Shenanigans in Oakland County: One of the best political shows in Michigan

Mar 27, 2012

Update 3/27/2012:

"The Michigan Supreme Court - in a decision that breaks along party-lines -  has upheld a state law that will let Republicans on the Oakland County Commission redraw their district lines. The Supreme Court says the law complies with the state constitution, regardless of whether it was designed to give one party a political advantage. The Supreme Court's three Democrats dissented from the decision," Rick Pluta reports.

Original Post 3/23/2012:

This week, Rick Pluta, Lansing Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, and I decided to take a look at the political shenanigans playing out in Oakland County.

The Back-story

“There is a fight between Oakland County politicians – Democrats versus Republicans. It’s about the murky, dirty, filthy process of drawing new district lines for politicians to run in. In Oakland County, [the redrawing] is done by a bi-partisan panel. In this case, it’s a panel that has more Democrats than Republicans and the Democrats drew a map that the Republicans didn’t like,” Pluta explains.

So, some Republican lawmakers from Oakland County decided to have the state legislature change the redrawing rules. They devised a measure to allow the County Commission, which is controlled by Republicans, to redraw the lines. The measure was then passed by the state’s Republican-controlled House and Senate and signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder.

Democrats cried foul. They challenged the new law and, last month, Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette overturned it. Collette ruled the law violated the Michigan Constitution and that the governor and the Legislature illegally interfered in a local political question.

The question over the legality of the law made its way to the state’s highest court this week. On Wednesday, the Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides.

Politically-motivated maps

Republicans all along contended that the reason for the new law was to save taxpayers money. Democrats, and many pundits, said it was pure politics: that the GOP changed the rules so that Republican dominance on the County Board wouldn’t be challenged. But, this kind of claim is always hard to prove. Hard to prove… unless you have emails.

Busted: GOP emails released

This week, emails between Republican Oakland County officials and GOP lawmakers were released after the Oakland County Democratic Party filed a Freedom of Information Act. The emails appear to show, “officials in the offices of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s office and state Representatives – primarily Rep. Eileen Kowall – basically plotting and trying to find a rationale to kick this redistricting process back over to the County Commission where Republicans would control it,” Pluta explains.

‘It’s gonna be ugly’

In one email, Rep. Kowall wrote, “I guess it would also help to have (a) legitimate explanation as to why we waited until now, after redistricting plans have been submitted, to take these bills up.” She also wrote, “The quicker things move the better, ’cause it’s gonna be ugly.”

Democrats respond

After the emails were released Democratic state lawmaker Vicki Barnett responded,“Clearly there has been a collusionary attempt on the part of the Republican legislators in this body from Oakland County." Barnett went on to call it a “major breach of trust in the government system.”

Oakland County: Epicenter of dirty politics?

“One of the reasons,” Pluta explains, "why Oakland County is one of the best political shows in Michigan right now is because the county is changing. A quarter century ago, Oakland County was clearly dominantly Republican. Now, basically, it’s fifty-fifty. And, as the political complexion of the county has changed, the fighting has gotten fierce.”