They then produced an extremely gerrymandered scheme designed to produce lopsided GOP majorities.

No thought was given to keeping neighborhoods or communities of like-minded citizens with common interest together. Instead, they rigged the system.

Here's how bad this is. Nearly the same number of voters chose Democratic as chose Republican candidates for the state senate in 2014. The result: 27 Republicans, 11 Democrats.

The same was true in the state house of representatives, where Democrats got 47 seats; Republicans 63.

Congress is rigged so that while more Michigan voters regularly pick Democratic candidates every two years, this produces, time after time, 5 Democrats and 9 Republicans.

What is especially great for them is that it is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Members of this gerrymandered legislature will draw the boundary lines next time.

Naturally, they'll perpetuate the process that gave them their seats, and control. Democrats might control the governorship, and if they get a landslide may even win the lower house, but it now is essentially impossible to imagine Democrats ever getting control of the state senate.

For an indication of how all this distorts the voters' will, consider this: Democrats have won every statewide election for the U.S. Senate since 1994, and carried Michigan for the presidential candidate six out of the last seven times.

Democrats are anything but saints, of course. They likely would have gerrymandered things for their benefit just as blatantly if they'd had the chance.

Voters Not Politicians doesn't want either party to have the chance to take our choices away from us. They are a grassroots citizens' movement that has been working for months on a way to return the power to draw districts back to the people.

Now, they've come up with something vastly superior to what we have now — and they are trying to get a state constitutional amendment on the Michigan ballot next year.

Here's how things would work if they are successful: Their amendment would create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, a body which would be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independent voters.

Those who want to serve on the commission could apply, and a final pool of 200 applicants, weighted to be a rough demographic microcosm of the state, will be assembled.

Then the names of those who will draw the districts — the 13 commissioners — will be randomly drawn from that pool.

As one final safeguard to ensure fairness, the final maps they approve need the support of at least two commission members in each subgroup — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — or it's back to the drawing board.

You can quibble with this detail or that, but the fact is that this is likely to be our last best hope of once again getting representative government in our lifetime.

The Voters Not Politicians plan would make it much more likely that we'd get districts that made sense, were truly competitive, and that we would end up electing people who had to really care about what we thought, needed, and wanted.

Now, we finally have a chance to get this on the ballot. Earlier this month, the Board of State Canvassers certified their petitions, which means VNP supporters can start collecting signatures. They have 180 days — a little less than six months — to collect 315,654 valid signatures of registered Michigan voters. Since some people always sign twice, or sign even if they aren't registered, etc. some are always invalid.

That means, for all practical purposes, they need more than 400,000. Getting there won't be easy, in large part because they have essentially no money.

Katie Fahey, a professional organizer who is VNP's president, says they can do it anyway, because they have so many dedicated volunteers willing to circulate petitions.

Maybe. But I've seen a lot of these drives before, and that always turns out to be much harder than it seems. Nearly all successful petition drives pay canvassers to collect signatures — usually something like $1 per autograph.

After that, you can bet that the Republicans and the vested interests will do whatever it takes to defeat this.

They are already spreading lies that this is just a Democratic Party effort to take power away from the voters, instead of the truth, which is the exact opposite.

They are bound to file lawsuits, claim the petitions were irregular, and that the entire amendment is unconstitutional.

They will do all these things, but if enough people realize what's at stake, they can be beaten. They were in Ohio, where voters took back the power to redistrict with a statewide vote.

Making this happen almost certainly is, for the long run, far more important than any single race next year.

So if you value freedom and democracy at all, go to the Voters Not Politicians website, join the movement and sign.

A lot of low-life politicians will be unhappy that you did.

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