Story by Bridget Gibley, Culture Editor
Photo courtesy of Jenny McCullen
This story originally ran on the Women’s Studies Center page at https://www.aquinas.edu/womens-studies
This year’s midterm election ballot in Michigan featured a proposed constitutional amendment — Proposal 2 — from the group Voters Not Politicians, a group founded and fueled by Aquinas alumnae. This group’s goal is to end political gerrymandering in Michigan, a process by which politicians draw district lines to favor one political party. The proposal passed on November 6, meaning the redistricting process will soon be in the hands of citizens, with maps being drawn by four Republicans, four Democrats, and five voters who self-identify as unaffiliated with either party. The process will occur in open and public meetings across Michigan.
For more information about Voters Not Politicians, visit their website here: https://www.votersnotpoliticians.com/
Aquinas connections have driven Proposal 2: The Executive Director of Voters Not Politicians, Katie Fahey, is an AQ alum, and so is Jenny McCullen, her executive assistant.
Katie Fahey (‘11), a Sustainable Business and Community Leadership double major, has always cared about politics but was never directly involved in the field. After the 2016 election, she says, she saw a lot of people saying that their voices weren’t being heard, and she started to look into why this might be. As she learned more about the closed-doors process of gerrymandering, she made a Facebook post asking if anyone would be interested in working to end gerrymandering in Michigan. Two years and over 425,000 signatures later, this proposal not only made it on the ballot but passed with a 61.2% majority.
Jenny McCullen (‘18), a Sustainable Business major and Women’s Studies minor, interned for Fahey at the Michigan Recycling Coalition during her time at Aquinas. Since they were both Sustainable Business majors, they stayed in contact. McCullen says she was following along on Facebook as Fahey’s movement got started. After graduation, Fahey reached out and asked if McCullen would want to work on the campaign. McCullen, who eventually wants a career in politics, said yes.
Both Fahey and McCullen emphasize how important it is for people to understand how the redistricting process works. Fahey says, “I had friends and family who didn’t consistently vote because they thought their votes didn’t matter. Honestly, in some ways it’s true…politicians pay people a lot of money to make some votes count less and some votes count more.”
Fahey explained that the majority of state-level races are non-competitive, and when you can’t vote someone out of office, they aren’t afraid of losing votes. For example, the people of Michigan voted to repeal the emergency manager law, but it was reinstated, leading to the Flint water crisis.
McCullen says because of this, she does not feel like her voice is being heard in her district, which covers both rural and urban areas. “How can somebody accurately represent people in such different communities?” she asks. “Having a more efficiently functioning government is my main concern.”
Voters Not Politicians has volunteers in all 83 counties of Michigan and around 12,000 small grassroots donors. McCullen said one of her favorite memories was their mini-state tour where the group was able to meet some of these volunteers and see how “fired up” they were about the initiative.
This excitement over Voters Not Politicians is not only in Michigan, however. Fahey has talked to a man in New Mexico who ran for office this year because he was inspired by their initiative. There’s also a group in Florida working against gerrymandering who have referenced Voters Not Politicians as being influential for them. These AQ grads are creating ripples all across the United States!
At this point in the campaign, there is no such thing as a typical day for McCullen and Fahey. The week before the election, they worked from Fahey’s house in the morning and then had interviews in the afternoon. But the week before that, they traveled to talk about Voters Not Politicians with people in Detroit and Lansing. As Election Day got closer and closer, there were many moving parts that they had to consider, but Fahey says the campaign has been nonstop for the last two years as well.
One of the major challenges faced by Voters Not Politicians was the misinformation and misleading ads opposing the ballot measure. Fahey has also been personally attacked by the opposition, which she says is difficult, especially since she is not a “political insider.”
However, Fahey fondly recalls the moment she found out that Proposal 2 would be on the ballot. She says, “I feel very fortunate, because I get to be the spokesperson, but there are literally thousands of people in the state who’ve put their lives on hold to fight for a better future for the state.”
Fahey and McCullen cite their time at Aquinas as formative in their development. Early in the campaign, Fahey called Dr. Molly Patterson, Associate Professor of Political Science, to see if she thought this sort of campaign to end gerrymandering was possible. Fahey says without Dr. Patterson’s encouragement, she might not have continued.
Fahey also says in general, the professors at Aquinas were really there for the students and were invested in their success. She says, “When I was at Aquinas, I realized if you wanted to do something, you could find a way to make it happen.”
Current students, these women have some advice for you: understand that no one’s going to change the world for you, seek out opportunities with a “yes and” attitude, keep the people you know now in your corner, and always make space to listen, even when it’s difficult.
McCullen says, “As a young person, don’t underestimate yourself.”
You might even end up changing the world someday.