By Ashley Spencer
For many years Michigan was divided evenly along party lines – a checkerboard of red and blue every election. Then, in 2011, Michigan’s Republican party legally rigged the system. Charged with drawing new district lines, the lawmakers did so with unprecedented precision – carving unnatural boundaries to keep their favored voters and locales in hand – to guarantee a majority for their party.
It worked perfectly. The process of creating these doctored maps, known as gerrymandering, resulted in widespread victories for the Republicans. The party controlled almost every level of government, from the state supreme court to municipal workers. And with tangible impact on Michigan’s people: the Flint water crisis, which killed 12 people, happened because party legislators appointed emergency managers whom voters opposed.
But in 2016, a then 26-year-old with no political experience uprooted the system.
Katie Fahey hates politics. She can’t stand cable news punditry. She has little confidence in any of the 2020 presidential candidates. And she refuses to identify with a political party. But she dedicated two years of her life to launching and leading a grassroots campaign that started with a Facebook post and, against the odds, ended gerrymandering in Michigan.
“Part of the problem we have right now is everybody’s looking for a savior, whether it’s an individual politician or a political party,” Fahey said. “We as a whole aren’t working as hard to make sure that our voice is staying at the table and that we are watching what’s being done.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why thousands flocked to her passionate message in Michigan – and why film-makers found Fahey the perfect anchor for their gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon, named for the oddly shaped district in Massachusetts created by the man who gerrymandering its name, former vice-president Elbridge Gerry. The film arrives on demand on 3 April.
But for Fahey, being a young woman and a political outsider meant she faced an uphill battle to reform the redistricting process every step of the way.
Fahey’s political frustration reached a boiling point after the 2016 presidential election. She had flown from Michigan to New York in a red pantsuit on 8 November, expecting to celebrate the first female president at Hillary Clinton campaign’s watch party. Instead, she was left stunned by Donald Trump’s victory. And she dreaded spending Thanksgiving with her extended, politically divided family in their home town just outside Grand Rapids.
Born Katie Rogala, her family mostly steered clear of politics during her childhood in Livonia, Michigan (population: 1,527), though her dad’s veteran status meant patriotism surrounded them. Fahey considered herself an independent, and worked at a recycling coalition after college, doing improvisational comedy – even starting an improv festival from scratch. (She married her improv co-star Sean Fahey in 2013, but the pair recently divorced.)
That year, eager to find a unifying topic to focus on over turkey and stuffing, Fahey turned her attention to gerrymandering. “I didn’t want to talk about who we voted for because that was always leading back to literally people being like, ‘You’re evil for thinking that way,’” Fahey said. “So I thought, man, I wonder if systemic reform, getting back to one person, one vote would be something that appeals to everybody.”
While the practice of politicians redrawing district lines in their favor dates to the early 1800s in Massachusetts, recent technology has taken gerrymandering in America to the extreme. Now, following each decennial census count, it’s legal for state politicians to hire mapmakers to use software that precisely manipulates bizarrely squiggled districts – resembling everything from a praying mantis to Goofy kicking Donald Duck – to cram their opponents into a limited area or otherwise guarantee votes.
Michigan is one of the most gerrymandered states in the US. Leaked emails have even revealed a Republican aide boasted about packing “Dem garbage” into select districts during the 2011 GOP legislative redrawing.
On 11 November 2016, Fahey posted a Facebook status: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan, if you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know :).” Within hours, she’d created a new Facebook group and soon, the non-partisan Voters Not Politicians (VNP) was born. Fahey was the face of a movement. Well, almost.
For the next few months, Fahey never met her supporters. They strategized and bonded online, something Fahey said helped build her confidence because “it’s easier to be vulnerable behind a screen”. But by March 2017, she and her fellow volunteers were ready to hold meetings across the state asking residents how they would like to see a new redistricting system work.
“Everybody just thought that was absolutely absurd that you would talk to people before changing the constitution,” she said of the skepticism her plan received from political insiders. “[I thought] isn’t this how democracy works?”
It’s in those meetings that Fahey’s improv experience came in handy. She had an ease onstage, and in front of crowds – rumors even circulated that she was a paid actor, a plant supplied by the Democrats and that her whole Facebook-origin story was an elaborate hoax. “A lot of people were more skeptical and more dismissive of us being able to be the ‘real deal’ because of my age and gender,” she said.
Voters Not Politicians’ final proposal emerged after 33 days: take the power out of the politicians’ hands, starting with the 2021 redistricting, by creating a 13-person citizens’ committee, composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and five unaffiliated people.
But that was just the beginning. To get it on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment in the November 2018 midterm election, they would need 315,000 signatures in the next 180 days and, with limited funds and virtually no experience, they were starting at a huge disadvantage. “Normally, before you’d announce, you’d have your constitutional language written and you would have raised millions of dollars,” Fahey says. “Literally, we had just opened our bank account the day before because we couldn’t figure out how.”
An undeterred and perpetually smiling Fahey led 4,000 volunteers, many of whom had also never been politically active, to contribute their skills, down to the woodcarver who helped make their clipboards. Jennifer Lawrence and Arnold Schwarzenegger chimed in with support. Even Republican voters and legislators were eager to sign and “the only people who would ever say no were usually people who were involved in the redistricting process before or somehow really, really involved in partisan politics”.
“Without Katie, I believe, we would not have been successful,” said Hal Gurian, a Republican from Traverse City who volunteered for the campaign. “She was a hands-on leader who worked diligently with as many volunteers as she had time to meet personally or talk with on the phone.”
Defying predictions, Voters Not Politicians managed to get more than 425,000 signatures two months before the deadline. On election day, the proposal, Prop 2, passed with a sweeping 61% of the vote.
“People don’t realize their own power. A lot of people, especially women, in the campaign, were so reluctant to go into leadership positions,” Fahey says, noting that after the campaign ended “we had, like, 17 people who ended up running for local office”.
Next year, Michigan’s district lines will be redrawn by voters, not politicians for the first time.
Slay the Dragon will be released this week during a census year – when the US population will be carefully counted in order to determine the size of electoral districts next year.
It’s clear that Fahey’s hard-won movement is a threat to Republicans across the country during that process. Michigan’s Republican party and activists continue to try and block the change with multiple lawsuits, claiming it is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
But Fahey is hoping the momentum from VNP can be replicated in the 35 other states that still use congressional redistricting. She self-identifies as a “democracy entrepreneur”. (That label worn by anyone else could seem insufferable, but on Fahey, who radiates an infectious earnestness, it works.) And she founded a national not-for-profit last year called the People, which hopes to create Katie 2.0s across the country by giving frustrated citizens the tools to tackle systemic issues they care about, such as the partisan primary process and election security.
To be successful, those initiatives might need people like Katie at the forefront. “She is an inspiring, motivating and tireless leader,” Gurian said.
While the impact of her work can’t be measured quite yet, the ripple effects are clear. In early March, the Democrat-majority Virginia senate voted to relinquish their power in favor of a committee. Groups in Nebraska, Oregon, Arkansas and Oklahoma are currently pushing for reform.
Meanwhile Fahey keeps a surprisingly low profile from her home in Grand Rapids, which she shares with three rescue dogs. Though her platform started with a Facebook post, she has no public Instagram and a modest Twitter presence. Even the fact that she’s the face of Slay the Dragon doesn’t sit well with her. And don’t expect her to run for office anytime soon.
“I’d be more excited about governing than I would about running or feeling like I have to follow the party line because that’s just not me,” she said.
For now, she spends what little free time she has taking her dogs to the park or escaping from “real-world problems” with video games. Role-playing fantasies are her favorite, including, of course, Dragon Quest.
“I think what I like about them is – this is so dumb – you have these different characters who all play their role and even if there is a main character, your team is only stronger because everybody’s bringing their strengths to the table,” she says.
“That is just so how I live my life.”
Source: theguardian.com, April 2, 2020