... if you can keep it
by Tom Sullivan
"Rising Sun" chair, Assembly Room of Independence Hall, Philadelphia. NPS photo.
Hearings and scandals and polls make it seem the fight for control of Washington, D.C. is the main event in 2020. "Breaking news" crawls announce the latest Donald Trump outrage or Democratic presidential campaign developments. But discretely, behind the scenes, groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) still work deliberately to gain and maintain control at the state level.
ALEC boasts it is “the nation’s largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators.” But its agenda is conservative and corporate. Its purpose is to pass "model bills" to "benefit the corporations’ bottom line," and often at public expense, explains the Center for Media and Democracy.
"ALEC knows the key to power is at the state level," Kira Lerner writes in a Talking Points Memo report published this morning. So its efforts have expanded to maintaining Republican control of state legislatures that advance its main agenda.
At ALEC's August meeting in Austin, Texas, leaked audio includes attorney Tom Farr of Raleigh, North Carolina advising members not just on how to get control of the 2021 redistricting process, but on how to armor their efforts from day one against inevitable lawsuits. Panelists advised attendees to avoid the word gerrymander, to be sure to throw away any notes, and to avoid putting anything in writing they would not want a judge to see:
“You’re going to be sued,” [Farr] said, per the transcript. “And I know the lawyers that are going to handle the cases, I know the expert witnesses they’re going to use, and I’m kind of here as a doctor telling you that you might have cancer, and you better get some chemotherapy because if you don’t things aren’t going to turn out real well for you.”These lessons Farr learned in North Carolina over the last decade, trust me.
Because of the threat of litigation, the panelists told lawmakers to be especially cautious and to appoint people to redistricting committees who are “studious,” “sharp” and prepared for court. They also suggested state lawmakers avoid rushing redistricting legislation or holding special sessions to jam through the approval of state lines.
Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for Washington, D.C.-based watchdog organization Common Cause said ALEC is likely scared of independent commissions or bipartisan processes, given that the reforms are spreading to states that aren’t traditionally Democratic, like Missouri, Michigan, Utah and Ohio.Keeping a low profile allowed the late Thomas Hofeller to direct the GOP's successful 2011 redistricting scheming as Democrats snoozed. Since the last census, partisan gerrymandering in multiple states has given the GOP control of state legislatures and presence in Congress disproportionate to the number of votes their candidates receive in elections. Republicans mean to keep it that way.
“This sudden sharp right turn is in response to the five states in 2018, many of which were red and purple states, to adopt strong redistricting reforms,” she said.
In Texas, where almost one-third of the legislature are members of ALEC and where lawmakers have a history of drawing districts that disadvantage minority voters, advocates fear that if Republicans do well in 2020, the state could see redistricting reform that would help them maintain power for another decade.