Redistricting activist died with battles left to fight

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OLYMPIA — I got to know John Milem as one of the people who sat in the middle of the room during Washington State Redistricting Commission meetings.

The commission employees sat up front to respond to questions from the commissioners. The partisan staffers from the four legislative caucuses sat in the back, pretending they weren’t the ones actually driving the bus. That left the middle rows for the unaffiliated — citizens, newsies, a lobbyist or two.

I came and went, depending on the agenda and how close the commission was to producing maps. But Milem was there nearly every meeting during 2011, both in Olympia and around the state. He paid close attention, testifying frequently about what he called redistricting in the public interest.

To Milem, that meant redrawing legislative and congressional districts based on population, not politics; using factors like compactness and communities of interest, not election results.

John Milem of Vancouver, Wash., died last weekend at age 76. A rare form of ocular cancer had spread to his liver — a death sentence he accepted with grace. As a memorial, I hope anyone researching redistricting will find his work and allow it to improve the 2021 remapping.

Milem was retired after careers in law and business. But dating back to his undergraduate days at the University of Washington, including time at Princeton school of law and as a citizen in Kentucky and Texas, John was fascinated by redistricting. What most of the insiders saw as a purely political process designed to advantage one party and disadvantage the other, John saw as a precursor to good government.

Like most everyone else, I assumed his assertion that he didn’t care about party politics was a ruse. Lots of very partisan people testified as agnostics as a way to disguise their real motives.

But Milem wasn’t hiding anything. He actually didn’t care which party prevailed. He really did think incumbent protection should be the last thing on the commissioners’ agenda. (It actually was the first thing.) In fact, a partisan staffer told Milem’s hometown paper, The Columbian in Vancouver that Milem’s suggestions for technical fixes were usually accepted at face value because they knew he had no political axes to grind.

After getting a head-patting from the commissioners, thanking him for his contributions during the yearlong process, Milem filed a challenge to the final maps in the state Supreme Court. The maps, he argued, did not meet legal standards for compactness, for communities of interest, or for keeping counties and cities together.

We carried out an email conversation and exchanged information and documents as he prepared his arguments and I investigated apparent violations of open-meeting laws and the obsession of commissioners and elected officials with how the maps affected them and their next campaigns.

But rather than do as the law requires — expedite the case so as to resolve it quickly — the court let the state stall and then agreed that it was too close to the 2012 election to take up the challenge immediately. Even though his case was technically alive, he knew the delay made it tougher to show the legal infirmities and made it even less likely the court would force a new process.

While he didn’t expect the parties and the partisans to object to a plan they created for their benefit, he did hope newspaper editorial boards, good government groups such as the League of Women Voters, and county and state elections officials might see that the process was flawed. Instead, they all figured that because some states used processes that were worse, Washington state’s system must be good. It isn’t.

When his prognosis worsened, Milem asked the Supreme Court to dismiss his challenge. At the time, I wrote him a note, telling him he had done good work and that I hoped he didn’t consider the end result a failure.

“No, I don’t feel that I lost,” he replied. “I carried the fight as far as I could. If anyone failed, I suppose we could mention those many people who supported me but weren’t willing to pick up the task.”

Contact Peter Callaghan peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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