GOP slams redistricting panel's hire of consultant who gave cash to Benson

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Beth LeBlanc, The Detroit News
·4 min read
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Apr. 8—Republicans are criticizing the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission's Thursday hiring of a voting rights consultant who made past campaign contributions to Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

The commission voted Thursday to extend a contract to lawyer Bruce Adelson and Federal Compliance Consulting, LLC, for legal counsel related to the commission's compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

A longtime election and redistricting expert, Adelson donated $125 to Benson in the 2018 election cycle. But he told commissioners Thursday that he does not perform any partisan or political work.

"I've known her for several years," Adelson said of Benson. "I'd gotten an email that she was running. ... I contributed to her because I know her and we talked about voting rights" when she was a professor at Wayne State University.

The consultant told the commission he also contributed to a Kalamazoo County judge candidate. Campaign finance records indicate the contribution was made in 2004 to District Court judge candidate Lee Kirk.

Adelson's selection was criticized immediately by Michigan's Republican congressional delegation, which noted the importance of the nonpartisan nature of the commission and its work to redraw voting boundaries for the state House, state Senate and Congress.

"Hiring an advisor that has directly donated to Democrats, especially the secretary of state who has been providing guidance to the committee, removes any sense of objectivity and impartiality," said the statement from U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, Fred Upton of St. Joseph, Bill Huizenga of Holland, Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township, Tim Walberg of Tipton, Lisa McClain of Bruce Township and John Moolenaar of Midland.

Benson's office said Thursday said the secretary had no role in the application or hiring of any of the commission staff, including Adelson's. Suggestions that she was involved are a "false and baseless attempt to undermine the commission's independence and commitment to integrity."

"Bruce Adelson is one of the nation's leading experts on the Voting Rights Act and has a sterling reputation among election law experts on both sides of the aisle," Benson's office said in a statement. "It is not surprising he would apply for this position and not surprising that the commissioners, after undergoing a thorough and transparent hiring process, would choose to hire him."

Earlier Thursday, the Michigan Republican Party asked members to speak up via written public comment to protest Adelson's hire.

Adelson, the party said, "has a history as a consistent Democrat donor, has taken clearly leftist positions on both social media and his academic writings, and will be an unchecked liberal voice on this allegedly non-partisan commission."

The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund also criticized the choice while noting the commission has avoided candidates with partisan ties for other positions.

"I know that the members of this commission take their work seriously and we urge them to reject Mr. Adelson's application to serve in such an important role," said Tony Daunt, the group's executive director. "The commission would be better served finding a truly nonpartisan attorney to fill this position."

At least two commissioners praised Adelson for his honesty ahead of their vote to offer the contract to him.

"He was straight forward, he seemed honest and he seemed like a great person for the job," said Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democrat on the 13-member panel made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and five unaffiliated members.

Commission member Anthony Eid, an unaffiliated member from Orchard Lake, questioned Adelson about his commitment to transparency, noting "it is critical to the commission that the public has a high level of trust and confidence in your ability to provide objective independent and nonpartisan advice to the MIRC."

Adelson assured Eid that his work was nonpartisan: "We do not do politics. We do the law."

Adelson told commissioners he has been involved in the past two redistricting cycles, with the U.S. Department of Justice during the 2001 cycle and the Arizona redistricting commission during the 2011 cycle.

Adelson, a faculty member at Georgetown University School of Law, said his practice focuses on federal compliance issues, not politics.

"This is my third cycle," Adelson told commissioners. "I had the benefit of having worked with an independent redistricting commission. I understand where you're going. I understand what the process looks like."

According to his social media accounts, Adelson has written in the past several months on voting rights, civil rights, race, disabilities and COVID-19 vaccinations. He wrote Brushing Back Jim Crow, a book about integration in baseball, in 2007.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com