Vancouver’s John Milem is losing his battle with cancer, and his crusade to make sure that voting district lines are drawn for the people, not for the politicians, is expected to come to an end on Monday.
That’s when the 76-year-old redistricting activist said he plans to withdraw his lawsuit to overturn the state’s newly drawn voter boundaries. Milem was diagnosed about four years ago with ocular melanoma and recently learned the rare form of cancer has spread to his liver. Doctors say he only has a few more months to live, and he said he doesn’t have the energy to continue his redistricting fight.
“The cancer that I have is an extremely aggressive cancer,” Milem said as he sat in his living room Friday afternoon. “I simply don’t have the energy. If I went to sit at the computer to work, within three minutes, my head would be down on the desk.”
Milem said he’s disappointed that his case can’t continue, but he’s content with the work he’s been able to accomplish in his lifetime.
“I’m a very, very long-term focused person,” Milem said. “All this effort on my part has been to do good for the state. … I just believe in a person making the contributions he can make.”
Every 10 years, voter district lines in the state are redrawn based on new population information revealed through the Census. The Washington State Redistricting Commission finalized the latest boundaries in January based on the 2010 Census.
On a volunteer basis, Milem attended nearly all of the commission’s 18 public forums around the state and the commission’s other regular and special meetings in Olympia. Following the conclusion of its work, the commission honored Milem by passing a resolution recognizing him as the equivalent of the redistricting volunteer of the year.
But Milem wasn’t pleased with the new voter boundary plan. Milem’s main complaint is that the state’s redistricting commission failed to redraw the lines in a way outlined by state law and the Washington Constitution.
‘Haggling over boundaries’
The current redistricting plan limits political competition and doesn’t best represent the communities of Washington, according to the petition Milem had filed with the state Supreme Court. It’s the petition he is now withdrawing.
“We’ve still got the business about legislators haggling over boundaries, legislators saying, ‘Please exclude this possible opponent of mine from the district. I don’t really want these voters in my district. I want those voters in my district,'” Milem said on Friday.
“Felida is in the 18th District. By all rights, it should be in the 49th along with all the rest of the Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek area, but it’s the most likely to vote Republican.”
Milem continued: “So you’ve got this weirdly shaped district that includes Felida, part of Battle Ground, and comes clear down and picks up Camas and Washougal. If you go from Felida to Camas, you’ve got to pass through two other legislative districts by the route that any normal person would take to get there.”
The 2012 redistricting plan also impacted Clark County by placing Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, in the 20th legislative district rather than the 18th. Meanwhile, the 3rd Congressional district belonging to U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has acquired more conservative communities east of the Cascades while losing the more liberal Olympia area.
“In my presentations (before the commission), I was always talking about the standards, and how they could comply with the standards,” Milem said. “And to their little credit, they did make an effort to comply with the standards when what was more important to them wouldn’t be compromised. If they could follow a city boundary without compromising the interest of their party or some incumbent, they followed the city boundary.”
The commission also held many of its discussions behind closed doors, he said.
Earlier this year, The News Tribune in Tacoma made a public records request for the emails that were sent between political party leaders, lawmakers and the redistricting commission. The emails revealed that winning elections appears to be a dominant factor at play when voter lines were being redrawn.
“The redistricting commission is simply out of control,” Milem said. He said the commission’s process ensures “the rule by self-perpetuating elite.”
Washington state reformed its redistricting rules in the 1983 in attempts to make sure voter boundaries were drawn in a way that best represented the state’s citizens. But nothing really changed because the reforms weren’t enforced, Milem said. In 1992, when the first redistricting took place under those new reforms, citizens should have asked the Supreme Court to enforce the rules when the redistricting commission failed to follow them.
“It’s not enough to get the law passed,” Milem said. “You have to have it enforced, and the only enforcement agency under the constitution is the Supreme Court.”
That’s what Milem said he was trying to accomplish this year.
In February, Milem filed a petition with the state’s Supreme Court to overturn the 2012 redistricting plan. Before the court made any decision, the state’s attorney general stepped in and asked the Supreme Court to at least allow the new voter boundaries to apply to this year’s elections. The court ruled in the attorney general’s favor, and this fall’s election uses those new voter boundaries.
“There’s an old expression: justice delayed is justice denied,” Milem said. “This is a perfect example of that.”
Milem said that he doesn’t see anyone else taking up his fight after he dies.
“There is no energy in the state for redistricting reform because so many people believe we already have it,” he said. “With the dismissal of my lawsuit, I believe that’s the end for the reform of 1983. I cannot imagine somebody in 2022 doing what I did.”
Passion started young
Milem, a former lawyer and businessman, said he became intrigued by political affairs and voter redistricting as a young adult in the early 1950s. Learning about redistricting laws and keeping tabs on redistricting reform across the nation became a hobby.
“I saw the importance in a representative system,” he said. “I thought, ‘We’re on the way to losing democracy.’ I just was fascinated by how on earth you would solve a problem like that.”
Over the years, powerful people have called upon Milem’s redistricting expertise. In the early 1960s, Milem prepared bills that were introduced in the legislature by Republican Slade Gorton, who later became a U.S. senator.
While Milem was living in Texas about two decades ago, he counseled a Kentucky man who was suing to overturn Kentucky’s redistricting plan. The man won his case.
Milem is a native of the Pacific Northwest. He moved away for about four decades and returned to the area 10 years ago.
The illness that Milem has, ocular melanoma, is a malignant tumor in the eye that can spread to other parts of the body. About 2,500 Americans each year are diagnosed with this form of cancer, according to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation.
Battling the illness has been a challenge, said Milem, who struggled to get to his feet upon bidding a reporter farewell.
“I joke that I get up in the morning and go lie down,” Milem said with a laugh. “I’m acutely aware of trying to keep my weight up. I force myself to eat even though I don’t want to. … I’m hoping to find a path to recovery, but if I don’t, I take that as the Lord’s will.”