Nearly Every Member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Still Takes Corporate PAC Money

Originally published in The Intercept on October 14, 2018. Co-authored with Ryan Grim.
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In April, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced that it was going to be drawing a line: Its political action committee would no longer accept corporate campaign donations.

“If we are going to end the influence of corporations and special interests in government, we have to start by not relying on their support,” said caucus co-chair Mark Pocan, D-Wis. “Only by being fully independent of their financial influence can we prioritize people over corporations.”

The development was largely ignored by the press, but for those who heard about it, the move raised an immediate question: Wait, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was taking corporate money?

Yes, it was. And not only did the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC accept corporate contributions until recently, but also, almost all of its 78 members — including Pocan — still take corporate money individually, even as their caucus shuns it. Just four caucus members who will be returning to the House next session have pledged to decline corporate funds: Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; and David Cicilline, D-R.I.

That number, however, is about to balloon to as many as 40 or more, as a wave of successful progressive insurgents — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jahana Hayes, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — are poised to join the House of Representatives.

The new push to go cold turkey on corporate cash is creating tension within the caucus, as progressive members take offense at the implication that their votes might be influenced by big money. “People feel like you’re saying that they are bought and sold — and some are, but many aren’t,” Jayapal told The Intercept. “It’s not like everybody who takes corporate PAC money is bad or only does what the corporations want. … But that’s not what this is about. It’s about re-establishing trust with voters, changing the system, working from multiple angles.”

But while the voting records of Congressional Progressive Caucus members are better on democracy reform issues compared with those outside the caucus, that might be setting the bar too low. Aaron Scherb, the legislative affairs director for the watchdog group Common Cause, told The Intercept that 17 of the 28 members of Congress who earned perfect scores on his organization’s “Democracy Scorecard“ are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But there are 78 representatives in the caucus, meaning that nearly 4 in 5 caucus members actually failed to earn a perfect score.

“So,” Jayapal explained, “I try to say to people, ‘Look, this is the system that we’ve had, it just doesn’t need to be the system that we always have. So it’s not bad that you’re doing it, because that is what has been the case.’ [I] try to not make it about shaming and blaming, but about, ‘Okay, we’re trying to fix this.’”

While Jayapal is trying to coax her colleagues with carrots, the ballot box is acting as a stick. In September, Rep. Michael Capuano, a longtime progressive from Massachusetts, was bested in a primary contest by his opponent, Ayanna Pressley, who made Capuano’s acceptance of corporate money a key campaign issue.

An analysis by The Intercept of the 2017-18 campaign cycle reveals that the vast majority of CPC members are similarly vulnerable, taking not just money from union and advocacy group PACs,  but significant sums of corporate PAC cash as well. Not coincidentally, given the reliance on big money, hardly any members of the CPC rely on small individual donors.

Capuano hadn’t faced a serious political challenger since he was first elected in 1998, and he’s long been considered one of the most progressive members of the House. Though Pressley, a Boston city councilor, ran her campaign as a progressive insurgent, beyond her disagreement with Capuano over whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ought to be abolished or reformed, there were not many areas where she could distinguish herself from him on a policy level. But her pledge to swear off corporate PAC money, coupled with Capuano’s refusal to do so, created enough daylight between them to run through.

On the campaign trail, Capuano suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar position. He’d never had to seriously defend his fundraising haul before. His voting record, he insisted, spoke for itself. But Pressley highlighted the infusion of corporate funds flowing into Capuano’s coffers, especially from industries like biotech. In the latest two-year cycle, Capuano raised $388,000 from corporate PACs.

Capuano’s Congressional Progressive Caucus colleagues back in Washington, D.C., watched him go down, knowing that they, too, share his appetite for corporate money — and, potentially, his fate.

The movement to get money out of politics has fueled a massive, rapid, and poorly understood sea change — one that’s come to a head in the 2018 cycle. According to End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform political action committee, 208 candidates took the “no corporate PACs” pledge this cycle. Of those candidates, 124 won their primaries, including big names like Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat challenging Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, and Ocasio-Cortez, the insurgent candidate from New York City who ousted Joe Crowley, one of the top Democrats in Congress. (End Citizens United endorsed Crowley in the primary, despite his long record of taking corporate contributions, not expecting him to face a real challenge.)

Polls showed that Conor Lamb’s vocal opposition to corporate PAC money helped him eke out a victory in a district that Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. And in a Pennsylvania district to Lamb’s east, Jess King has made her refusal to take corporate PAC money, and the GOP incumbent’s reliance on it, a defining feature of her campaign, helping her bring her opponent’s lead down to the single digits in a district that Trump carried by 26 points. The defining line in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign zeroed in on that distinction: “We’ve got people, they’ve got money.”

Meanwhile, all 78 candidates endorsed by the Justice Democrats — a progressive political action committee, 26 of whose endorsees are still in the running — have sworn off corporate PAC and corporate lobbyist money. And already, presidential hopefuls like Kamala HarrisCory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have responded to the growing hunger for campaign finance reform by announcing that they’ll no longer take corporate PAC contributions — an easier decision for them since corporate PACs aren’t likely to weigh in on presidential primaries anyway.

Polling has repeatedly shown that a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents view the influence of big money in politics as among the biggest threats to democracy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has pledgedthat tackling corruption will be job No. 1 if Democrats retake the House and she becomes speaker.

But while elected officials — especially self-identified progressive ones — recognize the need to publicly back efforts to get money out of politics, incumbents will privately complain among themselves about the growing pressure to turn away long-standing donors, and big donors at that.

“Some of the most progressive members of the CPC will say their corporate contributions have never affected their votes, but they need to take trade association dollars or corporate PAC money because they represent poor districts that they don’t think has a donor base to make up for it,” said one Democratic House strategist.

“I’ve heard this particularly with folks of color,” said Jayapal, “that they have very minimal sources to get money from, and they traditionally haven’t been part of the overall [fundraising] system. But I think the beauty of getting corporate money out of politics is, it actually opens it up to everybody. In many ways, it’s a democratizing factor for traditionally marginalized communities.” Jayapal acknowledges that she thinks “it can take time to transition into that.”

This year’s primary upsets are beginning to change the political calculus, but longtime incumbents haven’t typically felt pressure to reject corporate PAC money. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., came to Congress as an insurgent herself, beating a nine-term Democratic incumbent in 1992. Now, she says, she would “love to get to the point” where she doesn’t have to accept corporate money, but her energies have been largely focused on Puerto Rico. “Since I didn’t have a primary,” she added, “I am not paying attention to that.”

Without electoral pressure, incumbents like Velázquez have had little incentive to spend the energy to create a small-dollar fundraising base, or even one that can subsist on big money from individuals without corporate PACs. Privately, members of Congress also argue that it is unrealistic to expect all of them to be able to attract the kind of small-dollar support for which Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and O’Rourke are famous.

“The way I would put it is, there’s a consensus that candidates ought to be raising their money from small donors, but it’s also the case that only a subset of candidates really click with small donors,” said Mark Schmitt, a former congressional aide and current political reform director at New America. “There’s only one Beto, and he gets attacked because his money pours in from out of state. There’s just some candidates who that’s never going to happen for, and they could be perfectly good progressive candidates, but not the attractive, charismatic type that might fuel small-dollar backing.”

And even O’Rourke has acknowledged that some degree of his ability to raise money relies on the intense disdain for his opponent, Cruz — a dynamic that also benefited Randy Bryce in his race against Paul Ryan. When Ryan retired, Bryce’s fundraising dropped significantly.

Some candidates who don’t share the superstar appeal of Sanders or O’Rourke argue that rejecting corporate cash could be tantamount to unilateral disarmament against Republicans in the general. “You would not want corporate PAC money used to destroy you in a general election, so it’s really going to depend on the landscape of each district,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., when asked if he would pledge not to take corporate PAC money.

Nasim Thompson, the communications director for Justice Democrats, has little patience for these types of excuses. “Those small-dollar donations are a reflection of grassroots support on the ground. And it’s not easy work, it’s very hard work, but it’s what we should expect of our electeds,” said Thompson. She adds that it’s the candidates who are not doing that hard work that are “compromising the entire system.”

Jayapal put it like this: “You don’t have to be an organizer; you don’t have to go out and make inspiring speeches. You just have to be authentic and show that you really care about the people that you represent and ordinary people, and that you want to take on the system of corruption in politics, and I think anybody can do that,” she said. “It is inspiring just to take the step.”

Although corporate PAC contributions have been the focus of the national political conversation, corporate PAC money, it turns out, amounts to a relative drop in the bucket of the large-dollar donations sloshing around American politics. “I sometimes ask people, ‘Well, how much do you get?’ And often, it’s a fairly small number,” said Jayapal.

In 2016, for example, just 6 percent of the $6.5 billion spent on the presidential election came from corporate PACs — two-thirds of which went to Republicans. The vast majority of money flowing into elections comes from wealthy individual donors. Even Congressional Progressive Caucus members who have sworn off corporate PAC money, like Khanna and Jared Polis (who is currently running for Colorado governor), rely predominantly on individual donations from the rich. Gabbard, too, has a broad national base of donors, and gets a boost from wealthy American Hindus eager to support the first Hindu in office. Tlaib and Abdul El Sayed, both of whom took the pledge, similarly benefited from high-dollar donations from Muslim communities nationwide.

Corporate PACs are more likely to support incumbents than primary challengers, which is good news for insurgents, who can run on the politically popular message of opposing corporate PAC money while also recognizing that they were unlikely to be beneficiaries of those dollars to begin with.

Still, advocates for campaign finance reform say the level of upfront, personal sacrifice isn’t really the point, because candidates who pledge to take no money from corporate PACs are communicating a greater level of commitment to reform than their opponents. Pledges also make it harder for them to walk back their commitments later on, when, as incumbents, they’re more likely to feel pressure to draw a greater share of their funding from corporate PACs. Pressley, who fundraised from corporate PACs while she was a member of the Boston City Council, pledged in Septemberto continue refusing corporate PAC money into the general election, and also once she’s in Congress.

“There’s no such thing as a pristine or incorruptible human being going into Congress, so part of our role is to continue that accountability for all members, including for Justice Democrats themselves,” said Thompson. “We need to make sure that drift doesn’t happen, and Justice Democrats aren’t immune to those pressures.”

Adam Bozzi, communications director for End Citizens United, predicts that “20 or 30 or 40” candidates who reject corporate PAC money will win their House races this November, and that “a couple more senators” will soon join the seven who have already done so. (Those senators are Warren, D-Mass.; Sanders, I-Vt.; Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Harris, D-Calif.; Booker, D-N.J.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.) These candidates “are not going to be bullied around” in Congress, Bozzi said. “That, plus the presidential primary, will lead to candidates pushing each other on these issues,” he added.

The hope is that the growing pressure will force the Michael Capuanos of the future to see that rejecting corporate PAC money is not only the most ethical choice, but the most politically attractive one as well.

“Corporate PAC money is a significant amount of money, but it’s not insurmountable,” said Bozzi. So-called “Red to Blue” Democrats who won in Republican-controlled districts last cycle, according to Bozzi, received an average of $16,000 each from corporate PACs. Democratic incumbents in competitive races last cycle received about 11 percent of their funding from corporate PACs, while the average for Democrats overall was closer to 19 percent.

Schmitt hopes that the focus on corporate PAC money will kickstart a more serious conversation about public financing — a consequential reform which can be accomplished without overturning Citizens UnitedThis past May, House and Senate Democratic leaders unveiled their “Better Deal for Democracy” package, which includes a plan whereby candidates would receive a 6-to-1 match in public funds for every dollar raised from small donors. The reform proposals were spearheaded by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who has sworn off corporate PAC money for the past seven years. Sarbanes’s package has received the backing not only of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but also more moderate Democrats like Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

“If you’ve been in politics for more than five minutes, you get tangled up in the money — everyone knows that,” Sarbanes told The Intercept. “The real question is: What are we going to do about it? If we get back the gavel in November, we will want to move quickly on this reform agenda.”

Republicans, for their part, are not that concerned. Rep. Tom Cole, a member of House Republican leadership from Oklahoma, told The Intercept that it’s a “fantasy” to think that voters care much about corporate PAC money. “As long as it’s legal, and you’re not getting hauled in front of the FEC [Federal Election Commission] for violating the law, I’ve found very few vote on that basis,” he said. “It’s not like they give you television time for free, you know, or let you mail your mailers out for free. So, I’m sorry, it just takes money to communicate. That’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way the system is. So, taking money out just means you’re not going to win. If people want to make that a virtue, that’s fine, but usually the person that has the most resources wins about nine times out of 10.”

Any voter who does make it a litmus test, he added, was never going to vote for him in the first place.

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D.C.’s Master Facilities Plan Will Shape the City’s Balance Between Neighborhood Schools and Charters

Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 10, 2018.
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This week D.C. will hold its third and final round of public meetings for a little-known planning process that could reshape the city’s balance between neighborhood schools and charters.

For the past 16 months, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office has been developing a blueprint for the future of the city’s schools, known as a “Master Facilities Plan.” By law, this comprehensive report will provide city leaders with an overview of the state of school buildings across the District. The goal is to analyze population projections and school building data so that policymakers can plan for the next decade of D.C. public education. How should resources be directed? What schools need to be built? Where?

The stakes are high. Though D.C. has one of the largest charter school sectors in the country—educating nearly half of all city students—most families assume they could still send their child to their local neighborhood school, a District of Columbia Public School, if they wanted. A 2014 advisory committee on student assignment led by the deputy mayor for education found strong public support for maintaining schools that students living within a certain distance are entitled to attend.

But since 2008, the number of charters in the city has increased from 93 to 120, while the number of neighborhood schools has declined from 134 to 114. Only four new DCPS schools have opened in the city during this period, compared with 27 charters. Many advocates say there needs to be more coordination between the two school sectors if D.C. wants to ensure that all families have access to a neighborhood public school in the future.

Expected demographic shifts add another layer of complexity. The D.C. Auditor projectsschool enrollment to grow by 12,000 to 17,000 students in the next 10 years, with the bulk of that growth occurring in the middle and upper grades. A separate analysis produced by the D.C. Policy Center puts those estimates even higher, predicting just over 21,000 new students by 2026.

The city historically hasn’t been great at planning for school facilities—inequitably distributing capital dollars, haphazardly drawing school boundary lines, and failing to ensure that taxpayers get the best bang for their buck. The D.C. Auditor’s office examined school modernizations between 2010 and 2013 and found that the city lacked “basic financial management” over its $1.2 billion in spending, allowing large cost-overruns and misallocated funds. “District resources are finite,” said Auditor Kathy Patterson at the time. “We owe it to taxpayers to see that modernization funds are spent well and prudently, to assure our ability to complete the task of upgrading all of our schools.” The 21st Century School Fund, a local nonprofit that advocates for high-quality school buildings, estimates D.C. will need to budget at least $400 million annually to maintain its DCPS and charter schools in good repair.

While more than $4 billion has already been spent on local school upgrades since 2000, schools with high rates of students in poverty have historically gotten the short end of the stick. Some schools that clamored for renovations received practically no money for capital improvements, while others successfully lobbied for multiple rounds of investment.

D.C.’s leaders have taken a weaving path to this moment. School facility planning has been a long-standing issue, but has grown especially charged since 2015, when, aware of mounting issues, city leadership finally resolved to act. At an oversight hearing before the Council, then-DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson advocated for revamping the school modernization process. “My very honest assessment is that the whole [capital improvement] process is jacked up,” she said, calling it too political and expensive, and proposed a new, transparent system for addressing school facilities. Henderson envisioned distributing public dollars based on “logical” criteria, not “how loudly your community screams.”

In a process spearheaded by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who took over in 2015 as chairman of the Education Committee, the Council held hearings and drafted new legislation—the Planning Actively for Comprehensive Education (PACE) Facilities Act—to bring order, equity, and transparency to the school planning process. Bowser signed it into law at the end of 2016.

Yet in the nearly two years since the PACE Act’s passage, a number of glaring obstacles to comprehensive school facility planning have emerged. The mayor’s office has blown many months of deadlines and worked actively to conceal information about charter facility conditions and costs. Elected officials, reluctant to confront tough politics, have worked to reinterpret or simply ignore the intent of the law that they themselves authorized.

Compounding these issues is the fact that charter schools are not required to share their long-term growth plans with the public. Residents say they worry that when all is said and done, the city will not really be in a place so different from where it was before—thinking through complex issues with incomplete data, having no expectation that DCPS and charter-sector leaders work together, and not even requiring that the data collected be used to guide school planning decisions.

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine how many schools are needed to educate the District’s 91,000 public school students, and where new schools must go to accommodate student growth in the years ahead. Publicly, at least, city officials agree that they’d like to maintain D.C.’s balance of a choice-based charter system and traditional public schools that students can attend by-right. Even Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, has said he wouldn’t want to see D.C. go all-charter. “The current model, with two public school systems pushing each other to be better and cooperating whenever possible, is proving to be the right mix for the District’s schoolchildren,” he wrote in a 2015 Washington Post opinion piece.

But maintaining this rough balance could require new limits on the charter sector’s autonomy, something charter leaders and the mayor’s office are loath to discuss. “It takes real planning,” says Danica Petroshius, the co-vice president of the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization. “Which means making decisions and sharing oversight over the two sectors because they are for one system of students.”

The Public Charter School Board currently has complete authority to open and close charters across the city, and typically approves new schools to open before charters have determined where they’ll in fact be located. Pointing to the long waitlists for some of the city’s top-performing charters, leaders say they feel a moral urgency to grow new high-quality schools as fast as they can. “I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters,” Pearson once told The Post.

The passage of the PACE Act, though, was considered one of the clearest signs that leaders were finally open to making comprehensive, cross-sector decisions about school facilities in D.C.

The 2013 Master Facilities Plan, which included a limited amount of charter school data, articulated the problems D.C. faces when it comes to school planning. “At present, there is little coordination of school facility needs with expenditures across all public schools, for both DCPS and charters” the 2013 report acknowledged. Charter schools were “growing haphazardly” as schools “open wherever they can find space that is both affordable and sufficient for their needs, and many remain in substandard facilities.” DCPS and charter facility data were “inconsistent, inaccessible or both,” and the lack of a comprehensive fact base made it “nearly impossible to make strategic facility investments” and “perpetuates the conflict between DCPS and charter[s].”

Three years later, by 2016, the Council’s Education Committee reported that little had changed. The PACE Act, the Council made clear, would be its attempt to finally take action. The act directed D.C.’s education agencies and the Department of General Services to “conduct an annual survey to update information on the condition of each DCPS and public charter school facility.” The survey results “shall be disaggregated by facility, [and] made publicly available.”

The Council recognized that some charters might be resistant to increased data collection, so the PACE Act also authorized the mayor’s office to fine the Public Charter School Board up to $10,000 annually if charters failed to cooperate.

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Several key drafters of the PACE Act tell City Paper there was no ambiguity at the time as to whether the legislation was intended to fill the well documented gaps in school facility data collection. The Council also felt it needed to more clearly understand charter facility conditions, as they’re nearly entirely funded by taxpayers. Unlike DCPS schools, which receive facility funding from the city’s capital budget, charter schools receive a “facilities allowance” for every student they educate, taken from the city’s operating budget. Today that allowance stands at $3,193 per pupil. However, charters are not actually required to spend their facility allowances on their school facilities, nor must they publicly document the conditions of their buildings.

Jump ahead to the summer of last year, though, and signs started to emerge that the process was breaking down.

In July 2017, then-Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles sent a memo to all local education agencies informing them of the upcoming Master Facilities Plan. While Niles emphasized that participation would make the process more successful, her letter suggested that participation for charter schools housed in “non-District owned facilities” would be voluntary, and that if they do participate, their facility assessments “will not be shared directly with” the mayor or the charter board. In other words, the charters located in 70 privately owned buildings across D.C. would not have to share their facility assessments with policymakers.

Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund, sent the mayor a letter in August 2017 raising concerns with Niles’ memo. “Without full disclosure and complete data on the facility condition, design, capacity and growth plans for charter, as well as DCPS schools, it is not possible to efficiently plan for projected child population growth, equitably allocate its public education operating and capital budgets, exercise appropriate oversight of the District’s budget … or engage communities in authentic neighborhood level planning,” Filardo wrote. She also noted that parents would not be able to make fully informed school choices if they lacked information about the safety and condition of each school.

When Niles sent a vague letter back on behalf of the mayor a month later, she didn’t respond to Filardo’s concerns directly. Instead she said that it’s her priority that charters are included in the Master Facilities Plan, and that her team was confident this would happen. “I appreciate that we both feel strongly about the need for comprehensive facility information and planning, and I look forward to further dialogue and feedback,” Niles wrote.

That same month, a group of D.C. education stakeholders convened to discuss implementation of the PACE Act, and why it appeared the mayor’s office seemed to be diverging away from its legislative intent. “It seems incomprehensible that the city would require 10 years of planning for public school buildings involving billions of dollars to be done in the dark,” said Filardo at the time.

Meanwhile, the mayor started missing PACE Act deadlines. The first was Sept. 30, 2017—when the mayor’s office was supposed to have assessed each DCPS school according to criteria that could allow for the objective prioritization of capital funds. That date was set so parents and community members would have ample time to weigh in before the mayor’s budget was finalized.

The next missed deadline was in December 2017, when the mayor’s office was supposed to submit its final Master Facilities Plan. The office first requested an extension for March 2018, but at an oversight hearing in mid- February the public learned the mayor wanted to push the report back even further. “You will have the report next August, August 2018,” said Niles. She said the delay was due to it taking longer than expected to fundraise for charter facility assessments in privately owned buildings.

The plan still hasn’t been released, and the mayor’s office now promises it sometime before the end of 2018—a year late.

At that same February hearing, Grosso, the chair of the Education Committee, said he worried the mayor’s office was delaying the completion of the Master Facilities Plan to bypass public scrutiny on its next budget. Niles denied this, but resigned three days later, after news broke that she assisted DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson in gaming the school lottery.

Two months later, at an April budget oversight hearing, Grosso grilled Niles’ replacement, interim Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith, on why so many components of the PACE Act were still not being followed, including the requirement to produce a detailed analysis of the modernization needs of each school, along with timelines for new construction, and cost assessments. Grosso said it appeared the mayor was just picking and choosing which items she felt like complying with. Smith said she didn’t have an answer to give him, but would confer later with DCPS and the Department of General Services to find out.

“I’d be more understanding if we didn’t go through a two-year public process writing this law, if the mayor didn’t actually sign it, and support it,” Grosso said at the hearing. “I think it’s disrespectful to the democratic process.”

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Internal documents show the city working closely with charter-supportive organizations to keep charter facility data hidden—even from the city itself.

The Master Facilities Plan is built on what are known as “Facility Condition Assessments,” or FCAs. These are detailed evaluations of the capital needs of each school building, conducted by an outside civil engineering firm. These comprehensive school-level reports can easily exceed 200 pages each, and are aimed at determining maintenance requirements and costs for all parts of the building, exterior and interior, over a decade. The mayor’s office budgeted to fund FCAs in all DCPS schools and charters in publicly owned buildings, but at some point the mayor’s office began working with the Walton Family Foundation to fund optional FCAs for charters leasing from privately owned buildings.

Emails produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, and shared with City Paper, show the topic emerging as early as July 2017, though it’s not clear when or how these discussions began.

The emails show the mayor’s office working hand-in-glove with Education Forward DC (an education reform grant-making organization), Ampersand Education (a consulting firm) and the Walton Family Foundation to figure out how to fund the FCAs. They landed on creating a new layer of bureaucracy to separate the data from the public: The Walton Family Foundation would fund Education Forward DC to contract the facility assessments, and Ampersand consultants would act as liaisons between the charters, Education Forward DC, and the contractor.

Most unusual was that the mayor’s office itself was pushing to ensure that the results of the facility conditions assessments would stay permanently out of public view. The Walton Family Foundation and Ed Forward DC confirmed to City Paper that the stipulation to keep the charter FCAs private did not come from them.

FOIA’d emails show that Alex Cross, the facilities officer for the deputy mayor for education, drafted a $750,000 grant application to the Walton Family Foundation to fund these facility assessments. But rather than submitting that application directly himself, he arranged for Education Forward DC to submit it under their name. A February 2018 email from Cross emphasized to an Ampersand Education consultant that when she begins her work on this project, she or Education Forward DC should specifically communicate to charters that the collected facilities data “will not be shared with DME, PCSB, or publicly.”

A document distributed directly to the charter schools reiterated that “none of the school-level data will be shared with the DME, PCSB, OSSE, or any other government agency or made public in any way.” (OSSE is the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.) The document, which City Paper reviewed, clarified that the Walton Family Foundation, Education Forward DC, Ampersand Education, the engineering firm, and the individual charters would retain access to the facility information.

City Paper asked the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office why it did not submit the grant to the Walton Family Foundation itself, as it was Cross—a city employee—who drafted much of it. City Paper also asked if prior to Education Forward DC submitting the grant, the mayor’s office otherwise attempted to secure funding to contract the assessments themselves.

The deputy mayor’s office did not directly answer these questions. “The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education and this administration have worked hard to reach unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability throughout the 2018 Master Facilities Plan process,” said then-Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith in an emailed response. “For the first time in the District’s history, the Master Facilities Plan will be informed by facility information on both DCPS and DC public charter schools, as a result of work by this administration.”

Maura Marino, the CEO of Education Forward DC, the group that received the Walton grant, told City Paper that this arrangement may have been decided on to help maximize participation from charter schools that otherwise might resist facility inspections. She said that some charters in privately owned facilities could have landlords who oppose the idea of contractors coming in to assess their buildings. This way, if contractors did come in, the assessments would only be shared as part of an aggregated, anonymized summary. Marino also noted that complications can sometimes arise when private groups donate directly to government, and that foundations often prefer to avoid those risks by channeling funds through nonprofit intermediaries.

“I think we all have an interest in the Master Facilities Plan being as inclusive as possible,” said Marino. “In general our goal should be more information and the best information.”

Nevertheless, unlike DCPS schools and charters in publicly owned buildings, charters in privately owned facilities will not be submitting detailed building assessments for the Master Facilities Plan. City Paper has learned that of the 70 non-District owned facilities that house charter schools, 49 have opted for facility conditions assessments, though the public is barred from knowing which buildings those are, and which charter schools lease from them.

As an alternative to FCAs, charters were invited to fill out brief surveys with seven questions related to their anticipated facility needs over the next decade, and a separate 17-question survey on facility conditions. (The Public Charter School Board drafted the survey, with feedback from the mayor’s office and the Department of General Services, according to PCSB spokesperson Tomeika Bowden.)

The questions were general. One question asks: “Does your facility have known potential asbestos hazards?” and the answer choices are “Yes” or “No”—with the option to include additional comments. Another question invites respondents to briefly describe “the most likely renovations you would undertake” in the next 10 years.

In addition to data disparities, charter schools do not have to share their long-term growth plans with the public, despite the impact charter enrollment has on DCPS enrollment. Many parents have been asking how strategic planning can really work without this type of information.

City Paper asked the Public Charter School Board how it envisions using the results of the Master Facilities Plan in its charter approval process and was told, “we’re in the process of determining that.” The charter sector is not required to use the MFP data to guide the opening, closing, and siting of its schools.

City Paper went back to David Grosso to ask how the city could comprehensively plan for the future if school-level data for dozens of charters are not shared with the government and public.

In a statement that seems to contradict the language of his own committee’s 2016 report, Grosso said the PACE Act does not require the FCAs be made public, though he “believes it is the best interest of the families and schools to share information on the state of facilities so that everyone can make fully informed decisions.” He said it would be “up to the Deputy Mayor for Education” to incentivize charter schools to participate in the MFP.

And then, in what appears an even further walk-back from the Council’s 2016 position, Grosso said, “in the end, the PACE Act was designed to provide government with a useful tool to plan for the modernization and improvement of facilities in which it can invest capital dollars.” Because charter school facility allowances come out of operating budgets, not capital budgets, Grosso’s statement implied that knowing the conditions of charter schools is less essential.

Somewhere along the way, the mayor’s office and the Council quietly decided that the PACE Act, passed to improve citywide planning and data collection, would now have significant caveats, carve-outs, and exceptions.

“Things are much more complicated than people are honest about,” says Eboni-Rose Thompson, the chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, who attended both the April and August MFP public engagement sessions. “We have students living in areas that literally couldn’t fit into their neighborhood schools if they wanted to go.”

“There’s a huge flaw if DCPS is trying to do long-term planning around population and enrollment targets, but not in conjunction with the charter sector which affects DCPS enrollment,” says Petroshius, of Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization. “If charter growth is essentially unlimited then the Master Facilities Plan is essentially meaningless.”

These cross-sector issues have been debated for at least the past five years. In 2013, D.C. resident Virginia Spatz was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters. But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”

Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent who writes about school issues on her blog education dc, says she worries that a future where all students are entitled to attend public schools near their home is falling further down the priority list for D.C. leadership.

“Without a commitment to a by-right system of municipally-run schools in every neighborhood as a foundational principle of public education planning and governance,” said Jablow, “leaders will never be able to ensure that the right to education in D.C. is guaranteed and secured equitably for all everywhere.”

Can a Blue Wave in a Blue State Make Ben Jealous Maryland’s First African American Governor?

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s fall 2018 magazine.

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Thirty-six governor’s mansions are up for grabs this November, and Ben Jealous, the 45-year-old former president of the NAACP turned venture capitalist, is on a mission to reclaim Maryland’s for the Democrats. In theory, this shouldn’t be such a heavy lift. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in the state, and Hillary Clinton swept it in 2016 by 26 points. The election carries some symbolic weight as well: If Jealous won, he would become the first African American governor of this former slave state where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman once toiled. Like his fellow black gubernatorial nominees, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, Jealous could make some history this November.

But the media and most political observers remain skeptical of Jealous’s prospects. His opponent, Republican Larry Hogan, who previously worked as a real-estate developer, has governed as a centrist, avoided major scandal, distanced himself from President Trump, and boasts a 70 percent approval rating. Hogan’s fundraising haul also dwarfs that of Jealous. Pundits say his popularity and available resources should insulate him from any sort of blue-wave midterm.

But Jealous, a towering six feet, four inches, isn’t fazed—and certainly isn’t running to the center. He’s convinced that the path to victory doesn’t require courting the moderate Democrats in Hogan’s camp, but galvanizing the many thousands of Democrats who stayed home on Election Day four years ago.

Running on Medicare for All, ending mass incarceration, fully funding public schools, legalizing marijuana, a $15 minimum wage, public infrastructure investments, universal pre-K, and tuition-free college, Jealous’s platform is a grab bag of unabashed progressive demands. “If we’re unafraid to be Democrats, we will win,” he told me in August.

Jealous’s campaign presents an interesting test case, not only for the Old Line State, but for the Democratic Party writ large. Though he failed to win the endorsement of much of the statewide liberal elite during the primary season, he ended up carrying 22 of the state’s 24 counties, beating out the presumed frontrunner by 10 points in a packed field of nine candidates—all while refusing corporate contributions, something no other gubernatorial candidate in Maryland has ever done.

“We won overwhelmingly in a very crowded primary by a big margin precisely because Marylanders are eager for us to solve problems at scale,” he says. “They want us to stop nibbling around the edges.”

In 2016, Jealous endorsed Bernie Sanders for president early on, quickly becoming one of Sanders’s most vocal and important surrogates during the primaries. Now in 2018, Jealous has chosen as his lieutenant-governor running mate Susie Turnbull, a party insider and 2016 Clinton supporter, in the hope that the Bernie-Hillary divide can be overcome with the right team, attitude, and message.

For Jealous, Election Day will be a referendum on incrementalism—and a measure of just how potent the state’s progressive movement really is.

JEALOUS’S STRATEGY IS ROOTED in the numbers. The Democrats project that the state’s electorate will hit 2.1 million voters this November, and “if we turn out one million voters to the polls, we win,” he says. Republican gubernatorial candidates, he likes to remind the public, have never secured more than 900,000 votes in this blue state, and in 2014, a cycle with markedly low turnout, Hogan won with only 884,400 votes, beating out his Democratic opponent by a 66,000-vote margin. Four years earlier, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O’Malley sailed to re-election with more than a million ballots cast in his favor. Democrats are banking on 2018 looking a lot more like 2010 than 2014.

What went wrong four years ago?

“There just didn’t seem to be as much at stake,” says Mark McLaurin, the political director for SEIU 500, which endorsed Jealous in the primary. “In 2014, we still had President Obama, most core Democratic constituencies considered 2016 in the bag, there wasn’t a sense of urgency, and the Democrats just didn’t have a very robust field operation.” McLaurin, an operative who has worked in Maryland campaigns for the past 20 years, says he “never saw a quieter Election Day in Baltimore City than in the 2014 general.”

The Democratic contender that year was former Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, a relatively uninspiring candidate who waged a muted campaign. He still won Baltimore City and other reliably Democratic counties, but the number of votes was way down. Baltimore City was down 13 percent from 2010, Prince George’s County was down by 5 percent, and Montgomery County dropped by 9 percent.

“In certain parts of Maryland, there’s a feeling that the real race is the primary,” says Roxie Herbekian, president of the UNITE HERE local in Baltimore City. “With Anthony Brown, we worked really hard to get him to be the nominee, and after that everyone kind of relaxed, his campaign relaxed, and then it wasn’t until the last two weeks that we were like, ‘Oh shit, what the hell is going on.’” Herbekian says this year, “no one is taking anything for granted.”

Aside from awakening from 2014 complacency, the other major difference between that midterm election and the fast-approaching one is a man named Donald Trump. A poll released in June found that 46 percent of Maryland Democrats ranked “removing Donald Trump from office” as their number-one priority. While Hogan has tried to walk a careful tightrope as a centrist Republican who distances himself from the president or stays quiet on federal policy, November is the first opportunity most voters have to voice their opposition to the nation’s historically unpopular president. That, combined with the looming 2020 census and the fact that half of all legislators drawing the congressional redistricting maps in 2021 will be elected this year, makes this a higher-stakes midterm than the last.

Beyond riding the blue wave, Jealous’s campaign is banking on two strategies to improve Democratic margins: progressive policy solutions, and an aggressive voter turnout effort.

In 2014, the Democratic-coordinated campaign in Maryland had a total of 15 field organizers on the ground. This year, 27 Democratic organizers were hired by August, with near 70 active across the state by September.

Jealous also points to the political team he has assembled, which produced the turnout that led to O’Malley’s 2010 victory. In that year, Turnbull, Jealous’s running mate, was the chair of the state Democratic Party; his campaign manager, Travis Tazelaar, was executive director of the state party; and David Sloan, who is now running the statewide coordinated campaign for all Democratic candidates, was the state party’s political director. “The NAACP was involved too, and together we turned out more than a million voters,” says Jealous. Turnbull, Tazelaar, and Sloan pointedly did not lead the 2014 political effort, and Jealous had also left the civil rights organization by that time.

His team also hopes for some help from the many resistance groups that have sprung up since 2016.

Chris Pickett, a science policy analyst in Montgomery County, joined the national grassroots organization Indivisible after Trump won. He founded Indivisible Montgomery in December 2016, and says his group grew from 15 friends to 1,400 members in just six weeks. (With “Indivisible MoCo” and “Indivisible Montgomery County,” Pickett’s county actually boasts three separate Indivisible chapters, a reality he chalks up to people wanting to focus on different things, and a lot of natural leaders in the region.)

“For the vast majority of our members, this is their first time being an activist,” Pickett says, noting that he’s a newcomer to activism, too. Indivisible Montgomery generally steers clear of Maryland Senate and House of Delegates races, but has focused its energies on flipping Congress and the Maryland governor’s seat. “We sent a bunch of people down to Virginia for Ralph Northam; we had people go up to Pennsylvania for Conor Lamb; we phone-banked for the special election in Ohio,” he says. “We want to put a check on the federal government, and we recognize voting is the biggest way we can make our voices heard.” While Pickett’s chapter did not make an endorsement in the Maryland gubernatorial primary, he says his members have been eager to dive into the general.

The story is similar across the state. In Baltimore City, an Indivisible chapter formed after Trump’s inauguration and has met every two weeks since. In the beginning, according to member Jennay Ghowrwal, they focused almost exclusively on federal issues. But as time went on, Indivisible Baltimore decided to get involved in the Virginia election, and targeted a Republican state delegate seat in a district that Clinton won in 2016. “We organized carpools down there, knocked on 10,000 doors, and when the Republican lost in 2017, we all just realized how energizing that was,” she says. In 2018, they focused on passing automatic voter registration—something Indivisible Baltimore and other chapters managed to achieve in Maryland’s latest legislative session. (The policy will go into effect in 2019.) Now Ghowrwal says her group is ready to elect Jealous, someone they feel will do a better job than Hogan at standing up to Trump.

Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based strategist working to elect Jealous, put it this way: “It’s not that I automatically think people are hooked into the governor’s race, but there’s a level of civic engagement in Baltimore and statewide spurred by the Trump administration and the school shootings and the Annapolis shooting that is very different than it was four years ago,” she says. “In a way, people have been feeling very anxious. The issues in communities feel scarier, more intense, and in many ways more political.”

BUT CAN JEALOUS, A first-time candidate who ran as an outsider, get the insiders in his camp?

In the primary, most of the state’s Democratic establishment lined up behind Rushern Baker, the outgoing county executive in Prince George’s County, who ran a campaign premised on the idea that he could win back some Hogan voters in 2018. Baker, a Clinton supporter in 2016, claimed endorsements from former Governor O’Malley, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, and State Attorney General Brian Frosh. (The Baltimore Sun endorsed Jealous, while The Washington Post backed Baker.)

Jealous, on the other hand, says he’s not wasting his time trying to win back the moderate Democrats who will vote for Hogan, arguing that there’s simply not that many of them. (Although, exit polls found that 23 percent of Democratic voters cast their ballots for Hogan in 2014, and a poll released in early June found that 24 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they planned to vote for Hogan in November.)

In June, a few dozen Maryland Democrats came out with endorsements for Hogan, though most were older white men who hadn’t served in office for years. Others had received political appointments from the governor, or had records of supporting Republican candidates in the past. The only statewide elected Democrat to back Hogan was 84-year-old Melvin Steinberg, who served as lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1995. In 1998, Steinberg endorsed Republican Ellen Sauerbrey for governor, a candidate opposed to abortion rights and gun control.

“We’ve seen this before,” Jealous says dismissively when I ask him about Democratic endorsements for his opponent. “There’s literally nothing happening in the Hogan campaign that wasn’t happening in the [Robert] Ehrlich campaign, and Ehrlich was a one-term bird, and Hogan will be a one-termer, too.” Ehrlich served as Maryland’s Republican governor from 2003 to 2007, and lost his re-election campaign to O’Malley by 6.5 points despite commanding a 55 percent approval rating at the time. Jealous’s team says Ehrlich’s defeat is instructive, and should give confidence to those who hear about Hogan’s high approval rating. The 2006 election also featured the last Democratic wave, as popular disapproval of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq swept the Democrats back in control of Congress.

After the June primary, all the gubernatorial candidates quickly came together to back Jealous, though some other state Democratic leaders have been slower to voice their support. The long-serving state senate president, Mike Miller, initially offered only mild enthusiasm for Jealous, having praised Hogan for his bipartisanship work. The outgoing executive of affluent Montgomery County, Isiah Leggett, said Jealous’s support for a millionaire tax and redistributing more state funds to poorer school districts left him ambivalent about an endorsement. Senator Cardin and Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch gave Jealous their blessing, but made a point to highlight their disagreement with him on such issues as single-payer health care.

“We have to be clear about what happened here,” says Bob Muehlenkamp, chair of Our Revolution Maryland, the group that formed out of the 2016 Sanders campaign, which backed Jealous early on. “Not a single elected Democratic official came out for Ben in the primary, which means we defeated the established Democratic Party of the state of Maryland. What does it say about a party that will not unequivocally work now to throw out a Republican governor in the era of Trump?”

Muehlenkamp chalks the electeds’ reticence up to “how miserably corporate” the Democratic Party is in Maryland. “It’s a corporate-controlled party, and they can use all the dog whistles they want about how they think his policies can’t win, or he’s too far out on Medicare for All, or we can’t do $15 minimum wage right now, but the truth is they want Ben Jealous to lose, because he would disrupt their nice little in-crowd club, and they’d rather make peace with whatever governor there is—even in the age of Trump.”

McLaurin of SEIU 500 says the recent primary suggests it’s not that important how quickly or slowly the stragglers from the Democratic establishment decide to get on board, because the primary results indicate a new generation of progressives are poised to disrupt the party. Not only did Jealous sweep the state by a considerable margin, but a number of progressive challengers down-ballot also defeated longtime Democratic incumbents. Among those unseated were the chair of the state Senate Finance Committee and the chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “This is the kind of year where voters just aren’t taking the normal political cues,” McLaurin says.

JEALOUS ISN’T CAMPAIGNING on “making Maryland great again,” but he does talk a lot about “restoring the promise of Maryland.”

Jealous describes the promise of Maryland as one where his grandfather could attend a year of law school at the University of Maryland in the late 1950s for $200 in tuition. Today, Jealous says, if tuition had kept up with inflation, the cost for students would be about $2,600. Instead, it’s more than $31,000. “There’s nothing outlandish about saying we want millennials to get the same deal the Greatest Generation got,” Jealous said to a crowd of young political activists this summer.

The promise of Maryland, Jealous also likes to say, is one where a guy like him could have a mother born and raised in Baltimore public housing, who one day sends her son off to Columbia University and then to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Jealous has long been an activist. In college, he led protests, boycotts, and pickets for such issues as preserving financial aid and homelessness rights. He was ultimately suspended for his rabble-rousing, and moved down to Mississippi to work as an organizer, later becoming a local reporter in Jackson. When he eventually returned to Columbia, he graduated with a political science degree, and went to study comparative social research at Oxford. He spent the decade after that leading an association of black community newspapers, directing the U.S. human rights program at Amnesty International, and doing a one-year stint training to be a priest.

In 2008, at age 35, he became the youngest person to ever take the helm of the NAACP. This was a controversial pick given his youth and lack of close ties to the movement. But Julian Bond, the longtime chair of the organization, pushed hard for Jealous, believing in his potential.

Under Jealous’s half-decade of leadership, the NAACP, headquartered in Maryland, helped pass the state’s DREAM Act, its referendum on gay marriage, and the abolition of Maryland’s death penalty. The Baltimore Sun named him “Marylander of the Year” in 2013 for his accomplishments.

Some analysts worry about Jealous’s uncompromising platform, which says Democrats can do it all, Democrats can do it soon, and Marylanders can afford it. (He regularly reminds crowds that Maryland has the highest median household income of any state in the country.) “This campaign is fundamentally about big ideas versus small ideas,” he tells me. “When times were darkest in this nation, FDR called on us to think big. He understood that we need whole solutions to whole problems.”

I asked McLaurin of SEIU if he’s worried that Jealous’s emphasis on issues like single-payer health care and ending mass incarceration might turn off white, moderate voters.

“What I will say is that most statewide officials—even your progressive ones—are very pragmatic, institutionalist,” he answered. “Even O’Malley was just an innately cautious politician who really wanted to put his finger to the wind, and he was not going to move on an issue until it was shown it would not be fatal to his own ambition.” To an extent he has never seen, McLaurin continued, Jealous has been “forthright in what he believes, even if it’s not always the safest thing. I think that authenticity is something the electorate is looking for.”

FOR ALL HIS BREAK-the-mold leftism, Jealous has consistently identified himself as a venture capitalist, touting his belief in market-driven social change. In the five years since he left the NAACP, Jealous worked at Kapor Capital, where he led investments in small businesses that target underserved communities. (One of his favorite companies, Pigeonly, slashed the costs of making phone calls home from prison.)

Jealous emphasizes his opposition to “crony capitalism” and to big corporations, those that pour their profits back into dividends and buybacks for shareholders. He’s criticized the way Maryland leaders have tripped over themselves with tax breaks to entice Amazon to build its new headquarters in their state. Jealous’s economic vision, he explains, is built on taking risks on entrepreneurs and small business owners, what he calls “community-based” capitalism. Early this year, Discovery Communications, a Fortune 500 company, announced it was relocating its Maryland headquarters to New York. Jealous pointed to this as evidence of the dangers of relying on big companies for economic security. Figuring out how to help small businesses thrive, like those at Baltimore’s Lexington Market, he says, is where there’s untapped potential for prosperity and job growth.

When I asked Jealous what he makes of the recent Gallup polling that showed 57 percent of Democrats viewed socialism positively, and whether he’s creating space for those who don’t see “socialism” as a dirty word, he didn’t directly answer.

“I’m just not interested in parlor debates about what we call ourselves,” he said. “I’m very intentional about building a big tent, and bringing in people who voted for Bernie, for Trump, for Hillary.”

But sometimes Jealous’s efforts to dispel notions that he’s a tax-and-spend radical can seem over the top. Over the summer, Hogan called Jealous a “far-left socialist” in a New York Times interview. A Washington Post reporter followed up by asking Jealous if he identified with the socialist label. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he responded brusquely. (He later apologized for his language.) And when the Republican Governors Association funded a TV ad featuring Jealous on MSNBC saying, “Go ahead, call me a socialist” but cut off the rest of his sentence where he had said, “it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a venture capitalist,” the Jealous campaign demanded that local stations pull the ad for being too false and misleading. (Stations refused.)

These sometimes too-rash reactions to conservative provocation hark back to an incident from 2010, when, as NAACP head, Jealous called for the firing of a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, after a viral Breitbart video showed her talking about discriminating against a white farmer. When it became clear the Breitbart video had been highly edited to misrepresent Sherrod’s remarks, Jealous apologized and retracted the NAACP’s statement. It was an embarrassing moment and he calls the episode the lowest point of his professional career.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, Hogan has accused Jealous of trying to “nationalize” the governor’s race. Critics also blasted Jealous during the primary for taking some $600,000 from wealthy liberals in California and New York, a level of outside spending typically unheard of in a Maryland gubernatorial election. Jealous dismisses both criticisms, noting his campaign had more Maryland donors, and smaller donations on average, than any of his primary opponents’. “To the extent that we had out-of-state donations, they tended to fill the hole that we created when we refused corporate contributions,” he says, adding that it’s Hogan who has nationalized the race, by failing to stand up to the Trump administration.

These rebuttals can land fairly awkwardly at times—Hogan has made more efforts than other Republicans to distance himself from Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress, and Jealous is running on a platform based partly on standing up to both.

But it’s true that Hogan’s distancing has also been inconsistent and sometimes tepid. When he failed to denounce the Muslim travel ban at the start of 2017, hundreds protested outside the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. Hogan dismissed the pressure at the time, saying he didn’t see protesting Trump’s policies as “his role.” Over the past year, however, as Trump’s polling hit the skids, he changed his tune. By June 2018, Hogan recalled Maryland’s National Guard unit (all of four soldiers) from the U.S.-Mexico border in protest of the president’s child separation policy.

Jealous is confident that as the general election heats up—as the spotlight starts shining more brightly on Hogan’s record, and voters get a chance to hear Jealous’s message—his campaign will grow more powerful. His campaign’s internal polling showed that as of July, one-third of Maryland voters, and one-quarter of the state’s Democratic voters, still did not know who Jealous was.

Some local political experts caution against reading too much into Republican Bob Ehrlich’s 2006 loss when it comes to analyzing the tea leaves for November. Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political science professor, pointed out that Hogan’s lead over his Democratic challenger is much higher than Ehrlich’s was at the time, and that Ehrlich was also much more closely tied to President Bush and the national Republican Party than Hogan is to Trump. Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College political science professor, adds that Ehrlich was considered both a more confrontational and a lazier leader, a politician who made many unforced errors.

Does that mean Hogan is invulnerable? Polling has consistently shown the number of people who approve of the governor exceeds those who plan to vote for him. And the Trump factor could be very real. In 2016, Anne Arundel County, a longtime red region of Maryland, went for Clinton, the first time a Democratic contender won the county in more than 50 years.

In his own way, Hogan, no less than Jealous, senses that Maryland is moving left. This past July, he announced a new student debt relief plan, and declared he would not accept donations or an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. He took the NRA’s money and endorsement back in 2014, a year the group gave him an A- rating.

“I honestly don’t think Jealous could have won a Democratic primary four years ago,” says McLaurin, who describes Maryland as a wait-your-turn kind of political state. “With Ben Jealous, it was not his turn by any measure. He’s never been elected to anything ever, his running mate has never been elected to anything ever. But they say in politics, a lot of it is timing, and I think 2018 is the pairing of the right man for the right moment.”

With Focus on Keith Ellison Allegations, Karen Monahan Retains New Attorney

Originally published in The Intercept on October 3, 2018.
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Republicans in Washington have attacked Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford for hiring an attorney with connections to the Democratic Party, suggesting her allegations are part of a liberal plot to destroy Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, Karen Monahan, Keith Ellison’s accuser, has retained the legal services of a longtime friend and former boss of Ellison’s Republican opponent, Doug Wardlow. Ellison and Wardlow are facing off in the race for state attorney general.

Republicans have repeatedly drawn parallels between the cases of Kavanaugh, who is accused of attempting to rape Blasey Ford, and Ellison, who is accused of attempting to drag Monahan off a bed by her feet in 2016, as well as what Monahan has called “narcissist abuse.”

Blasey Ford is being represented by an attorney, Debra Katz, who has Democratic Party affiliations, though she is also a well-known legal advocate for sexual harassment and abuse victims. Republicans pounced on plans by Katz and attorney Lisa Banks, who is also representing Blasey Ford, to host a fundraiser for Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is up for re-election in Wisconsin. The fundraiser was canceled.

Monahan’s attorney, Andrew Parker, said his new client contacted him for representation a few days ago, not the other way around. In a phone call with The Intercept, he said that their association had nothing to do with his close relationship to Ellison’s opponent. “As I understand, she learned of me from her son, who worked for someone I know, and that’s how she ended up calling me,” Parker said. “She didn’t have representation before and was being inundated. I have dealt with the media and done other high-profile cases, and I also have an understanding of politics.”

Monahan has alleged that there is a video of the incident between her and Ellison, and her son has claimed that he has seen it. Ellison has insisted that no such video exists and has denied any such physical encounter.

Parker said that Monahan did not know of his long-standing relationship with Ellison’s opponent. “I can tell you for sure she did not — she didn’t know I had any relationship with Doug Wardlow nor did she have any contact with Wardlow, or the Wardlow campaign,” he said.

When asked if she was paying for his legal services, Parker said, “I don’t want to get into it, I don’t believe it’s a relevant question.”

Parker and Wardlow’s close relationship goes far back. Wardlow, who is 40, spent nearly half his legal career working at Parker’s previous law firm, Parker Rosen LLC.

Parker is also a conservative political commentator who has previously expressed strong support for Wardlow’s candidacy. Parker hosts a right-wing radio show and podcast on a Minnesota AM talk radio station. He advertises a link to his podcast on the front page of his law firm’s website.

Parker’s show included discussion of the allegations against Ellison as recently as September 30, in which he compared Monahan’s claims to those made against Kavanaugh.

In December 2017, Parker invited Wardlow on his show to talk about his attorney general candidacy. At that point in the race, it was all but certain that Wardlow would be the Republican nominee. On the show, Parker called Wardlow “a good friend of mine” and “an outstanding lawyer, one of the most creative lawyers that I have ever worked with.”

Parker and Wardlow discussed the importance of Republicans seizing the attorney general’s seat in November, an office that has been controlled by Democrats for the last 47 years.

“You make sure when you get to the ballot box in November that you take close watch of the attorney general race, and cast your vote on the Republican side of the ticket,” Parker told his audience.

Wardlow and Parker discussed the importance of electing a Republican attorney general to help bolster the policy priorities of what they hope would also be a Republican governor. (Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is terming out of office, and in November, Republican candidate Jeff Johnson is facing off against Tim Walz, a Democrat.)

“There’s no question that the attorney general position is one that is to protect and defend the laws as written, but in addition, it is an arm to support policy, and with a Republican governor, I think it is important that we have an attorney general that can support the governor’s policies,” said Parker.

On Tuesday, in a Star-Tribune story about whether Wardlow would be able to set aside his partisan past if elected attorney general, Parker was quoted describing Wardlow as a prolific writer with an “outstanding analytical ability.” He added that he was confident Wardlow could keep his politics out of the attorney general’s office.

When asked if he had done any campaigning for Wardlow, Parker told The Intercept no. “To date, I have not. I may in the future, knowing a lot more about Keith Ellison than I did before,” he said, referring to new information provided by Monahan.

Monahan, Ellison’s former partner, had spent much of the last year hinting on social media of abuse by Ellison, and the existence of those potential allegations was well-known in Minnesota political circles. But Monahan’s allegations exploded into the national media in early August, when her son detailed his mother’s experience in a lengthy Facebook post. The son alleged he had discovered a video on his mother’s computer of Ellison’s physical abuse, specifically dragging her off a bed, and said he was bringing the allegations forward despite his mother’s reluctance to do so. (Monahan has since clarified that Ellison attempted to drag her off the bed, knocked off her shoe in the process, but did not ultimately drag her off.) Monahan and her son also made allegations that Ellison had engaged in emotional abuse, frequently terming it “narcissist abuse.”

It’s the alleged video that has become the lynchpin of the subsequent political debate. Monahan, who referenced the video in tweets prior to her son’s allegations, has thus far refused to share it publicly or with media outlets hoping to corroborate the story, sometimes citing changing reasons.

On Monday, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party released what it called an independent investigation into Monahan’s allegations, led by an attorney from a local Democratic-leaning law firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen. Employees and owners of the firm have donated nearly $50,000 to Keith Ellison’s campaigns since 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Their investigation, which was conducted over the past several weeks, concluded that Monahan’s claims of physical abuse could not be substantiated because she refused to share the video footage. (Parker told The Intercept that while he disputes their conclusions, the investigation was conducted by “a very good law firm” and he would “never impugn them.” He added that he knows the investigating attorney, Susan Ellingstad, personally and likes her.)

On Tuesday, the DFL announced it would turn over its investigation to local authorities for further probing. Last week Ellison also asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate the allegation. “I am innocent and eager to see this entire matter resolved,” he said.

Doug Wardlow’s campaign immediately blasted the DFL’s investigation, calling it a “sham.” In a statement, Wardlow said:

Karen Monahan’s allegations are substantiated by documentary evidence and a witness. Ms. Monahan’s son Austin, has seen video evidence of Ellison’s physical abuse of Monahan, and he has also witnessed the traumatic effects that the abuse had on his mother. Ms. Monahan also released medical records that detail what she told her doctors about Keith Ellison’s abusive behavior.

It was in response to the investigation that the public learned Monahan had retained the legal services of Parker. In tweeting her reactions to the report, she referred media requests to him.

Parker told The Intercept that he has not seen the alleged video and does not know if anyone ever will.

“I don’t know if there would be such a circumstance where she would share it,” he said. “She is very uncomfortable with releasing it, she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to release it, in order to shift the national dialogue on the subject. You should not need the video.”

Parker said there was no difference between releasing a video publicly and showing it privately to a reporter or an investigator. “If you are a victim and you show it to anyone, that is a revictimization,” he said. “People who haven’t suffered this and who don’t know what is on the video may well think, Oh, what’s the big deal showing it to one other person? But I suggest to them, how dare they put themselves in her position in that regard.”

Modern Monetary Theory Grapples With People Actually Paying Attention To It

Originally published in The Intercept on October 2nd, 2018.
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When Donald Trump signed a huge corporate and upper-income tax cut into law in December, it seemed like there was one small bright spot. With the GOP-backed bill projected to increase the national deficit by $1.9 trillion over the first decade, at the very least the Democrats could finally quit saying that an increase to the national debt — the vice that trapped so much progressive legislation — was per se political suicide.

In fact, as many Democrats reckoned at the time, if they reclaimed power, they could then repeal those Republican tax cuts and redirect the revenue to new social programs.

But this month, despite the sky decidedly not falling from the Trump tax cuts, Nancy Pelosi confirmed her intent to bringing back the “pay-go” rule, which requires all new spending to be offset with budget cuts or tax hikes. Pelosi first instituted the rule in 2007, effectively barring Congress from taking up progressive legislation that would increase the national debt.

This stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats was front-and-center at the second annual Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) conference, held last weekend at the New School in New York City. The MMT movement, started in the 1990s by a few heterodox economists, has since grown into a vocal and eclectic mix of academics and activists, trying to change the way we think about government spending.

In a nutshell: MMT proponents believe that the government can safely spend far more money than it currently does, and increasing the federal deficit is not a bad thing in and of itself — a public deficit is also a private-sector surplus, after all.

While typically we hear rhetoric that our political leaders must first “find” money through new taxes or budget cuts in order to pay for new programs, MMT proponents say that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how money works. In so-called fiat currency systems (meaning societies in which money isn’t backed by physically valuable commodities like gold or silver) governments literally create the money and tax it later to control for inflation and keep it in demand.

Inflation is still a risk, MMT advocates say, but it’s a much more remote risk than mainstream economists let on, and it’s one that can be addressed down the line if it arises, without so much pre-emptive austerity.

The first MMT conference was held a year ago at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Stephanie Kelton, one of the movement’s top economists, then worked. Kelton most famously served as the chief economic adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and before that as the chief economist on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, which was Sanders’s domain. (She now teaches at Stony Brook University in New York.)

About 250 people registered for that first conference, compared to this year’s more than 430. The attendees, while hailing from diverse disciplines, were overwhelmingly white and male — something Lua Kamal Yuille, a law professor and one of the few African-American conference speakers, pointedly criticized during her panel remarks.

On Friday, Kelton gave a presentation titled “Mainstreaming MMT,” assessing how effective the movement has been in getting its ideas out to the public.

By many measures, they’re doing quite a good job. Just last week, NPR’s Planet Money featured a podcast episode on MMT, and Bloomberg ran a story titled: “Trillion-Dollar Deficit? Whatever, Says New Consensus.” Kelton recently appeared on Jon Favreau’s popular liberal podcast, The Wilderness, and in the past year-and-a half, there’s been other deep dives into MMT in The Nation, the Huffington Post, and VICE.

“First they don’t want to hear you,” said Kelton to her rapturous audience. “Then they ridicule you, then they attack you, and then you win.”

While Kelton acknowledged the growing attention she and her colleagues have been receiving from mainstream outlets, she spent much of her public remarks focused on how their ideas are still unfairly cast by policymakers and the media. Paul Krugman, the New York Times economist, was a top target of Kelton’s frustration. In 2011, he blogged several critical posts about MMT, including to say that its adherents believe “deficits never matter.”

“This became the way that many people, probably a million or more, were introduced to MMT for the first time,” said Kelton. She also pointed toVICE’s recent headline, “The Radical Theory That the Government Has Unlimited Money” as an example of being misrepresented as more extremist than they are.

Still, MMT advocates struggled to decide just how they would frame their own movement. Were they radical or mainstream? Fringe or conventional? Rohan Grey, the conference’s head convener and president of the student-driven Modern Money Network, told The Intercept that they worked hard to “make sure there were different disciplines represented at the conference, so this isn’t seen as just a bunch of heterodox economists.”

The appeal of MMT is likely to grow, as the Democratic Party embraces new, ambitious, and expensive ideas like “Medicare for All” and free college. While some progressive leaders have called for paying for new social programs through cuts to the military or increased taxes on Wall Street, the so-called deficit owls in the MMT movement are encouraging leaders to worry less about how exactly they’ll finance their goals.

The GOP, for its part, certainly isn’t fretting much about offsets. On top of their trillion-dollar tax cut, Congress voted this summer for an $82 billion increase in military spending. House Republicans also introduced a bill calling for a $5 billion wall at the Mexico border, and last week they voted on a new round of tax cuts, to permanently extend the ones that would otherwise expire in a decade.

When Republicans vote for all this new debt-spending, conservative economists barely make a peep, said Eileen Applebaum, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. After the December tax bill, “there were some grumblings, but no real conservative outcry,” she said. “It’s amazing. But if the Supreme Court can be so politicized, why not the economics profession?”

Applebaum was among those who attended the MMT conference; she calls herself a “fellow traveler” rather than an explicit adherent. She credits MMT with communicating important ideas about deficits, inflation, and monetary policy more clearly than earlier generations of sympathetic economists have been able to.

Several panels at the MMT conference were devoted to the so-called job guarantee, a policy idea that would make the state an “employer of last resort” for anyone able and willing to work, but can’t find a job. The idea of a right-to-a-job has long historical roots, though MMT advocates say Democratic leaders abandoned these political commitments over time in favor of an economic paradigm that treats a permanently unemployed class of people as acceptable, if not desirable. This idea, referred to as the “non-accelerating rate of unemployment,” or NAIRU — essentially suggests that there’s a level of unemployment, often set around 5.5 percent, that is useful to society because it helps keep inflation — by which is meant wages— down.

“The NAIRU is a central component for most macroeconomic theories that have been used by central banks around the world, and it’s a political, technical, and moral excuse to not try and hire that last 5 percent,” said Grey. “What it actually does is keep a reserve army of unemployed people who effectively discipline the rest of the employed. If you piss off your boss, if you get too uppity, you could fall over into the abyss.”

The job guarantee has attracted some high-profile attention over the last year. In 2017, the Center for American Progress released a job guarantee proposal, something it calls a “Marshall Plan for America.” The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities followed up with its own report on designing a federal job guarantee this spring, and new polling from Data for Progress and Civis Analytics found that 52 percent of those surveyed backed the idea of guaranteeing “a job to every American adult, with the government providing jobs for people who can’t find employment in the private sector,” paid for “by a 5 percent income tax increase on those making over $200,000 per year.”

Potential Democratic presidential candidates have also elevated the idea. In March, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told The Nation she supports a federal job guarantee, followed by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., putting out a bill in April to pilot a federal jobs guarantee over three years. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., quickly followed suit with his own federal jobs guarantee proposal, as did Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

Not all left-leaning policy wonks are on board with the job guarantee. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, argues that it amounts to little more than conservative work requirements by another name, and that the short-term, low-skilled jobs provided by the federal government will inevitably be stigmatized like TANF workfare programs were. (Job guarantee advocates strongly dispute this.)

Looking ahead, MMT advocates hope to grow their movement through grassroots organizing. One example they pointed to was Fed Up, a national campaign launched in 2015, whereby low-income workers and union members pressured the Federal Reserve to not hike interest rates, a rare instance of popular pressure being applied to monetary policy. Fed Up made the case that there was no inflation pressure forcing them to raise rates and that doing so would suppress their already low wages.

“What’s next is we have to plug the gaps, we have to answer the harder questions like designing legislation,” said Grey. “We need to make sure that our grassroots movement is on board with the message and framing, that we’re creating the right allies.”

A year ago, Grey said, MMT supporters were in a far different position. “No disrespect to anything before, but we have just been growing, the cavalry support is starting to arrive,” he said. “There was a period when there were five people who understood this stuff, then 10 and 15, and then there were thousands, but they were all across the world and online, and now suddenly you have other organizations and institutions willing to sign on board and talk about it, and it’s got its own center of gravity now.”

Grey knows assembling a mass of enthusiasm is not enough. “Now the trick is to turn that into something that spins like a planet, and put houses on it, and populate it with people,” he said. “The thing we’ve got to do next is go from having the right ideas and being recognized for that, to actually putting them in action.”

Taking Back the Suburbs: The Fair Housing Act at Fifty

Published originally in Dissent magazine’s fall 2018 issue.
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Though many Americans still picture a “suburb” as an all-white enclave with big houses bordered by white picket fences, suburbs today look quite different from the 1950s stereotype. Most suburbs are racially diverse, and even increasingly impoverished. While 78 percent of suburban census tracts were predominantly white in 1980, over the next four decades, that figure dropped to 42 percent. By 2010, a majority of suburbanites lived in communities where at least every fifth resident was a person of color, making racial diversity a daily reality.

In other words, the city-suburb dichotomy that has defined American politics for decades is breaking down. Today, most places described as suburbs look, in the eyes of many Americans, distinctly “urban,” while the picket-fence variety is a shrinking minority. This is partly a factor of what urban historians have called the “great inversion”: as the white and affluent have returned to cities over the last two decades, along with unprecedented amounts of real-estate finance, working-class residents, largely of color, have been pushed further and further beyond city limits. It’s now impossible to engage lower-income Americans politically—or, for that matter, a majority of the nation’s people of color—without reaching far into suburbia.

Nevertheless, political battles, at least rhetorically, continue to be fought along familiar geographic lines. Somehow, America’s cities have changed and the political world has barely noticed.

But this state of affairs can’t go on forever. Either old living patterns will reassert themselves, or new political coalitions will be forged, taking advantage of modern political topography. The former would almost certainly benefit the right; the latter, the left.

Which way things go may end up depending on the survival and enforcement of the Fair Housing Act—the very law that so dramatically changed the American metropolitan landscape in the first place.

 

The Fair Housing Act emerged in a fraught political moment. In 1967, riots erupted in dozens of cities across the country, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to establish an eleven-member team to investigate the uprisings. The Kerner Commission (named for its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois) released its findings in February of 1968, and pointed to racial segregation as the origin of the unrest. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the report famously concluded.

That same month, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Edward Brooke—the lone black member of the Senate—introduced the Fair Housing Act, a law to address housing discrimination and segregation. The political opposition to fair housing legislation was severe: critics had long argued that making it easier for black families to move into all-white neighborhoods would weaken the property rights of homeowners and represent “reverse discrimination.” But as Martin Luther King, Jr. campaigned for “open housing” and dismantling the nation’s ghettos, political pressure continued to grow.

Congressional gridlock was broken by tragedy on April 4, 1968, when King was shot in Memphis. A whirlwind of events followed—intense anger and rioting, especially in Washington, D.C., increased pressure for Congress to respond, and the Fair Housing Act (technically, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) was signed into law by President Johnson within a week. While the Civil Rights Act of 1866—the first federal statute to affirm all citizens are equally protected under the law—offered individuals the right to challenge discriminatory practices in housing, that statute placed a disproportionate burden on victims to enforce their own rights, ultimately rendering those protections all but useless. It proved too onerous for most people of color to sue white landowners, and the law was used only a handful of times over its first hundred years.

By contrast, over the last five decades, hundreds of thousands of lawsuits and complaints have been filed under the Fair Housing Act, according to Wade Henderson, the former president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Unlike its Reconstruction-era counterpart, the Fair Housing Act places the onus of enforcement on the federal government, authorizing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Justice to carry out the law. While an administration hostile to civil rights can always find ways to shirk its legal duties, enforcement is carried out by career staffers, not political appointees, and has continued apace since the law’s enactment fifty years ago.

The Fair Housing Act has two mandates: to combat discrimination in housing and to “affirmatively further” integration. For the law’s drafters, these two goals went hand in hand. “The law was informed by the history of segregation, in which individual discrimination was a manifestation of a wider societal rift,” Mondale wrote this year in the New York Times.

Since its passing, the law’s mandate has steadily grown more expansive. Today it covers seven classes of discrimination: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and families with children. In 1988 Congress also bolstered the law’s enforcement mechanisms and beefed up the penalties that come with violating it. While the Act has always been controversial, and remains contested today, public opinion has also shifted over time. According to the General Social Survey administered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the proportion of white respondents favoring laws banning housing discrimination rose from 37 percent in 1972 to 69 percent in 2008.

And yet enforcement of the law’s second mandate—to integrate neighborhoods—has always been sporadic at best. During Barack Obama’s second term, his administration took several important steps toward fulfilling the Act’s original promise. But then Trump was elected.

 

The surprise ascendance of Donald J. Trump to the White House spooked housing and civil rights advocates across the nation. While working as a real-estate developer in the 1970s, Trump was sued in one of the largest cases ever brought by the federal government for housing discrimination against African Americans. (He dismissed the allegations as “absolutely ridiculous.”) Over the last year and a half, Trump’s housing secretary Ben Carson has launched attacks on federal programs to promote integration and low-income housing, while the president has moved aggressively to deregulate both the housing and financial sectors.

The Trump administration has launched three distinct attacks on fair housing.

The first came last summer, when HUD took aim at a rule for the Section 8 rental voucher program. Known as the Small Area Fair-Market Rent rule, it had been developed after years of advocacy, research, and public debate, and was set to take effect at the start of 2018. But in August of 2017, Carson’s HUD announced it would be delaying implementation for two years. (HUD claimed they weren’t abandoning the rule, just postponing it for the sake of further study.)

The Small Area Fair-Market Rent rule is a seemingly small change with potentially huge effects. It requires local public-housing authorities to calculate their rent subsidies at a neighborhood level, rather than a citywide one. In effect, this increases the spending power of Section 8 vouchers across all of a city’s neighborhoods, allowing recipients to move more easily to affluent ones. Vouchers have become the predominant form of rental subsidy in the United States, even though three-quarters of those who qualify receive no assistance. But those who do manage to obtain one have generally lacked the ability to move out of poor areas because their subsidy doesn’t go far enough. This in turn has allowed landlords in impoverished communities to price-gouge their voucher-holding tenants who lack bargaining power, by setting rents at the maximum level the feds will allow. The Small Area Fair-Market Rent policy was successfully piloted in Dallas and a 2014 study of that pilot found it imposed no-net cost on government spending.

Industry groups like the National Association of Home Builders and the National Apartment Association oppose the Small Area Fair-Market Rent rule, and helped pressure Ben Carson to rescind it. But in October 2017, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sued the Trump administration, taking HUD and its secretary to task for improperly pulling the rule. The civil rights groups accused the feds of violating the statute that dictates how federal agencies can propose and implement regulations. In early December HUD argued in court filings that it had broad powers to delay the rule, but a U.S. District Court judge rejected their arguments. The Trump administration lost, and the rule is now in effect.

The second attack came one month later, in January, when HUD announced that it would be suspending a different rule crafted to reduce housing segregation. This rule, finalized in 2015, is known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, or AFFH. It was a long-awaited measure to define exactly what the Fair Housing Act meant when it required authorities to “affirmatively further” housing equality. While communities that receive federal housing dollars have for decades had to certify that they were working to reduce government-sponsored segregation, HUD did little to ensure that real action was being taken.

Federal authorities acknowledged this problem at least as early as 2008, when a national commission on fair housing concluded that HUD requires “no evidence that anything is actually being done as a condition of funding,” and that municipalities that actively discriminate or fail to promote integration go unpunished. This was echoed by a Government Accountability Office report in 2010, which found that communities were failing to comply with federal fair housing mandates and that HUD was failing to enforce those rules. The AFFH rule emerged out of deliberations held over the next five years, ultimately giving communities more tools to carry out their fair housing obligations, and strengthening HUD’s enforcement mechanisms for oversight. It was a major victory for civil rights groups—and faced a corresponding backlash from conservatives and some local governments. Stanley Kurtz of the National Review called it “easily one of President Obama’s most radical initiatives,” one that “gives the federal government a lever to re-engineer nearly every American neighborhood.” Right-wing news outlets and talking heads, from Rush Limbaugh to Breitbart, picked up Kurtz’s claims and railed against Obama’s “war on the suburbs.” It didn’t matter that the white-picket suburbs of their imaginations had been disappearing since long before Obama took office.

So supporters of AFFH were dismayed, if not surprised, when the Trump administration announced at the start of 2018 that it would be suspending the rule. Before Ben Carson joined HUD, he had joined in the chorus of conservative opposition, publishing an op-ed saying he considered the rule like other “failed socialist experiments of the 1980s”—a reference to busing school children for desegregation. He argued that the AFFH rule relied on a “tortured reading of the Fair Housing laws” and likened it to “mandated social-engineering schemes.” After he joined the federal government, Carson claimed that he “believe[s] in fair housing” but not in “extra manipulation and cost,” and so intended to “reinterpret” the AFFH rule. In the federal government, this idea has an ideological lineage that can be traced back to Richard Nixon, who caveated his opposition to legal segregation by saying he found the “forced integration of housing or education” to be “just as wrong.”

Four months after HUD announced it would be suspending the AFFH rule, a coalition of civil rights groups filed suit. The plaintiffs charged HUD with ending oversight and reducing support for AFFH implementation, effectively sabotaging its own rule’s success. HUD responded by quickly reinstating the rule, and instead withdrew a crucial assessment tool used for implementing AFFH. The plaintiffs amended their complaint to say this was effectively the same problem, and still illegal. But this time HUD’s legal maneuvering proved successful, with a federal judge ruling in August that HUD was in its rights to withdraw the assessment tool. Civil rights groups decried the decision, and HUD is now considering revamping the AFFH rule altogether.

Lastly, this past June, the Trump administration issued a notice in the Federal Register announcing that it plans to revisit its rule around “disparate impact” housing discrimination, meaning discrimination that happens regardless of whether a policy was designed with the intent to discriminate. This disparate impact rule was finalized in 2013, and places a ban on any “facially neutral practice that has a discriminatory effect.” The insurance industry, many banks, and some state housing agencies have long opposed this prohibition, and advocates worry that this notice signals HUD’s renewed intent to weaken it. “We all know it’s a shot across the bow,” says Sasha Samberg-Champion, a civil rights attorney who has been involved in both lawsuits against HUD in the Trump era. The administration points to a 2015 Supreme Court decision that upheld the disparate-impact standard as a justification to revisit their 2013 rule. While civil rights groups are rightly wary of HUD’s thin rationale for reopening the disparate-impact rule to public comment, for now they can only stand by to see what develops.

 

Despite the administration’s attacks, civil rights leaders remain cautiously optimistic about the future of fair housing. Spurred by a changing policy landscape and creative litigation, momentum is building to not only save but strengthen the 1968 Act.

For years scholars debated among themselves whether it was even worth trying to integrate American neighborhoods, given the scant social-science evidence to support it. But over the last few years a flurry of research has emerged that has helped shift the political conversation more clearly in the direction of promoting integrated communities.

In 2015, a team of Harvard economists released a study on the long-term impacts of Moving to Opportunity, or MTO. MTO was a housing experiment that ran from 1994 to 1998, and involved moving individuals voluntarily from high-poverty neighborhoods into ones with less than 10 percent poverty. The goal was to see if this would improve their life outcomes. While MTO had long been considered a failure, having not significantly improved children’s school performance or the financial circumstances of their parents, the Harvard researchers found that children who moved were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more as adults than children who never moved. A year later an economist at the University of Michigan published a study that found children who were involuntarily displaced in the 1990s because their public housing projects were demolished wound up living in safer and less impoverished neighborhoods, and consequently earned more as adults compared to children who never moved out of the projects. The researcher suggested the differences could be explained in part by the fact that the displaced children had fewer criminal arrests and were exposed to less violence growing up than their non-displaced peers.

Other new research has focused on the increase in neighborhoods with concentrations of poverty. One academic documented a steep increase in the number of high-poverty neighborhoods, with the number of people living in them almost doubling from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million by 2015. Another researcher found there’s been a 20 percent increase in neighborhood segregation by income across the country between 1990 and 2010.

While activists and policymakers have not abandoned their efforts to revitalize low-income, segregated neighborhoods, the growing body of evidence about the harms of concentrated poverty has bolstered the renewed momentum around integration.

Even as efforts to strengthen the Fair Housing Act’s primary mandate are pushing ahead, creative lawsuits are expanding the boundaries of what’s understood as fair housing.

Consider the environment. While the Fair Housing Act has traditionally been focused on discrimination by housing providers, some have started to ask whether government policy that negatively impacts the housing of protected classes should also be considered a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Jesus Hernandez, a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, points to the Flint water crisis as an example: in Flint, drinking water became poisoned precisely because the city’s leadership decided to switch from treated water supplied from Detroit to a local water source long known to be contaminated. Fifty-four percent of Flint’s residents are black, meaning the Flint water crisis disproportionately impacted the drinking water of African Americans. This also means it may be possible to show there was disparate discrimination against a protected class. More intentionally pursuing the links between housing, race, and environmental policies could open space for a new wave of civil rights activism.

Or take criminal justice. Many landlords impose blanket bans against tenants with criminal records, bans which impact not just individuals reentering society, but their family members too. In recent years lawyers have been studying how the Fair Housing Act could be used as a tool to challenge the housing discrimination faced by the hundreds of thousands of people released from prison annually, a population that’s disproportionately male, black, and Hispanic. An ongoing lawsuit filed in 2014 is putting this theory to the test in New York City.

Similarly, advocates have started to explore how the Fair Housing Act could be used to challenge so-called “chronic nuisance ordinances”—which have been found to lead to the eviction of families, especially in low-income, segregated neighborhoods. These laws penalize tenants and landlords if the police are called too many times to come to the premises. The first fair housing challenge to one of these ordinances came in March 2017 out in Missouri. “Maplewood’s chronic nuisance ordinance has the purpose and effect of making housing unavailable based on race, sex, and disability and it fails to further any legitimate purpose,” the complaint reads. “In particular, rather than making communities safer, it makes them less safe by discouraging crime victims and other residents from contacting the police or availing themselves of other emergency services such as ambulances.” The lawsuit is still making its way through federal court.

 

If the drafters of the Fair Housing Act made one mistake, Walter Mondale wrote this year in the Times, it was in their “excessive optimism about how easily a segregated society could be unified.” Today’s civil rights activists have long been disabused of any such illusions. But in their ongoing efforts to create a more integrated America, the Act remains a vital foundation.

Despite fifty years of extraordinary political challenges, it has proven instrumental in transforming American cities. It has turned many of the country’s suburbs from lily-white enclaves into multiracial communities where people of different races do live, work, and go to school together. Even where they persist, discriminatory practices that were once openly sanctioned by the federal government must now be carried out behind a veil of secrecy.

This is not to say, of course, that the law itself has never stumbled. Fair housing enforcement has often been weak, and interest groups that benefit from the status quo have consistently opposed attempts to implement the Act’s boldest components, like the “affirmatively furthering” rule and its mandate to integrate the suburbs. Altering American communities would threaten many who benefit from things remaining the way they are, including those hoarding wealth in the remaining white enclaves and even developers long accustomed to building affordable housing, conveyer-belt-style, in poor, segregated areas.

Still, the Fair Housing Act’s mandates have proven resilient against the Trump administration’s attacks, and efforts to deliver on the law’s promise continue to push forward. Despite new threats, there is good reason to believe that the Fair Housing Act could emerge from the current political turbulence even stronger.

Ultimately, that would transform much more than just housing—or even the neighborhoods, schools, and communities around it. Integrating U.S. cities and suburbs could reshape the wider political landscape—opening up new places to organize, creating new, multiracial polities amenable to progressive ideas, and building a United States in which progressive groups are not confined to dense, urban quarters and pitted against a mass of white suburbanites. In the America envisioned by the Fair Housing Act, the left can build power anywhere. Time will tell if its vision can be made reality.

Elizabeth Warren Introduces Plan to Expand Affordable Housing and Dismantle Racist Zoning Practices

Originally published in The Intercept on September 28, 2018.

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, one of the most far-reaching federal housing bills in decades. The legislation calls for a half-trillion dollar investment in affordable housing over the next 10 years, creating up to 3.2 million new units for low- and middle-income families.

The bill also expands the protections of decades-old legislation to reduce discriminatory banking, ban housing discrimination, and desegregate neighborhoods. For example, Warren’s bill would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters with federal housing vouchers, and would also impose new regulations on credit unions and nonbank mortgage lenders like Quicken Loans. The bill also incentivizes states and localities to loosen their racist and discriminatory zoning restrictions; eases the path for low-income families to move into more affluent communities; and provides federal assistance to first-time homebuyers from formerly segregated areas and those who saw their wealth decimated in the 2008 financial crisis.

Warren’s bill comes on the heels of two other federal housing bills introduced this summer by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, of New Jersey and California, respectively. Harris’s bill, which came first, aims to provide financial relief to renters by creating a new refundable tax credit. Booker’s bill would also establish a refundable tax credit for renters and incentivize communities to curb their exclusionary zoning rules to increase housing supply. Booker, Harris, and Warren are all names frequently thrown around as 2020 presidential hopefuls, though none has actually announced their intent to run.

“Much of the housing discussion has been about affordability, production, and tenant protections, which are all really important issues,” said Philip Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. “What’s so powerful about Warren’s bill is that it aims to tackle all those things, and it also looks at how are we going to structure our society going forward. Fair housing is really embedded in the legislation, and that’s why I find it so creative.”

To incentivize states and communities to ease their zoning restrictions and boost affordable housing supply, a Warren aide told The Intercept, the senator’s staff looked at the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. In Race to the Top, the federal government doled out $4 billion in competitive grants to states that adopted the administration’s preferred education reform policies, like lifting caps on charter schools and overhauling teacher evaluations. The program was massively effective: Forty-six states and Washington, D.C., revamped their policies to compete for the federal funds.

Warren’s bill takes that same competitive grant model, and allows states, metropolitan regions, and cities to compete for $10 billion in federal funds. (Race to the Top had two rounds of competitive funding; Warren’s bill proposes five.) To compete, jurisdictions must first reform their zoning restrictions and reduce other barriers to affordable housing production. Grant winners can then use the federal dollars to fund all sorts of projects, such as building parks and schools and improving local transit.

Often when new, dense housing developments are proposed, residents raise concerns about the overcrowding of schools or increased traffic congestion. Warren’s bill would arm political leaders with added resources to help make those housing tradeoffs a bit easier. Yes, increasing housing supply could lead to an increase in the public school student population, but reforming land use policies could also help cities access additional federal dollars to absorb those new residents more smoothly.

To fund the bill, Warren proposes a return to Bush-era estate tax levels, and increasing those taxes on the country’s 10,000 wealthiest families. The Massachusetts senator cited an independent study conducted by the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economics research firm, which determined that Warren’s bill was “fiscally responsible” and would “go a long way toward addressing” the affordable housing crisis. Moody’s projects the bill would lower rents by 10 percent and make it easier for low- and middle-income workers to live closer to their jobs, thereby reducing “long and costly commutes.”

POLITICIANS, INCLUDING PROMINENT progressives like Warren, have historically steered away from efforts to curtail exclusionary zoning, said Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. The difference now, he told The Intercept, is that “rents have become too damn high,” so elected officials, including presidential hopefuls, are more open to ideas that previously seemed too controversial to embrace.

Henry Kraemer, a Portland-based activist, co-authored an article in The Nation in May making the political case for Democrats to take up housing issues. In August, he followed up with a co-authored report laying out specific policy recommendations, such as new rent subsidies and expanded public housing. Kraemer and his report co-author, Laura Loe Bernstein, note that successfully enacting all their proposals would be “nearly or entirely impossible” without ending “apartment bans” — another name for exclusionary zoning. “Apartment bans restrict new home-building to the sort of single-family houses most commonly associated with suburbs and affluent neighborhoods,” they write. “Apartment bans are extraordinarily widespread, and render it illegal to build duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and other spaces where multiple families can live nestled together (and often more cheaply) on the same plot of land.”

Kraemer told The Intercept it’s “fantastic” to see 2020 hopefuls “putting out bold solutions to the housing crisis” that Democrats can pursue if they reclaim Congress and the White House. In the short term, Kraemer said, the Harris, Booker, and Warren bills “send the right signals” to state and local lawmakers.

“Maybe more than any other politician, Elizabeth Warren helped set the tone and agenda for the party’s economic work around the country,” Kraemer said. “To see her saying now that these historic inequities in housing and soaring rents and mortgages are huge problems — well, that’s a big, big deal.”

The Trump administration has also recently signaled its intent to address zoning rules, at least rhetorically. In August, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson came out to say that he, too, wants to use federal funds to loosen zoning restrictions. “I want to encourage the development of mixed-income multifamily dwellings all over the place,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

But progressives have voiced rightful skepticism of Carson’s newfound enthusiasm for zoning reform, as he’s also been leading the push to weaken civil rights protections from his federal perch. For the past year, HUD has been trying to weaken the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was finalized in 2015 and designed to bolster fair housing enforcement. In August, the agency announced that over the next two months it would be opening the rule back up for public comment, claiming that “the current regulations are ineffective” and provide jurisdictions with “inadequate autonomy in developing fair housing goals.”

Carson went further in a statement, claiming that the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule is “suffocating investment” in distressed neighborhoods and contributing to the lack of affordable housing.

“When Ben Carson talks about zoning, he’s not really talking about exclusionary zoning. He’s talking about fair housing rules that prevent the piling on of all the low-income housing in poor neighborhoods,” said Tegeler, whose primary concern with Warren’s bill is that it lacks language to prevent the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal housing funds from pouring exclusively into poor areas.

“It’s very important that this continues to be a fair housing bill and not play into the Trump administration’s framing,” Tegeler said. “As this bill is further refined, we’d hope to see some protections against piling on the bulk of this new development in high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods.”

Council Challenges Executive Branch, Urban Institute at Contentious Education Research Collaborative Hearing

Originally published in Washington City Paper on September 20, 2018.
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In a contentious hearing on Tuesday, four D.C. councilmembers pressed the mayor’s education deputy and the Urban Institute’s education policy director to not undermine the legislative branch as it works to create a research collaborative for D.C. schools.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh first introduced legislation regarding an education research collaborative in April, along with eight other co-sponsors. The idea was conceived of in response to the host of education scandals that emerged over the previous year, scandals which prompted many parents, community members, and elected officials to express distrust in the data produced by the mayor-controlled school system. The research collaborative would conduct studies on the city’s public schools, with an advisory board of different stakeholders to drive the research agenda. The idea has drawn strong support from parents, teachers, and local school advocates. (For more information, read City Paper’s July cover story: “Who Gets Access to Data About D.C.’s Public Schools?”)

The council set aside $500,000 in its most recent budget for this research consortium, and held a six-hour hearing in July to discuss the idea. It was then that the public first learned the executive branch was privately exploring its own separate education research consortium with the Urban Institute, a D.C-based think tank.

Several officials appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser—including Ahnna Smith, the interim Deputy Mayor for Education, Hanseul Kang, the State Superintendent of Education, and Rick Cruz, the board chair of the DC Public Charter School Board—voiced concerns at the July hearing about the prospect of incubating a research collaborative inside the D.C. auditor’s office. Among other things, they argued doing so could conflate the lines between accountability and research, and potentially foster distrust among needed partners.

The Urban Institute’s education policy director Matthew Chingos told City Paper in July that his think tank does not want to undermine the Council and “certainly want[s] the different efforts to be complementary.” He stressed then that “everyone’s just figuring out how this all fits together, and we want to see how the legislative process evolves.”

On Tuesday, however, the public learned that the Urban Institute has neither slowed its plans to establish its own research partnership, nor worked with the Council to see how it could ensure its efforts are complementary.

Smith testified that since the July 13th hearing, her office has engaged in “a handful” of meetings with other executive branch leaders and the Urban Institute to further outline their vision for a research partnership. Chingos also shared that his organization had secured a $50,000 planning grant for their efforts. (He did not name the foundation that offered the money.)

The Council worked on its draft legislation this past summer, and the bill is scheduled to go into markup on Monday. Their vision, At-Large Councilmember and education committee chair David Grosso explained at the hearing, is to have an 11-member steering committee for the research collaborative, with representatives from DCPS, the charter sector, OSSE, the deputy mayor’s office, the Department of Behavioral Health, Child and Family Services Agency, teachers, and parents. The auditor would work with the steering committee to put out an RFP for a research partner, and the steering committee would then select that partner.

The collaborative would spin out of the auditor’s office into a “standalone entity” before January 1, 2020, and would have its own executive director and staff.

The auditor’s office has hired Erin Roth to direct the planning for the education research collaborative. She began her job on September 17th and her role will be to work with stakeholders on implementing the initiative. She formerly worked as a senior education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

On Tuesday, councilmembers pointedly asked the executive branch and the Urban Institute to hold off on their separate effort, so that the legislative process could run its due course.

“I’ve given you the outline, my ask of you all today and anyone else involved is that you put a pause on what you’re doing and wait for the Council process to continue, with the understanding that the Council is not delaying,” said Grosso. “We’re not going slowly. In fact, we’re going quite quickly.”

At-Large Councilmember Robert White said he has no objection to the executive branch and the education agencies working to answer questions they believe are pertinent on their own, but he called the timing of the Urban Institute effort “bad and suspicious.” He encouraged the executive branch to wait until the Council’s education research collaborative is established, so they can “see how it’s going and if there is research that the executive feels is not being met.”

Smith, the interim Deputy Mayor for Education, would not agree to pause her office’s plans, but said she would take the Council’s request “under consideration.”

“That really means nothing, with all due respect,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, before asking Chingos of the Urban Institute if he would pause his efforts. Chingos did not agree. “In my mind, any forward motion is useful,” he answered, adding that he does not see their discussions as creating “any conflict” with the Council’s plans.

As the hearing dragged on, the Council grew increasingly frustrated with the evasive responses of the witnesses and their seeming disinterest in working together.

“What you’re doing is undercutting the work this committee is trying to do here where we can actually have trust in this partnership,” said Grosso.

The Council also voiced skepticism with how independent the executive branch’s proposed research consortium would actually be, since the D.C. education agencies would get to greenlight what research questions could be pursued in the first place. The executive branch also made clear at the hearing that it had not considered any other research organization besides the Urban Institute to partner with, despite knowing that other research entities were interested.

“Why is that a good thing to limit your conversations about this very important thing to one entity?” asked Mendelson.

Grosso said he would be fine if the education agencies selected the Urban Institute as their partner in the end, but that the selection process should be open for other research entities to compete for. “Urban may win that, I don’t have a problem with that, I don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said. “It sounds more and more like the executive does have a dog in this fight, and that becomes a big, big problem.”

“I think any one of us would be foolish to believe that the administration wouldn’t be hesitant to research issues that were controversial or severely disfavorable, like [the] spending of at-risk funding, like teacher turnover by school,” said White. “That really is the crux of the conflict.”

Smith defended the executive branch’s data collection processes and insisted that “we have shown we are willing” to tackle hard questions. She pointed to investigations led by OSSE and the Alvarez & Marsal consulting firms into D.C.’s graduation and attendance issues, which the mayor ordered following the press scandals.

“Those efforts weren’t voluntary,” White responded.

Grosso followed up by saying the Alvarez investigations are evidence for why the public doesn’t trust the executive to do this research without public oversight. Grosso said he sent a letter to the mayor in February to ask that the Alvarez firm extend its work and look more deeply into some of the other issues raised in the media. “Not only did I get what I guess was a rebuke,” he said, “but I actually didn’t get any response at all.”

There was no mention at the Tuesday hearing of whether the Council’s proposed research collaborative would still have subpoena power, one of the more controversial elements of Cheh’s initial legislation. Cheh told City Paper in July that she views that as an important “backstop” in case the executive agencies try and withhold information from researchers.

A spokesperson for Grosso’s office did not return a request for comment on whether the legislation still contains subpoena authority, though the public will find out Monday when it goes into markup.

Don’t Trust Jeff Bezos’s Preschool Philanthropy Scheme

Originally published in In These Times on September 19, 2018.
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The CEO of Amazon and the world’s richest man declared this month that he’ll be wading into the waters of philanthropy. In a high-profile announcement, Jeff Bezos described his vision for a “Day One Fund”—a $2 billion investment in organizations that provide homelessness assistance, and a new network of nonprofit preschools in low-income communities. This charitable gift will amount to just 1.2 percent of his net worth.

Bezos joins fellow tech billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Reed Hastings in championing corporate-style reform of American education. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos said of his future preschool chain. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

Preschool is a particularly appealing area for those who like conceptualizing problems in terms of market potential. Several years ago, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate reported that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education yields savings “from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead.” University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman published research in 2009 finding high-quality preschool can yield a 7-to-10 percent annual return.

Preschool is also one of the most popular target-areas for champions of “Pay for Success”—a branch of so-called impact investing which took off under the Obama administration. Under Pay for Success, private funders front money for social programs, and the government pays the investors back with interest if certain predetermined goals are met. Chicago launched a Pay for Success preschool program in 2014, funded by Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation. These private groups aim to roughly double their investment over the next 18 years.

It’s not clear at this point how Bezos’s Day One Fund will be structured; whether it will be a traditional family foundation like the Gates Foundation, some sort of limited-liability company like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, or perhaps one of the increasingly controversial “donor-advised funds” that other tech titans have embraced. CNBC reports that between thirty to fifty percent of Bezos’s gift could be tax-deductible.

It’s also not clear why exactly he chose this month to announce his plans, but it’s possible that Bezos is trying to improve his image, which has taken a public beating over the past year. This past June, the Seattle City Council rolled back its so-called “Amazon tax” which councilmembers had passed unanimously four weeks earlier. The tax, meant to generate new revenue to address the region’s growing homeless crisis, would have required Amazon to pay about $12 million per year in new taxes. The company helped fund an aggressive, unpopular, and ultimately successful campaign to repeal it.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has also been targeting Bezos, specifically on the gulf between the CEO’s ever-increasing wealth and the low-wages of Amazon’s many thousands of employees, who rely on all sorts of government aid to supplement their income. This month, just days before Bezos made his philanthropic announcement, Sen. Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna introduced new federal legislation to force large companies to help shoulder the cost of social services for low-paid staff. More than anything, though, the bill is understood as a vehicle to spotlight the issue of inequality between rich owners and their workers. It’s unsubtly named the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, or “Stop BEZOS” for short.

While he’s offered little detail as to how he’d treat the educators in his forthcoming preschool network, Bezos’s other businesses offer some hints. The median compensation of Amazon’s more than 566,000 global employees at the end of 2017 was $28,446. Thousands of Amazon workers in Europe launched a strike this past summer to protest their working conditions, following an exposé of a journalist who had toiled undercover at an Amazon warehouse. Workers in Minnesota also demanded safer Amazon conditions this past summer, alleging dehydration, injuries and exhaustion on the job. A spokesperson for the company dismissed the employees’ complaints, calling theirs a “positive and accommodating” workplace.

The national median income for preschool teachers in 2016 was $28,570. While a growing number of education policy experts have called for increasing salaries as a way to attract and retain better teaching talent, there’s no guarantee that Bezos’s “customer” focused-model will prioritize competitive wages.

And to put Bezos’s gift in perspective, Head Start, the federal government’s high-quality early-childhood education program which serves nearly one million low-income children every year, runs on a strained budget of more than $9 billion annually. Bezos’s Day One Fund, meanwhile, is $2 billion, to be divided amongst both pre-K and homelessness.

Let’s be clear about the scale of the problem. In 2016, just 42 percent of 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in preschool programs, and these figures were not measurably different from the percentages enrolled in 2000. Demand for early childhood education far exceeds existing capacity in this country, and the cost to change that will require significantly more than what Bezos has so far offered to contribute.

The world’s richest man may sincerely view his new philanthropic project as a way to positively impact the world, but what we know is that Bezos has built up his company and personal fortune by aggressively avoiding taxes for years. In 2017 alone, Amazon paid literally nothing in federal income tax, while reporting $5.6 billion in U.S. profits.

Instead of creating his own new private network, which might run in direct competition with Head Start and other existing state programs, Bezos could help the government expand its proven models: A combination of higher taxes and philanthropy could help early childhood educators cover the cost of school supplies, help program providers extend their school days, construct and refurbish school buildings, supplement teacher salaries, and improve teacher training programs. There are even Montessori-inspired Head Start programs, the progressive pedagogical model Bezos seems most interested in expanding on his own.

Giving more kids access to good schools can be an uncomfortable thing to criticize. But we have to be able to recognize when something even seemingly generous is nowhere near enough. Last year Bezos said he wants his philanthropy to help “people in the here and now.” This month he said he wants to ensure our great-grandchildren have “lives better than ours.” Whether he means it or not, it’s on all of us to push for more.

Democrats Need Voters’ Help To Fix Gerrymandering. Will They Get It?

Originally published in Talking Points Memo on September 6, 2018.
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In late 2017, after a first-time Democratic candidate won a special election in Washington, the Senate chamber tipped blue, giving Democrats a “trifecta” over the state’s government. One of their first orders of business was passing the “Access to Democracy” package — a sweeping set of voting reforms that included automatic voter registration and same-day registration. Over Republican opposition, Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law by March.

Also in late 2017, following Democrat Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial victory in New Jersey, the small, dense East Coast state likewise shifted to Democratic control over both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. By April, Gov. Murphy had signed automatic voter registration into law, meaning the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission will now register New Jersey voters by default when they apply or renew their driver’s license. Republican Gov. Chris Christie had vetoed similar legislation in 2016 and 2015, as well as a bill to expand early voting in 2013.

Not all the Democratic “trifecta” states have estimable voting laws — longtime blue states like New York and Delaware stand out for their barriers — but the momentum behind voting rights in newly wrested blue states reflects a growing shift in the party.

Oregon was the first state to pass automatic voter registration in 2015, going on to claim the highest turnout increase of any state the following year. Since then twelve other states and Washington D.C. have passed automatic voter registration, the result of a fast-growing consensus that making it easier to vote, not just fighting voter suppression, is the type of political battle Democrats should be embracing.

“It is striking how much people have recognized there is no downside, and a strong upside, to staking out pretty clear, strong positions on voting rights,” says Zachary Roth, a journalist and the author of “The Great Suppression,” published in 2016. Roth recalls much more reticence among Democrats even five years ago, saying: “Leaders had been in wait-and-see mode, to see how these issues were going to play politically.”

At a time when public confidence in the integrity of American elections appears to be slipping — no doubt aided by the president’s lies claiming rampant voter fraud — the efforts among progressives to prioritize voting rights marks a shift for an issue that had long been left largely to lawyers and courtrooms. With Trump as president and the next redistricting process looming large, a slew of new and old organizations is scrambling to figure out how and if they can make wonky, procedural voting issues ones that excite and motivate turnout.

The voting rights space has long been peppered by nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organizations that push pro-democracy agendas. While these organizations — like Common Cause, the NAACP, and Demos — have often navigated charges of liberal bias, their nonpartisan identities have also been important staples of the “good government” movement.

In recent years, though, there’s been a shift in the democracy reform world, with the rise of more explicitly partisan organizations.

One is Let America Vote, founded in early 2017 by Jason Kander, a Missouri Democrat who lost narrowly to Republican Roy Blunt in a 2016 U.S. Senate race. Kander, who ran one of the most viral campaign ads that cycle, was quickly dubbed a rising Democratic star and a potential presidential candidate for 2020.

Let America Vote was founded, Kander likes to say, to “win the political argument” against voter suppression, and “create political consequences” for those trying to suppress the vote. With Trump appointing federal judges and Jeff Sessions leading the Department of Justice, Let America Vote says it aims to take the fight from the courthouse to the court of public opinion. Largely fueled by volunteers, unpaid interns, and a few full-time staffers in each state, the organization sends volunteers around districts to knock on doors and meet voters.

The goal is not necessarily to talk to voters about voter suppression, though. “Sometimes it means our folks emphasize other issues,” Kander told me, pointing to the group’s campaign work for Danica Roem, who, in 2017, won a Virginia House Delegate seat. Roem was facing off against a longtime Republican incumbent, Bob Marshall, who backed a host of voting restrictions, like requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship before casting a ballot. But Let America Vote volunteers mostly talked to voters about the issues Roem was focusing on, like reducing traffic congestion.

Kander says his team adapts its strategy from race to race, but does “whatever it takes” to ensure those restricting the right to vote pay a price. “Republicans across the country are very well-aware this is no longer a consequence-free exercise,” he says.

Roth says creating political consequences really has been “a missing part of the puzzle” for voting rights advocates. The Democratic Party had done it sort of sporadically, he explains, “but not in any sustained or really effective way.”

Speculation that Let America Vote was just something of a vehicle for Kander to spin his wheels until it was time to jump back into 2020 grew more pronouncedwhen he hired a Des Moines Register political reporter in April as a speechwriter and communications director. The hire seemed like a smart choice for an insurgent candidate looking to staff up for a competitive primary. But those rumors quieted down in late June, when Kander announced he was jumping into the Kansas City mayoral race. The election is next summer, and if he won he would not then enter the presidential mix.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), launched by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in January 2017, is a different story. It’s not much of a secret that Holder is weighing whether he should wade into the 2020 fray; he says he’ll make his decision early next year.

Until then, at least, Holder is focused on NDRC, pitched as a “strategic hub” for redistricting efforts across the country. The organization is armed with millions of dollars and a four-pronged strategy of pushing reforms, waging litigation, electing Democrats, and organizing educational campaigns. It’s also armed with an important ally: Barack Obama, who jumped back into politics last summer and announced that pushing back on Republican gerrymandering would be his main post-White House focus.

It’s fitting that Obama would care about redistricting, since partisan gerrymandering complicated nearly all of presidential objectives. Republicans flipped 959 legislative seats during his tenure. In 2012 Democrats won 1.5 million more votes than Republicans in House of Representative races, but the GOP still secured a 234-to-201 seat advantage. The GOP also maintained its control in 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for the House. (Steve Stivers, a Republican House member from Ohio, even admitted this year that his party is well-positioned to maintain power in the next cycle because of its successful gerrymandering post-2010.)

NDRC’s first real foray was in the Virginia election, where it spent $1.2 million in 2017 to elect Gov. Ralph Northam. The group proudly notes that this is the first time since 1991 that Virginia will have a Democratic governor with veto power over the redistricting process.

“From my perspective, success is if you break a trifecta,” Holder told The New York Times in February. “I don’t think that in December of 2018, you measure success only by whether you have assumed control of a particular state.” NDRC regularly reminds the public that half of all leaders who will be redrawing the congressional maps in 2021 will be elected this November.

NDRC is not just focusing on governor’s mansions and congressional races. In May Ohioans voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment for a bipartisan redistricting commission. Holder’s group spent $50,000 supporting this effort, and in addition to Ohio, four more states have redistricting on the ballot this November. (This is a big shift: Only five states had redistricting ballot initiatives in entire the preceding decade.) NDRC also intervened this year in the heavily gerrymandered state of Wisconsin, spending more than $500,000 to elect Rebecca Dallet, a state Supreme Court candidate who won a ten-year term in April.

The state-level Supreme Court focus is partly due to the group’s recognition that the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to be much of an ally going forward, yet gerrymandering can’t be fully tackled without the help of the judicial system. And sometimes, state courts can still be of assistance: In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court knocked down Republican-drawn voting maps, concluding they violated the state constitution. But this past summer the U.S. Supreme Court punted on two redistricting challenges despite previously agreeing that gerrymandering is “incompatible with democratic principles” and can amount to “rigging elections.” That combined with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement — he was the needed fifth vote to curb gerrymandering — has all but prompted advocates to look away from the nation’s highest court.

“The politicians have gotten way ahead of the courts in voting rights starting about ten years ago,” says Gerry Hebert, the senior director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center. “And by that I mean the sophisticated technology with respect to redistricting has really enabled politicians to pull the wool over the courts’ eyes, with the ability to manipulate and gerrymander maps with surgical-like precision down to the block level.” The effects of partisan gerrymandering since 2012 have indeed been more pronounced than at any point in the previous 50 years, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

Hebert, who served in the Department of Justice between 1973 to 1994, says it’s gotten much harder to litigate and win voting rights cases than it used to be. With weakened legal power, political organizations like NDRC and Let America Vote arguably play an even more important watchdog role. But making issues over reapportionment accessible and exciting can be difficult.

To take this on, in 2018 the NDRC teamed up with Organizing for Action, the national activist group affiliated with Barack Obama. (The 501c4, founded by Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, formed in in 2013 and commanded the campaign’s coveted email list and relationships with donors.)

Together, in addition to raising money and blasting emails from high-profile surrogates, the two groups have been organizing events like happy hours, speeches, and citizen house parties dedicated to the stakes of redistricting, and national video conferences focused on the same.

In late July 3,000 people signed up for a joint OFA-NDRC webinar featuring Eric Holder. Participants from around the country got to ask him questions, like how to talk to friends about gerrymandering without making their eyes glaze over.

“Gerrymandering is cheating,” Holder emphasized into his webcam. “It allows politicians to pick their voters, instead of having people choose their representatives.”

The advent of explicitly partisan groups, working on both voting rights and electing Democrats, can fuel legitimate suspicion that liberals are just seeking their own ways to tip the balance of power. Some are not exactly trying to hide it. NextGen America, funded by the largest individual Democratic political donor Tom Steyer, advocates against voter suppression and for restoring the Voting Rights Act, and also aims to elect a slew of Democrats this November through a massive youth turnout effort. Other groups like the grassroots Indivisible network and the ACLU’s Let People Vote Campaign have led ostensibly nonpartisan voting rights work, but both organizations have become so heavily associated with the Trump administration “resistance” that even those efforts can feel quite partisan.

Not to mention that Democrats certainly have their own history with gerrymandering maps and erecting procedural voting hurdles. One of the two cases the Supreme Court sidestepped this summer was pushed by Republican voters in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District; they argued their district map was drawn unfairly to help Democrats win. In Rhode Island, a Democratic-controlled legislature approved a new voter ID law in 2011, pushed by a Democratic state senator. (“I would not support anything that I thought would present obstacles or limit protections,” the bill sponsor claimed after it passed.)

“It’s a scary thing for old-school politicians and their operatives to have a giant new wave of people coming in to vote that they don’t know about,” says Kathay Feng, Executive Director of California Common Cause. “It’s a very small universe of people who will stand up and say they want more restrictive laws — I would say most electeds in California have decided that publicly they cannot align themselves with voter restrictions — but privately they still might support them.”

“NDRC hasn’t yet had the rubber meet the road for maps on both sides,” says Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School and a former Department of Justice attorney focused on voting rights. “If Democrats take unilateral control over some states there will likely be Democratic abuses, and we’ll see what, if anything, they do about it.”

When I asked Kelly Ward, executive director of NDRC, what she sees her group doing to push back against Democrats who might try to gerrymander themselves, she responded by pointing to her group’s focus on public education. “I think it’s going to be really important that citizens are engaged in the redistricting process,” she says. “If elected officials feel you’re paying attention, they’re more likely to do the right thing.” Whether Democratic voters would rally against Democratic gerrymandering, however, is a separate question.

There is some evidence to suggest that progressives are entering a new period, though, where they aren’t as willing to let Democrats get away with suppressing the vote. Last year in New Mexico, Democratic legislator Debbie Rodella repeatedly opposed efforts introduced by her liberal colleagues to ease voting rights. Rodella’s opposition helped kill the bills, despite Democratic majorities in both state chambers.

This year, however, voters decided to get rid of Rodella. She’s served in the state legislature for twenty-five years, but facing a primary challenger for the first time since 2006, Rodella lost in June by double-digits.

Miles Rapoport, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former president of Common Cause, says he thinks the entrance of more partisan groups is “an overall healthy development” in the voting rights space. While he acknowledges it “gives some ammunition” to those who charge democracy activists with being unforthcoming Democrats, he says these critics have already been saying that for years. And Rapoport notes that while people in the partisan world are taking up democracy issues more often, there’s still a “robust, nonpartisan movement trying to bring as many people into the fold.”

Not all from the nonpartisan universe are so enamored though. “There are a number of organizations that have sprouted up in 2017 that have very big online presences and fairly large fundraising efforts, but whether they’re really putting in money to reform efforts or to sustain themselves is less clear,” says Feng. “Unfortunately they are tapping into people’s heightened concern about a variety of issues, from voting to redistricting, and raising boatloads of money. It’s easy to send emails or write an op-ed, but the real question is whether they are supporting true state-based reform efforts.”

One area where NDRC’s fundraising prowess might be particularly useful is in Michigan, where a citizen-led effort to get redistricting reform on the 2018 ballot has dropped the jaws of cynics and pundits across the country.

In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory, a 27-year-old recycling program coordinator from Grand Rapids was dreading the inevitable political arguments she’d face at her Thanksgiving table. Hoping to throw herself into a cause that was something all her loved ones could agree on, she took to Facebook two days after the election, and said: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” The post blew up, and soon the author of the post, Katie Fahey, was leading Voters Not Politicians, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, focused on getting a constitutional amendment for an independent redistricting commission. The proposed commission would be comprised of four Republican voters, four Democratic voters, and five independents.

For the next year Fahey and her army of volunteers canvassed the state, collecting signatures to get their amendment on the ballot. In December 2017, Voters Not Politicians submitted more than 425,000 signatures (Michigan citizen ballot measures require 315,000.) A state elections board approved it in June, and it survived a near-death blow at the state Supreme Court in July.

Feng of California Common Cause says national voting rights groups were slow to take this grassroots, citizen-led effort seriously. “The usual organized groups that put millions into such efforts were largely dismissive,” she says. “The traditional wisdom has been that for volunteer-led signature gathering campaigns, you have to pay at least $1 million-$5 million to these professional signature gatherers if you want to get something on the ballot. Katie’s grassroots campaign basically blew that out of the water.”

Michigan is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the country, and Republicans have commanded nine of the state’s fourteen congressional seats in every election since 2010, despite Democrats earning far more votes statewide some years. Republicans deny they manipulated the voting maps, but newly disclosed emails, released this summer as part of a federal court challenge, reveal GOP operatives consciously drawing the maps in their favor. Their redistricting efforts were done “in a glorious way that makes it easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Macomb counties into only four districts,” wrote a Republican congressman’s chief of staff in 2011 to a GOP strategist and mapmaker. Another email drafted by a lawyer helping to design the maps said, “We’ve spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond.”

Between now and Election Day, Fahey says a lot of her group’s work will be spent on fundraising to combat misinformation from opponents, like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “Right now our deep-pocketed opponents are claiming we are trying to do crazy things like eliminate the Voting Rights Act,” she says. “Many voters don’t know what redistricting reform is, and we’re an organization that didn’t exist 1.5 years ago, which has advantages but also real disadvantages.” As of July Voters Not Politicians had raised about $1.25 million.

Ward, of NDRC, says their group is “in touch with Katie and we’ll do whatever she needs to bring it across the finish line, including resources.”

Whether the constellation of nonpartisan and partisan groups succeed in making voting rights a major issue for Democrats this November may best be exemplified by what plays out in New Hampshire.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton narrowly won New Hampshire while Republicans secured unified control of the state’s government. The Granite State has one of the nation’s highest turnout rates, and Donald Trump notoriously claimed after the election that Massachusetts voters bused into New Hampshire to cast illegal ballots. The following year state Republicans pushed legislation that would impose new fees on college students who lacked in-state driver’s licenses and wanted to vote. They claimed such reforms were necessary to restore trust in the election process. Critics blasted the bill as a new poll tax, something that could cost young voters up to several hundred dollars.

secretly recorded video from December 2017 showed the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, saying he “hated” the proposed voting requirement and hoped the legislature would kill it; he pledged never to support anything that suppresses the votes of students.

But this past July, Sununu signed it into law anyway. The law doesn’t take effect until summer 2019, so advocates are framing November as a referendum on this legislation and the broader issue of voter suppression in New Hampshire.

“I think it’s going to be a really significant issue,” says Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director at the ACLU of New Hampshire. “I think people are really shocked the governor would sign a bill he admitted he hated, and people are concerned about what this bill will do. We don’t think politicians should be allowed to choose their voters.”

While Bissonnette says voter suppression has “always been a big issue” in his state, citing efforts back in 2012 that were later struck down by the state Supreme Courtin 2015, he says the issue has grown much more salient with Trump.

“I think his statements about Massachusetts voters really elevated the issue of voting rights here,” he says. “Opponents of voting like to claim that people don’t have faith in our elections, but people lack confidence because they’re being fed lies.”

A coalition of groups have been organizing under the banner of the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights — including nonpartisan organizations like the ACLU and League of Women’s Voters, as well as more partisan groups like Let America Vote, College Democrats, and NextGen America.

“We made hundreds of phone calls to the governor and state legislators, and organized hundreds of people to show up at the state house,” says Liz Wester, the state director for America Votes New Hampshire. “About 70 college students testified, and even dozens of students showed up the day the governor signed the bill and went back on his word.” Wester says this is an issue “voters are really fired up about.”

One reason so many partisan groups have decided to lean into voting rights is because the issue polls well.

In 2016 Gallup found 63 percent of Americans support automatic voter registration, and 80 percent favor early voting. More recent data from Civis Polling as part of the Data for Progress New Progressive Agenda Project found that 48 percent of likely 2018 voters support automatic voter registration, 37 percent oppose, and 15 percent aren’t sure. When so-called Democratic “influencers” (referring to involved party activists) were asked to pick their top political priorities from a list of almost a dozen issues, two of the top three most highly ranked issues were related to strengthening voting rights.

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, put it this way: “The way to think about voting reforms is that these policies don’t wildly motivate voters — that’s sort of a fantasy — but what is real is that the people who do not vote like progressive stuff.” Progressives should support making it easier to vote, McElwee says, partly “because it will increase turnout in our elections, and will create more space for progressive ideas.” In other words, making it easier to vote will bring in more marginal voters who lean further left than the historically more consistent voter.

Another shift that’s happened is that longtime voting rights groups have recognized the power of teaming up with those looking to get money out of politics, mobilizing together under the banner of a democracy reform agenda. Previously many players in the “good government” world were more siloed.

This past summer a host of progressive activists, organizations, and politicians rallied for a weeklong #FixDemocracyNow campaign. “It’s time to fix democracy by strengthening voting rights, fighting big money through small-donor elections, and ending gerrymandering,” a petition signed by participating groups read. “I call on my federal, state, and local candidates to campaign on their plans to create the democracy we deserve, where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s vote is counted.”

David Donnelly, president of Every Voice — a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group — says “linking money-in-politics to voting rights has been a very important strategic shift” for them over the last few years. “We’ve pivoted to frame the issue less about getting money out, and more around bringing people back in,” he explains. “Legally, the landscape has also changed and we’re thinking about money-in-politics now more in terms of participation than prohibition.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship for the voting rights world, too. New polling released this summershowed that millennials especially resonate with messages of ending corporate campaign donations and super PACs. “Since Citizens United there’s been increasing consciousness about things that are suppressing the influence of ordinary citizens, and voting rights has been part of that,” says pollster Stan Greenberg“People are very upset about it, and very supportive of things that make it easier to participate.” He adds that while voters “resent” politicians who try and limit the right to vote, the issue appears more politically motivating when included in the “larger framework” of reducing corporate money in politics.

And Democrats do seem to be responding to these signals. This past May, House and Senate Democrats released a plan entitled “A Better Deal for Democracy” with ideas to strengthen and expand voting rights, implement new campaign finance reforms, and beef up ethics laws. This builds on strong, proactive language Democrats included in their party platform for the first time in 2016. In 2012, the party’s platform criticized voter restrictions, but did not include affirmative plans to expand voting rights, and did not have as much to say about campaign finance.

This shift was probably inevitable, if not overdue. Republicans, backed by organizations like American Legislative Exchange Council, ramped up their effort to pass voting restrictions following the 2010 midterms, and robust gerrymandering efforts also worked to make threats to Democrats doubly effective. Advocates suffered yet another blow in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a central provision of the Voting Rights Act. Roth, the journalist who covers voting rights, says even a half-decade ago “there was just less of an awareness that Democrats need to get serious” about these issues.

“I think it’s become clearer for progressive organizations of every interest about our common stake in taking democracy and voting issues head on,” says Greg Speed, president of America Votes, which coordinates efforts among more than 400 state and local left-leaning groups. “Those conversations are much further along than they were even just a few years ago,” he adds.

It’s not that voting rights has never been a politicized issue before now. (“It only looks particularly polarized if you’ve got a months-long lens,” quips Levitt.) But the crop of new groups organizing and spending money, and old groups doubling down on offense with an increased sense of urgency and new tactics, suggests something may very well be different this time around. “Our democracy is under attack,” Holder said this summer. “That might sound hyperbolic,” he acknowledged, “but it’s true.”