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.”

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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.”

Florida Has Been Stealing Votes From Black People Since The Civil War. That Could Change In November.

Originally published in The Intercept on September 6, 2018.
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One in ten eligible voters in Florida are effectively disenfranchised, thanks to a draconian law that bars former felons from voting and a broken clemency system. When it comes to black voters, the numbers are even more grim: More than 20 percent of otherwise eligible black voters from Florida cannot cast a ballot. In total, more than a quarter of all disenfranchised felons in the entire country are in the Sunshine State.

But this November, Florida voters will have a chance to reverse that by weighing in on Amendment 4, a constitutional ballot measure to restore voting rights to an estimated 1.5 million Floridians who have fully completed their felony sentences. Florida is just one of three states in the U.S. that indefinitely bans citizens with felony convictions from voting.

Amendment 4 is the results of years of grassroots work by Florida organizers, but it’s also part of recent nationwide push on this front. In 2016, the Democratic Party put in its party platform for the first time a commitment to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals. Earlier that same year, the Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature overrode the veto of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and restored the right to vote to more than 40,000 former prisoners still on probation or parole. Also over the course of 2016 and 2017, Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffegranted clemency to more than 168,000 former felons.

Constitutional amendments in Florida require least 60 percent approval to pass — no easy objective. In 2012, for example, there were 11 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and Florida voters rejected eight of them.

But a slew of early polling bodes well for supporters of Amendment 4: In February, a Quinnipiac University poll found 67 percent of Florida voterssupported the idea of restoring voting rights to individuals who have committed a felony and completed their sentences, while 27 percent opposed it. Another poll released in May found that 74 percent of voters say they’d back Amendment 4. However, a poll released in June by the Florida Chamber of Commerce found that just 40 percent of voters approved of Amendment 4, with 17 percent opposed and 43 percent undecided.

The passage of Amendment 4 would be monumental to the vast majority of former felons in the state, but some would still get left behind; it does not provide restoration for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. There’s a pragmatic rationale behind that: A measure that allows someone who, say, committed a robbery to vote again is much easier to sell politically than one that re-enfranchises someone convicted of rape. The amendment also has the full-throated support of Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor who won an insurgent victory in last week’s primary. (Floridians energized by Gillum’s nomination are likely to vote in favor of the amendment.) His Republican opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis, stands in opposition.

Disenfranchising criminals has a legal history that dates back well before the existence of the United States. Sean Morales-Doyle, a counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the practice was prevalent in English common law and can likely be traced back to ancient Rome.

“It comes from an outmoded concept of government and criminal justice, that if you commit a crime you become an outlaw, and in addition to potentially being subject to the actual death penalty, it is appropriate for you to suffer a ‘civil death’ and no longer be allowed to participate in society in any way,” he said.

While some states adopted criminal disenfranchisement in their early years, Morales-Doyle said many did not, and there was a lot of variation during the United States’s formative years. However, in the period immediately following the Civil War, interest in felon disenfranchisement grew far more pronounced, especially in the South. Following the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, African-Americans received a wave of new rights, freedoms, and — importantly — political power, which were wholly opposed by many whites. States began to push for ways to undermine these new protections, like restrictions on voting for people convicted of crimes that black people were more likely to be found guilty of, thanks to a criminal justice system that was rife with racial prejudice. For example, South Carolina lawmakers barred those convicted of “thievery, adultery, arson, wife beating, housebreaking, and attempted rape” from voting, but not those convicted of murder or fighting. By 1869,29 states had enacted such policies.

This included Florida, which enacted a constitutional provision to indefinitely ban former felons from voting. It’s remained on the books ever since. “It was passed in 1868, after an unsuccessful attempt by Florida and other states to reject the 15th Amendment,” says Morales-Doyle. “So Florida passed a constitution with universal male suffrage — as required by the 15th Amendment — but then included some other provisions to undermine it, and one was the felon disenfranchisement provision.”

In the last half-century, many states have moved in the opposite direction. Though Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow currently incarcerated individuals to vote, it’s just Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky that still permanently bar all citizens with felony convictions from voting. But many states still have other sorts of restrictions: Nationwide, more than 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony conviction. According to the Sentencing Project, more than half have fully completed their sentences, another quarter are under probation or parole, and another quarter are still in prison. While 1 out of every 40 U.S. adults is barred from voting due to a former or current felony conviction, one in 13 African-American adults is disenfranchised.

Florida’s system for clemency has been mostly unchanged since the 1880s, but it grew even stricter in 2011, when newly elected Republican Gov. Rick Scott issued new rules requiring citizens with a felony conviction to wait at least five years before filing for clemency, including the restoration of voting rights — a process that often takes a decade or more.

Nearly five years after taking office, Scott had issued clemency to fewer than 2,000 Florida citizens, while over 20,000 applications remained pending. The number of disenfranchised Floridians has meanwhile continued to grow. Between 2010 and 2016, nearly 150,000 more were disenfranchised, bringing the total to about 1.7 million, according to the Sentencing Project. (This figure includes people who are still serving out their sentences, who would not be covered by Amendment 4.)

There have been some unsuccessful legal attempts in the past to strike down Florida’s voting ban on citizens with felony convictions. In 2000, the Brennan Center filed a class-action suit on behalf of more than 600,000 Florida citizens, arguing that the constitutional provision was discriminatory, and a violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The federal district court for the Southern District of Florida agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in 2005 rejected it on appeal, saying the plaintiffs had failed to prove clear discriminatory intent.

A couple years later, the state started to make progress on its own. Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who was in office from 2007 to 2011, granted automatic clemency for people completing sentences for certain felony convictions. More than 115,000 Florida citizens had their voting rights restored between 2007 and 2008, and by the end of his four-year term, more than 150,000 people with felony convictions regained their right to vote. (Crist is now a Democratic member of Congress.)

But within three months of taking office, Scott repealed the Crist-era reforms and issued even stricter barriers for voter restoration. He has earned a notorious record for voter suppression even beyond felon disenfranchisement, including signing a law in 2011 that reduced the window for early voting in Florida. (Facing immense public outrage, Scott and the legislature reversed course on this in 2013.)

Voting rights activists are pushing back on multiple fronts against Scott, who is now running for Senate. In addition to Amendment 4, there’s a class-action lawsuit winding through the courts — Hand v. Scott — that is trying to change the Florida voter restoration process while avoiding making the same legal argument about discrimination that failed in 2005. The Fair Elections Legal Network is representing former Florida felons who completed their sentences. The plaintiffs argue that the process used by the Florida clemency board to determine who should get their right to vote back is arbitrary and violates the equal protection clause of the 14th and 1st Amendments. In February, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed. “Disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s Governor has absolute veto authority,” Walker wrote in his opinion that struck down the state’s clemency system. “No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration.” In March, he ordered Scott to revamp Florida’s system by the end of April.

The state appealed to the 11th Circuit, putting a hold on Walker’s order. The case remains pending.

Amendment 4 is a chance to try something new — a grassroots, citizen-led effort in which the power for change is in front of voters, not judges and elected officials.

Activists started collecting petition signatures in 2015, under the banner of Floridians for Fair Democracy. Led by Desmond Meade, who was convicted of several drug charges and later completed a 15-year prison sentence for possession of a firearm as a felon. Organizers collected more than 799,000 certified signatures from registered voters in all 27 congressional districts, surpassing the minimum 766,000 signatures needed to get on the November 6 ballot.

Neil Volz, a former chief of staff to Republican Rep. Bob Ney — the congressman sentenced to jail in 2007 for corruption charges — pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to corrupt public officials. Volz paid a fine and did community service, and never served time in prison, but when he moved to Florida in 2008, he realized he was unable to participate fully in his community. When he met Meade in 2015, Volz said, he quickly decided to get involved in the voter restoration effort. Today, he serves as political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a grassroots organization led by returning citizens. “While collecting signatures I met people from all walks of life, from all over the state, from all political backgrounds, who were close to the pain of this policy,” Volz told The Intercept. “This is just about second chances.”

THE CAMPAIGN’S MESSAGING around second chances, however powerful, has its limits. Under Amendment 4, that redemptive message is not being extended to those who have been convicted of felony sex offenses or murder.

Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, a state affiliate of the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, said that she supports Amendment 4, but her group opposes the exclusion of the over 70,000 citizens currently on Florida’s sex offender registry.

“The bottom line is that they leave this population out of anything that’s positive because they have a distorted view as to who people who are,” she told The Intercept. “They look at every sex offender like they’re a Ted Bundy.”

Colletta notes that while the criminal justice system looks at drug offenders and even murderers on a graded scale, society paints sex offenders with a broad brush. “It doesn’t matter what you did, they treat you all the same with a lifetime of punishment,” she said.

Critics note that by excluding sex offenders and murderers from the November amendment, these populations will become even further stigmatized than they already are.

“This country was built on Christian-Judeo values and in my understanding, that means people deserve a second chance,” Collette said, “but here we’re willing to throw [sex offenders] under the bus for politics.”

Darryl Rouson, a Democratic member of the Florida Senate, has long been a proponent of voter rights restoration. Prior to Amendment 4 making it to the ballot, Rouson himself introduced a now-withdrawn amendment to the state constitution. It would have excluded not only sex offenders and murderers from automatic rights restoration, but 12 additional categories, including kidnappers and armed robbers.

“It would have still covered about 70 percent of the people currently disenfranchised,” Rouson told The Intercept. “I felt mine was a reasonable compromise in a state that has not indicated sensitivity to the issue of voting rights.” Passing Amendment 4 a “critical, moral issue,” he added.

When asked why the drafters of Amendment 4 opted to exclude those who committed sex offenses or murders, Volz told The Intercept that that’s “what the people wanted” and that their campaign has “been listening to people at every step along the way so we knew [those exemptions] needed to be included in the initiative.” But the petition language has remained the same since organizers began collecting signatures, and it could not have been changed based on public feedback after the drive began in 2015. “We’re focused on moving this forward, in the healthiest, broadest way that we can,” Volz said, declining to answer more specific questions. (Meade did not return multiple requests for comment on this issue.)

It’s not clear when the 11th Circuit will rule on the Hand v. Scott case, but if Amendment 4 passes, Jon Sherman, senior counsel at the Fair Elections Legal Network, said the lawsuit would be rendered moot, because all the plaintiffs would regain their right to vote.

Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center said creating exemptions for specific convictions is an exception to the larger trend of how voting rights restoration is playing out elsewhere across the country, in part because of the unique political circumstances in Florida.

“The discussion around felon disenfranchisement is more typically around ‘when does the restoration come?,’” he said. “Is it after you’ve paid off all your legal obligations, as soon as you’re released from prison, or whether you’ve completed probation and parole?” Morales-Doyle pointed to New York, which is one of the few states left in the country where citizens still lose their right to vote while on parole. (In April, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he intends to restore voting rights to the more than 35,000 felons on parole.)

“The sense of fairness is central to the question of rights restoration, the idea that if you’ve served your sentence, you should be allowed to vote,” he says. “I think what’s happening in Florida, making it contingent on the crime, is unique.” He pointed out that Florida faces some unusual political circumstances, with its anomalous rate of felon disenfranchisement, and the tough 60 percent threshold needed for an amendment to pass.

“Without passing judgment on whether that was the best place to come down, my point is just that there has to be a really broad base of support for this amendment, so the question of who will be won over by what policy is what led to the current moment,” he said.

With the election just two months away, Volz said campaign organizers will continue to hold events, educating the public about the importance Amendment 4 and rights restoration.

Rouson, the state senator, said it’s been hard for activists to sustain focus on the initiative while the primaries loomed. “We legislators could all do more to raise awareness around this issue, and there are grassroots champions across the state doing the work, but I also think the attention of the voters was divided because of the primary,” he said.

There are 13 constitutional amendments on the Florida ballot this cycle. “The worry is that voters will get ballot fatigue, under-vote, or not vote on everything,” Rousen said. “We need to educate voters early and often.”

A “Social Wealth Fund” Could Be The Next Big Idea

Originally published in The Intercept on August 28, 2018.
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A few years before Jay Hammond, a Republican, was elected to serve as Alaska’s governor in 1974, he worked as mayor of the small borough of Bristol Bay. There, he watched as nearly all of his town’s rich salmon resources were extracted from the region, with virtually none of the profits or job opportunities going to locals. He fashioned the idea of a 3 percent tax on fish catch, and using the money raised for an investment fund that would pay Bristol Bay residents an annual dividend from its returns.

Voters rejected Hammond’s idea, but he’d have several more opportunities to promote it in the following years. As governor, in 1976, he pushed for a constitutional amendment that would direct 25 percent of all lease sale payments and oil royalties to a fund that could only be used for income-generating investments. Hammond originally kept quiet about his desire to direct those returns back to citizens, and it was understood primarily as a proposal to prevent the waste of oil revenue. But after the amendment passed by a 2-to-1 margin, Hammond made it his central mission to push for the citizens’ dividend idea. His persistence paid off and in 1982, Alaskans received their first check from the so-called Permanent Fund, a dividend that has flowed annually ever since.

At the end of 2017, over 600,000 Alaskan citizens received dividends of $1,100. In prior years, checks have been as high as $2,000 per person. The fund is massively popular — recent polling showed that Republicans, Democrats, and independents all would rather pay higher income taxes to reduce the deficit than see their annual dividend cut. In no small part due to the Permanent Fund, Alaska is the most economically equal state in the country.

“It’s certainly the most popular political program in Alaska,” Bill Wielechowski, a Democratic state senator, told The Intercept. “It’s a really significant amount of money and has a huge impact. There have been studies that show the majority of people put it towards savings and paying ordinary bills.”

The Alaska Permanent Fund is what’s known as a “social wealth fund” — also sometimes called a “sovereign wealth fund” or a “citizens’ wealth fund.” There are more than 70 such funds across the world, in countries like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Qatar, and Norway. The number of social wealth funds has risen considerably since 2000, and a new report produced by Matt Bruenig, founder of the crowd-funded socialist think tank the People’s Policy Project, advocates for expanding Alaska’s model to create a national social wealth fund in the United States. Doing so, Bruenig argues, may be the best shot Americans have to stop a decades-long trend of accelerating inequality.

Bruenig dubs his idea the “American Solidarity Fund.” The government would gradually accumulate assets such as stocks, bonds, and real estate, and as the value of the publicly managed assets increases, the value of the shares would also rise. Citizens would receive a “universal basic dividend” every year from the income earned from the fund’s investments.

While Alaska’s Permanent Fund was built around a rich natural resource, Bruenig points to Sweden’s short-lived experiment with a social wealth fund in the 1980s, where Swedes used taxes on corporate profits to fill it up. (Conservative legislators ended Sweden’s fund in 1991.)

Bruenig explores five different ways to bring in assets to a national U.S. fund, ranging from voluntary contributions from the superrich to a host of new taxes and fees. While he acknowledges many different types of levies could work, he focuses on wealth taxes, like market capitalization taxes, financial transaction taxes, and steeper inheritance taxes.

Unlike Alaska’s model, which does not grant dividend recipients any formal ownership, Bruenig proposes giving every qualifying citizen one nontransferable share of the fund. The idea is to give citizens some power they could then collectively exert over corporate board decision-making. Individuals could also track their share online, similar to the way individuals can track their growing capital investments on Vanguard. “This is partially a communications gimmick,” he acknowledges. “But no more so than many of the hyper-abstracted ownership gimmicks that already exist in the country’s capital markets.”

Also unlike Alaska’s model, which distributes dividends to all citizens, Bruenig proposes issuing dividends to every citizen above age 17. (He advocates monthly child allowances for families with children, not administered through a social wealth fund.)

The national social wealth fund idea has gotten some high-profile attention, including in Hillary Clinton’s recent memoir, “Hard Choices.” Clinton said she first learned about the idea after reading a 2014 book published by Peter Barnes, an entrepreneur who also proposed a national fund like the model in Alaska. “Besides cash in people’s pockets, it would also be a way of making every American feel more connected to our country and to one another—part of something bigger than ourselves,” she wrote. “I was fascinated by this idea, as was my husband, and we spent weeks working with our policy team to see if it could be viable enough to include in my campaign.” Clinton said they shelved the “Alaska for America” idea when they “couldn’t make the numbers work.”

Still, the political appeal of a policy like this might be hard to shelve permanently. Whether or not robots are really coming for our jobs remains hotly disputed, but what’s not up for debate is that voters increasingly fear it is happening and want political solutions to it. In 2015, Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans anticipate that robots and computers will “definitely” or “probably” do the work currently under human control within the next 50 years. Politicians will be on the lookout for ideas to ease public insecurity.

Bruenig also points to the problem of growing wealth inequality, one that has shown no sign of reversing course. Analyzing the Survey of Consumer Finances, he found that between 2007 and 2016, the average wealth of the top 1 percent increased by $4.9 million as the wealth of the median family declined by $42,000. The top 1 percent of families, he adds, owns more wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined.

By putting more wealth under government control, Bruenig reasons, the U.S. can then redistribute it back to the people.

Peter Barnes, author of “With Liberty and Dividends for All” — the 2014 book Clinton cited in her memoir — told The Intercept that any version of a social wealth fund should be expected to start very small, but grow over time. “Getting it started would be a breakthrough,” he said. “Social Security started in 1935 at a 1 percent payroll tax and the benefits for the elderly were trivial at the beginning.”

Still, not all who’ve explored the idea see it as the right move for the United States to address its growing inequality and insecurity. Mike Konczal, a fellow at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, is skeptical about establishing a U.S. social wealth fund, and says it’s not only a particularly difficult way to achieve the desired redistributive goals, but could also easily have negative effects.

“If you’re thinking that the government should spend more on ‘Medicare for All,’ or for a basic income, then we can both tax wealthy people and capital income more,” he said. “If a sovereign wealth fund reinforces the deficit mentality that we have to save money to spend money, or we can’t spend money if we don’t have a special fund, that would be counterproductive.”

Another problem Konczal highlights is that social wealth funds are more difficult tools to capture privately held wealth. “This is a hard way to get at a lot of income. Koch Industries, for example, would not interact with a fund like this.” Rather than a market capitalization tax on public companies, Konczal says, why not just tax all companies through a higher corporate income tax?

And lastly, with regard to tying citizenship to capital income, he worries this could reinforce, rather than weaken, the view that the economy should only work for shareholders. Would making capitalists out of everybody drive up support for deregulating Wall Street or repealing environmental protections?

In April, the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-wing think tank based in London, published a report advocating for a “citizens’ wealth fund.” Their proposal is to give all U.K.-born 25-year-olds a one-time capital dividend of 10,000 euros, to “provide a minimum inheritance for all young people to invest in their futures.” The United Kingdom dividend would also be taxed, in order to make it more progressive and so that it’s viewed more like other dividend income — which is taxed — rather than a state handout. (Bruenig doesn’t take a stance on whether his proposed dividend should be taxed.)

Carys Roberts, a senior economist at Institute for Public Policy Research and one of the U.K. report’s co-authors, told The Intercept that their idea generated significant interest from local political parties over the last few months. “I can’t say who, as I’ve been told in confidence, but we anticipate several high-profile politicians and major parties to come out in support of the idea in the next month or two, so watch this space,” she said.

Bruenig and Roberts have similar theories for why the social wealth fund idea has not previously been tried in the U.S. and U.K, despite the growing number of countries experimenting with it.

In some countries, and in Alaska, the funds have been pursued as an economic development strategy, sometimes as a practical way to deal with a natural resource boom. In others that, like Sweden, are social democratic, there may be more of an ideological commitment to get capital out of private hands.

Roberts thinks the idea hasn’t come up in a big way before in the U.K. because of the “ideology of ruling governments.”

It’s existed on the “fringes of mainstream politics” for a long time, she said — pointing to British economists, like Nobel Prize winner James Meade, Tony Atkinson, and Stewart Lansley, who have endorsed social wealth funds. (Thomas Paine advocated for a national fund and citizens’ dividend as far back as 1797.)

“What’s exciting is that it’s now being discussed as a serious option in the U.K. because progressive are recognizing that redistributing income is insufficient,” Roberts said. “We need to look at how the economy is owned.” She notes that the idea also holds some appeal for those on the right; in 2016, Conservative Parliament member John Penrose called for a sovereign wealth fund to stimulate infrastructure investment and to fund pension liabilities.

Wielechowski, the state senator from Alaska, told The Intercept he thinks it would be great if the federal government could figure out a way to establish a social wealth fund nationwide.

“It just elevates everyone’s standard of living, it sets a certain floor,” he said. “Now, how you pay for it — that’s a good question.”

 

Ben Carson’s Drive to Further Segregate Housing Gets a Boost In Court

Originally published in The Intercept on August 20, 2018.
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Civil rights advocates suffered a blow in federal court this month, losing a lawsuit, filed in May, against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its secretary, Ben Carson. Unlike the last time advocates sued HUD, in 2017 — a case they won — this time the same judge, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell, dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit for lack of standing.

The lawsuit centered on a desegregation rule, known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was finalized in 2015. The rule was designed to more effectively implement the integration mandates of the Fair Housing Act, the landmark civil rights law passed 50 years ago to eliminate discrimination and segregation in housing.

Despite the Fair Housing Act’s requirements, for decades after its passage, HUD did little to ensure that jurisdictions receiving federal housing dollars were actually working to reduce government-sponsored segregation.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a report detailing how local communities fail to comply with federal fair housing mandates, and how HUD fails to enforce those obligations. This report came on the heels of a 2008 national fair housing commission chaired by two former HUD secretaries, which also found abysmal fair housing compliance.

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule was the product of the next five years of work, as stakeholders worked with the Obama administration to design a rule that not only gave communities more tools and resources to carry out their fair housing duties, but also strengthened HUD’s fair housing enforcement mechanisms. Finalizing the new rule in 2015 was considered a major milestone for civil rights.

But advocates worried that the Trump administration would try to dismantle this achievement. Before Carson was appointed HUD secretary, he wrote an op-ed comparing the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to other “failed socialist experiments.” After joining the administration, he told the Washington Examiner that the federal government will need to “reinterpret” the rule because he doesn’t believe in “extra manipulation and cost.”

Advocates were right to be worried. In January 2018, HUD announced it would be delaying enforcement of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule for almost three years. The federal housing agency released a statement claiming it was simply “extending the deadline” for compliance while HUD works to improve the rule. “HUD stands by the Fair Housing Act’s requirement to affirmatively furthering fair housing,” HUD’s statement read, “but we must make certain that the tools we provide to our grantees work in the real world.”

In May, advocates filed a suit, alleging that HUD was effectively ending oversight over billions of dollars to be doled out to local governments, and that the delay amounted to a suspension of the rule. The lawsuit was filed by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Public Citizen, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax.

Less than two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, HUD quickly reinstated the rule, but withdrew the rule’s so-called assessment tool, the central accountability mechanism communities use to comply with the rule.

The plaintiffs promptly amended their complaint, arguing that HUD’s new maneuver was simply a rose by another name, and still illegal. In June, the state of New York filed to intervene, arguing that its interests “are directly and adversely affected” by HUD’s actions, which “will make it more difficult for New York’s local jurisdictions to analyze barriers to fair housing” and further “subjec[t] New York’s residents to ongoing segregation and discrimination.”

The hearing was held in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on August 9.

At the hearing, Daniel Halainen, an attorney representing HUD from the Justice Department, admitted the federal government’s track record on fair housing enforcement was highly flawed, but claimed withdrawing the assessment tool would not be reverting to back to the pre-2015 era because communities still have a greater “availability of data” at their disposal. He said it’s “incorrect” that withdrawing the assessment tool would mean jurisdictions are now off the hook for their fair housing obligations.

One argument HUD used to justify withdrawing the assessment tool was that it claimed the federal government would have to spend way more than the $9 million it had budgeted if the rule was fully implemented across the country. Sasha Samberg-Champion, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, pointed out that HUD made no effort to actually estimate what those higher costs would be, despite insisting they’d be exorbitant.

“If [HUD] did the math, and they said: Well, you know what … we did the math, and we calculated this will cost us $100 million to implement in 2018, and that would be, you know, totally beyond our budget, that would be one thing,” Samberg-Champion said in court. “Then we can have an argument about whether that number is reasonable. [But] they haven’t given you [Howell] a number. They haven’t even given you an estimate of what those unreasonable costs are going to be. They have just relied on the costs they have submitted so far, and then they’re asking you to take their word that that will scale. And we don’t think that satisfies the arbitrary and capricious test.”

In her opinion, issued on August 17, Howell disagreed. She not only argued that the plaintiffs failed to prove they’d suffer real harm from HUD’s actions — and thus lacked standing to bring the case — but she also defended HUD’s rationale for pulling the assessment tool. She wrote that HUD is “not obligated to keep in place a system that, in the agency’s view, drained its financial and personnel resources while it simultaneously expended resources working to remedy the defects in the Tool. The plaintiffs’ criticism here evidences a strong policy difference with HUD about resource allocation, rather than a showing that HUD made an arbitrary or capricious policy choice.”

But civil rights advocates argue there’s no real evidence that HUD actually plans to remedy the alleged defects in assessment tool; instead, they argue that this is all a pretext for suspending the rule altogether. Samberg-Champion pointed out in court that HUD has not taken any steps to actually improve the assessment tool it claims needs fixing.

The skepticism of fair housing advocates was bolstered last week, when HUD came out with a new announcement that over the next two months it plans to open up public comment for amending the rule itself, not the assessment tool. HUD claimed “the current regulations are ineffective” and provide jurisdictions “inadequate autonomy in developing fair housing goals as suggested by the principles of federalism.”

Carson then claimed, without evidence, that the current rule is “suffocating investment” in distressed neighborhoods and contributing to a lack of affordable housing. “We do not have to abandon communities in need,” he said in a statement. “Instead we believe we can craft a new, fairer rule that creates choices for quality housing across all communities.”

Conservatives cheered HUD’s latest move. “Secretary Carson’s work to rollback Obama’s overreaching housing rule is a great step in the right direction,” Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., told NBC News. “I look forward to seeing HUD completely rescind the utopian Obama regulation.”

In a statement released Friday, the fair housing advocacy groups that brought the lawsuit expressed “deep disappointment” in the court for not immediately and fully reinstating the assessment tool.

“Since the law was passed 50 years ago, HUD has not had an effective means for ensuring compliance with the Fair Housing Act. This ruling means a failed system will continue,” the plaintiffs said. “We are deeply concerned particularly since the court’s opinion acknowledges that the current system is flawed. … The evidence is clear that the court’s action will lead to continued fair housing litigation against jurisdictions and housing authorities which is an extremely costly way to achieve the goals of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing mandate. This is a significant setback for the millions of Americans that depend on our government to protect and enforce their civil rights.”

The plaintiffs have not yet decided if they will appeal the decision.

Chamber of Commerce, MoveOn Back Connecticut Democrat Mary Glassman Over “Teacher of the Year” Jahana Hayes

Originally published in The Intercept with Ryan Grim on August 14.
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A bizarre coalition of groups has come together to rally behind Mary Glassman against Jahana Hayes in a Tuesday Democratic primary election in Connecticut, where racial politics have bubbled just beneath the surface.

Glassman is a longtime local politician who twice ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. Connecticut is a blue state dominated by corporations, and Glassman this week won the rare endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a Republican-aligned voice for big business. The chamber almost never endorses Democrats and rarely intervenes in a Democratic primary.

Joining the chamber is both MoveOn and the local chapter of Our Revolution, the group formed in the wake of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for president. The three disparate groups have never lined up together on a campaign, but they are doing so on the opposite side of Hayes, a black woman who grew up in a local housing project and captured national attention when she was named 2016 “Teacher of the Year.”

MoveOn bases its endorsements on a vote by local members. To endorse, at least two-thirds of the members must support a particular candidate in a two-way race — so the endorsement suggests that there is significant support in the 5th District for Glassman.

“We made a decision to hold a member endorsement vote in this race, and our members voted to endorse Glassman,” Rahna Epting, managing director of MoveOn’s Election Program, told The Intercept. “Many of our members who casted votes also expressed substantial enthusiasm for Hayes. We always honor the results of official endorsement votes of the MoveOn membership.”

The endorsement by the central Connecticut branch of Our Revolutionis highly unusual, as Our Revolution claims to back progressive candidates who — unlike Glassman — proudly embrace the policy platform Sanders ran on. (Sanders won more votes in Connecticut’s 5th District in the 2016 primary, even though Hillary Clinton won the state overall in the election.) The group, however, has a rather anarchic approach to the establishment and activity of local chapters. On the local’s page, it says that it supports candidates who advocate for “Medicare for All,” the only specific policy cited.

Diane May, a spokesperson for the national Our Revolution, said, “Our local groups are free to endorse the candidates they feel best represent their progressive values. As this was a local endorsement, you’ll have to speak with them as to why they endorsed the way they did.”

Bobby Berriault, of the local Our Revolution chapter, told The Intercept that “Hayes and Glassman are very similar: Both support universal health care, both support a $15-an-hour minimum wage.” Glassman’s campaign shared her backing of those progressive positions directly with the 100-member strong chapter, Berriault said.

Glassman’s support for “Medicare for All” does not appear anywhere on her campaign website, which instead talks about defending the Affordable Care Act and working to lower prescription drug costs. This lines up with talking points suggested by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has pushed candidates not to embrace single-payer health care. The minimum wage plank is similarly missing from Glassman’s website; the campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Meanwhile, Hayes told The Intercept that she supports single-payer health care; a $15 minimum wage; and free college, another policy that Our Revolution typically champions. (Her campaign website lists only her support for single payer.)

Berriault said that he himself supports Glassman, but he did not vote on the endorsement motion. (Glassman recently donated $100 to a Berriault GoFundMe to cover surgery expenses.) He said that the MoveOn endorsement confirmed Glassman’s progressive bona fides, adding that Our Revolution members were concerned that much of Hayes’s fundraising had come from outside the district. His support, however, is not unwavering. “I am a little troubled that the Chamber of Commerce endorsed her,”  he said.

Glassman jumped into the race in April when Rep. Elizabeth Esty stepped down amid reports that she allowed her chief of staff to stay on months after learning he’d been accused of harassing a female staffer. Glassman quickly raised more than $100,000 and hoped to cruise to an easy victory.

But her sailing was less smooth than she expected. Less than two weeks before the May 14 endorsement convention, Hayes — encouraged by Sen. Chris Murphy — jumped into the race. At the nominating convention for Connecticut’s 5th District, as The Intercept previously reported, it was Hayes who emerged as the initial winner. But convention chair Tom McDonough kept the vote-switching period open long enough for enough delegates to switch and swing it narrowly back toward Glassman.

Vote-switching itself is not uncommon, but the prolonged process was unusual. Chris D’Orso, a convention delegate who serves on the Board of Aldermen for Waterbury and backed Hayes, told The Intercept at the time that he’d never seen anything like it in his more than 20 years of deep involvement in local Connecticut politics.

The Connecticut NAACP called for a special hearing into potential vote tampering to ensure that civil rights were not violated; the Democratic State Central Committee later found that two votes had been improperly recorded in Glassman’s favor, but the finding did not impact the actual endorsement.

Hayes didn’t drop out though, hoping to become the first black candidate for the House, Senate, or governor to earn the nomination of her state party. In Connecticut, any candidate who wins at least 15 percent of the delegates at the endorsing convention earns a spot on the primary ballot. As a result of the endorsement, though, Glassman’s name is featured at the top of the ballot and marked with a special designation to signal that she’s the party-backed candidate.

If Hayes wins the primary, she could be the only black leader serving in the U.S. House or Senate from all of New England. (Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman to serve on Boston’s City Council, is also gunning for the Democratic nomination in Massachusetts 7th Congressional District next month.)

One month after the convention, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., widely assumed to be running for president in 2020, endorsed HayesLocal teacher unions and the Connecticut Working Families Party did the same. Hayes’s fundraising also surpassed expectations. By the end of July, Hayes had raised $461,000, compared to Glassman’s $457,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Glassman’s campaign points out that she raised 85 percent of the funds from voters in the district, while more than half of Hayes’s funds in her latest filing came from out of state.

In July, Murphy introduced Hayes to a slew of influential donors and veteran political staffers. While Murphy has not issued a formal endorsement, he told the local news site CT Post that he encouraged Hayes to run in part “because we don’t have a single nonwhite member of the New England congressional delegation,” and “we are really missing something.” He described Hayes as “a wonderful contrast” to Glassman.

Glassman is running on experience, touting her eight terms of public service as Simsbury’s first selectman, a mayor-like position for a wealthy enclave outside Hartford. Hayes is running as a fresh voice, outside the political establishment.

“It Was All True”: Minnesota Attorney General’s Former Deputy Speaks Out About Participation In Political Work

Originally published in The Intercept on August 9, 2018.
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On Monday The Intercept reported that Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson relied on her official government staff for political work, sourced largely to unnamed employees. In the 48 hours after the story’s publication, more than a dozen individuals, including seven more former employees, contacted The Intercept and shared stories of being asked to volunteer politically that corroborated our report. Multiple sources named key Swanson deputies engaged in political activity in the attorney general’s office, repeating the names of staffers who’d previously been identified to The Intercept. One name that was repeatedly mentioned was D’Andre Norman, someone said to be instrumental in pressuring staffers to do Swanson’s political bidding.

Norman left the office in 2014 and is listed in state records as a mid-level employee, but sources claimed he was a close Swanson ally for years.

The Intercept contacted Norman and asked him about his political involvement with Swanson. He agreed to tell his story. He said that while he felt loyal to many of his co-workers, his time at the attorney general’s office weighed heavily on his conscience. He said he was also fearful that, in any case, his name would soon be exposed by reporters or investigators, at which point Swanson’s allies might attempt to pin all the wrongdoing on him.

“It was all true, unfortunately,” said Norman of The Intercept’s report. “Nothing in there was not right and correct.”

The three-term attorney general is now a leading Democratic contender for governor ahead of an August 14 primary election.

Swanson’s campaign denied the accuracy of our first report. On Tuesday, the campaign asserted in a statement that there “is no political activity undertaken by any member of the attorney general’s office while ‘on the clock’ for the government, period.” Employees “of the attorney general’s office are paid and promoted based solely on their merit and work responsibilities, period,” the statement continued. The office also claimed that The Intercept, through its parent company, First Look Media Works, could be tied to two companies Swanson prosecuted years before the company’s founding, suggesting that the story was “a political attempt to settle scores.”

In addition to claims from current and former employees that Swanson oversees an office in which employees do campaign work — like scheduling campaign events and stuffing envelopes — during the business day, we reported Monday that seven individuals who were identified as Swanson supporters received notably large raises, according to public records. We also reported that Swanson’s attorney general committee, which has spent $660,000 since the beginning of 2014, reports zero dollars for payroll or employee expense. Her current gubernatorial campaign similarly reports no staff expenses.

It is not illegal for politicians to ask employees to get involved in their campaigns, though Minnesota law bars the use of “official authority or influence” to compel political participation.

State Rep. Sarah Anderson, the Republican chair of a House committee that oversees the attorney general’s office, said on Tuesday she “is considering holding a hearing on the culture of the attorney general’s office next session, even if Swanson is leaving,” Minnesota Public Radio reported. On Twitter, she said The Intercept’s investigation into Swanson is “alarming.”

NORMAN, A 41-YEAR-OLD resident of Minneapolisworked at the attorney general’s office from 2006 to 2014. Electronically available state payroll records only go as far back as 2011, and they list him as an employee from that year through 2014.

He said he was fired in 2014 after facing a car insurance fraud claim from the state commerce department, though he was allowed to receive unemployment benefits. The charges were eventually dismissed and expunged shortly after he left the attorney general’s office, but he said the episode had attracted unwanted legal attention from state investigators, and Swanson and former Attorney General Mike Hatch were quick to push him out.

Benjamin Wogsland, a spokesperson for the attorney general, declined to answer a series of questions The Intercept asked about Norman’s work, role, and termination. “I must be sensitive to the office’s personnel policies and state laws as it relates to public comments involving personnel matters,” he said.

Before working for Swanson, Norman was involved in local politics. He worked for several years at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the now defunct community organizing group, followed by a stint with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota, that began in early 2006. At the party’s statewide convention that year, he was the person selected to formally nominate Hatch for the party’s gubernatorial endorsement. Later that year, when Hatch lost that race by less than 1 percentage point, he invited Norman to come join him back at the Minnesota attorney general’s office, where Swanson was beginning her first term.

“He personally asked me to come work at the office with him and Lori because they could use my political instincts,” Norman told The Intercept.

When he was hired, Norman said, it was his understanding that Hatch and Swanson expected his job would be primarily political, even though he had job titles like “consumer analyst” and “mediator” in the consumer services division.

Norman described one of his actual roles in the office as being a “recruiter.” He said this meant his job was to encourage employees to staff Swanson’s frequent political events, and he was widely understood to be one of Swanson’s most trusted allies in the office. Multiple sources who spoke to The Intercept confirmed his close association with Swanson. This included Linda McEwen, Swanson’s former executive assistant, who worked in the office from 2007 to 2009, when she was fired. McEwen said that during her tenure, Norman would accompany Swanson to many political events she scheduled on Swanson’s calendar, and he’d help recruit employees to attend other campaign functions.

Hatch did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

Norman emphasized that the work Swanson wanted done required dozens of employees over the course of a year.

“Since 2007, Swanson wanted to get ready to run for governor,” he said. But in order to do so, according to Norman, Swanson believed she needed a constant presence “at every political convention.” This included conventions for the 67 Minnesota Senate districts, which were usually held on weekends.

Norman said Swanson wanted a handful of employees at every convention, often with three to four different conventions each weekend. “It was never anyone outside the office who did the work, so you can imagine how many people it was,” he said, adding that to induce participation, he and his fellow deputies would say Lori would one day run for governor, likely win, “and just imagine where your career could go.”

Sometimes, Norman said, political events that began during the late afternoon on a weekday would necessitate shuffling volunteers out of the office several hours before the close of business.  

“Any time Lori needed someone to do any staffing at her events, or meet people at conventions or fundraisers, or anything that was all politically related, she relied on me,” he said. “Many times she called me personally on my cell phone. If she needed 30 to 40 people, I got it done.”

To get it done, Norman went after staff and attorneys in almost every department, though most recruits were young people working in the consumer services division. Norman said he approached staff members individually, and he asked division supervisors for volunteer suggestions. “Every time I approached anyone, especially the people who were charged with leading different divisions, when I came to talk to them, they always knew — or assumed — I was speaking on Lori’s behalf,” he said. “I was not questioned.”

Norman said he also recruited staffers out of the Medicaid fraud division, where heightened caution was required. “We had to be really careful, because half the budget came from the federal government,” he said, noting that avoiding the scrutiny of the federal inspector general was a serious concern. Two additional sources who previously worked in the Medicaid division also said that volunteers were recruited from there. Those sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. Swanson’s office did not respond to a question about whether volunteers were ever recruited from that unit for Swanson’s political events.

Consumer analysts, mediators, and attorneys were the primary targets, Norman said. Unionized staff, like secretaries, were off-limits.

Discretion was key. Norman described covert exchanges of campaign literature in the downtown parking lot, away from the eyes of others in the office, and said he was personally given a lock for his office door, something most employees did not have. “We’d recruit only certain people and we would tell them to not talk to other staffers about it,” Norman explained. “We’d let them know that Lori trusted them. It was a lot of people’s first job out of college, and we took advantage of that.”

A STAFFER WHO fits that profile is Thomas Olsen, who came forwardafter The Intercept’s story published on Monday. Olsen, who started as an analyst in the consumer services division immediately after graduating college in 2014, recalled the experience of being asked to volunteer on campaign events by an employee other than Norman, who still works at the attorney general’s office.

“It was just kind of uncomfortable, but it was also confusing because for many of us it’s our first professional job,” said Olsen, explaining it was hard to tell if these were unusual requests, given that they were still ostensibly voluntary. He said he once, during his first year, attended an after-work fundraising event at Mancini’s, a St. Paul steakhouse. “I was given very little instruction of what to do, and when I arrived, I basically just saw all my co-workers,” he told The Intercept. “I wasn’t working behind a booth or anything; it was clear I was just there to be a body.”

“It’s not like if you did campaign work, you’d automatically be promoted,” he added. “But they were so obviously correlated to everyone who worked there.”

Olsen left in April 2017 to work on a mayoral campaign. He now works for a grassroots political action committee that is not connected to specific candidates or parties.

LAWYERS AT THE attorney general’s office tried in 2008 to form a union, but were shut down by Swanson, who said staff lawyers were not covered by the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. At the time, the local press reported on staffers who said they were fired for their union activities.

Over the course of The Intercept’s reporting, several employees identified Norman as someone who assisted Swanson during the union push. When asked by The Intercept, Norman affirmed his role in helping his boss identify union supporters during the ultimately unsuccessful organizing effort. “Lori was against them and saw them as enemies, and I helped find them for her,” he said. “The saying was, ‘If they were close to retirement, then just leave them alone.’” Sometimes, Norman said, he and other Swanson allies would take staffers out to lunch to discourage them from unionization. Another time, he recalls going into employee offices at night and looking through their caller IDs to see who pro-union workers communicated with. “She asked us to do that, I was instructed with that,” he said.

When asked if Swanson ever gave this instruction to Norman and any other individual, Wogsland responded, “To my knowledge, the office telephones did not maintain call logs in 2007.”

Looking back, Norman feels terrible. It was a lot of “careers that got destroyed,” he said, referring to those who were fired for their union support.

Norman was clear that his proximity to Swanson and his political role produced significant professional benefits. “I got an office, I had a secretary,” he said, benefits that mid-level employees typically did not get. “I was reporting personally to Swanson over my supposed immediate supervisors.”

He said that his official workplace duties were mostly completed by his secretary. “As long as the critical stuff was done, it was just a free-for-all,” he said. He recalled receiving other bonuses: “I got sports tickets, Viking games. … I got advances numerous times in cash, anything I wanted.” When it came to vacation days or sick days, Norman said as a member of Swanson’s inner circle, he would sometimes take so-called under-the-table hours, where employees would take time off but the record would show they had been in the office.

Wogsland, the attorney general spokesperson, said his office “does not issue ‘cash advances’ to employees or purchase sports merchandise or tickets for employees or anyone else.”

After being promoted from a consumer analyst to a mediator in the downtown office, Norman was later promoted in 2013 to work at the executive suite office at the state Capitol. About a dozen other attorney general employees worked in that office, which carried reputational and financial prestige. “I think I was only put there so they could give me more money, and I would continue doing the same stuff,” he said. But this promotion moved him away from the downtown office staffers he needed to be actually recruiting. “So then I had two offices: one downtown, one at the capitol,” he said. Norman’s state payroll records from 2011 to 2014 show his salary increased from $40,900 to $62,300 over that span — a 50 percent jump — and that in 2013 he moved up two pay grades in state data.

While Norman saw his career flourish, he said, others were slowed professionally because they refused to engage in politics or their favored politicians were deemed unacceptable. “Lori wanted to know who did not want to help, who was not trustful. And she listened [to what we told her], and those people did not go far. They were always the last to get promoted out of the phone room.”

He said he attended the majority of Swanson’s fundraisers during his time working at the attorney general’s office. Norman said he didn’t explicitly ask people to donate at the fundraisers, but he would tell employees not to complain about the car mileage and occasional hotel expenses they incurred to attend Swanson’s political functions.

When it came to vetting employees politically, Norman said he and other trusted deputies would check their social media accounts for mentions of politicians that Swanson didn’t like, such as state Rep. Steve Simon, who led the call for legislative audits of Swanson’s office. In 2008, Simon presented allegations  to the Minnesota Legislative Auditor about the politicization of legal decision-making under Swanson and Hatch. (Simon, now Minnesota’s secretary of state, served as a representative from 2004 until 2013.)

“A red flag would be if someone would be a Steve Simon supporter,” Norman said. Sometimes the penalty was severe, he added: “We would fire people who said they’re ‘not political’ or supported the wrong people.”

Norman identified several employees who had been unwilling to volunteer. Salary records for those staffers show stagnant or even declining total compensation, corroborating this account. One employee, he said, had “been stuck answering the phones for 10 years” because they refused to participate in politics.

Even attending the wrong college could be a problem, according to Norman. In 2008, after 27-year-old Harvard law school graduate Amy Lawler voiced ethical concerns about Swanson’s office to the media, Norman said top Swanson deputies made a decision to avoid hiring Harvard graduates again, “because they didn’t need Lori.” The same decision was made about graduates of Macalester, a St. Paul college with a reputation for progressive politics. Norman said, “For whatever reason, those would always be the kids who say ‘Man, this is really not right.’”

THIS YEAR MARKS Swanson’s 11th year as attorney general, and she is one of the most powerful figures in the state’s Democratic establishment. How is it that the office culture she’s presided over has remained secret for so long?

“That’s a really good question,” Norman said, noting that speaking out “makes a lot of people scared.” He said that after people had seen several attempts to speak out fail spectacularly in 2008, they’d begun to believe Swanson was untouchable. Following Simon’s calls for closer scrutiny of the attorney general’s office, the legislative auditor considered launching a formal investigation, but ultimately decided not to do so after conducting a narrow, preliminary assessment.  “After personally seeing Lori get past a lot of threats of investigations and audits,” Norman said he started to assume that anyone who spoke up would fail to see Swanson face any consequences, and would themselves get ruined in the process. “It was kind of crazy, because they were all telling the truth,” he said of those who spoke to the media about ethical concernsand union busting a decade ago.

Swanson’s campaign did not respond to specific questions about attempts to quash the union effort, but her campaign spokesperson Ruth Stanoch previously told The Intercept that “the law simply does not allow for [unions] and as the chief legal officer of the state, the Attorney General must follow the law.” In 2008, in response to ethical concerns raised by some attorneys, Swanson’s then-spokesperson said it is impossible for an employer to respond to anonymous attacks from former employees or those who may be disgruntled.

The circumstances that led to Norman’s 2014 departure from the office led to a painful realization that his political benefactors were not interested in having his back, he said.

“They always told me I was family, that they would do anything for me,” he said. “It made me feel like the top of the world at the time, but then when I was having some personal troubles, they just wanted to wash their hands of me.”

Norman said Hatch wrote him a resignation letter that he refused to sign. The attorney general’s office ended up firing him, though with unemployment benefits. Norman said his close ties with the attorney general made this process complicated, and Hatch also helped get him his next job at Service Employees International Union. “Family is family,” Norman said.

But immediately after Norman left the attorney general’s office, he said, he slid into a deep depression. “The job, it was my life, I put in everything I had and was totally committed for almost a decade,” he said. “I’ve had to go through a lot of therapy, because I knew what I did was wrong but it was also really hard to leave and felt good they trusted me with so much.” Norman said he was from a broken home, and this was the first time in his life he felt like he had a family. But he said he grew to realize that his employers had taken advantage of that.

He expressed powerful guilt. “It’s on my conscience — I assisted with helping [Swanson and Hatch]do things to people who wanted to speak up, and wanted to speak the truth. Knowing that they were good people, that’s a lot. You’re talking almost nine years of me seeing these things daily, weekly.”

He thought that speaking out would also give him a chance to reach out to the people he said he hurt. He told The Intercept he regrets taking part, and hopes he can one day earn forgiveness.

It was his experience of being “thrown under the bus” in 2014, Norman said, that made him realize he needed to speak out now. After reading Swanson’s recent denials in the press, he felt more sure than ever that Swanson and Hatch would not have his back if and when his name publicly surfaced. The fast-approaching gubernatorial primary was also a factor in his coming forward.

Norman is under no illusions about whether speaking out could invite the wrath of his former political mentors, but he says he’s committed to the public learning the truth. “I am willing to speak under oath or take a lie detector test,” he said. “And I guarantee if others were forced to speak under oath, the truth would come out immediately.”

Minnesota Attorney General — Now Democratic Frontrunner for Governor — Relied on Government Employees for Campaign Work, They say

Originally published in The Intercept on August 6, 2018.
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Lori Swanson, Minnesota’s three-term attorney general and current candidate for governor, has presided over an office culture in which professional success is linked to the willingness of employees to participate in Swanson’s campaign work, eight former and current employees of the attorney general’s office told The Intercept.

Swanson, a moderate Democrat who was first elected in 2007, has kept a remarkably low profile throughout her 11 years in office, largely avoiding crowds and close media coverage. Just last month, Minnesota Public Radio described her as “an atypically private politician who runs a tightly-controlled office and makes few public appearances.” Unlike nearly all other politicians across the country, she maintains no personal or professional presence on Twitter or Facebook.

None of this is by accident, according to sources familiar with Swanson. Lawyers and other employees who have worked for her describe a highly politicized office in which burnishing Swanson’s image is a primary focus.

The lawyers and other staffers in the attorney general’s office interviewed for this article said they felt pressured to carry out tasks like stuffing envelopes for the benefit of the campaign and scheduling campaign events, sometimes during the work day. They said they felt their promotions and pay raises were based partly on participation in political campaigns. Attorneys reported foregoing basic legal work to instead correspond with constituents and defend the office’s and Swanson’s reputation in various public relations campaigns — work they said they felt was political. Multiple sources reported that these office dynamics began as early as Swanson’s first year in office and continued through this year.

It is not illegal for politicians to invite their employees to get involved with their campaigns. However, Minnesota law bars the use of “official authority or influence” to compel employees to engage in political activity.

Ruth Stanoch, a spokesperson for Swanson’s campaign, said the allegations are “categorically false” and that additional questions should be directed to the attorney general’s office. A spokesperson from that office, Benjamin Wogsland, told The Intercept that anyone who volunteers on a political campaign must do so own their own personal time, and that “the office does not consider an employee’s participation in the political process or lack thereof in determining raises and promotions.” He declined to answer specific follow-up questions unless The Intercept would name the employees we interviewed.

Former staff and legal observers are also calling attention to other elements of Swanson’s record. These include what was widely considered an aggressive union busting effort she conducted early in her first term. Also of note, they say, is a history of touting high-profile lawsuits against corporate defendants and the Trump administration — and then settling or exiting them quietly after the press had moved on.

Democrats are expected to maintain control of the governor’s mansion in the November election, and a recent poll showed Swanson with a narrow lead over her two more progressive primary opponents. But with the August 14 primary fast approaching, those who worked with her say they want Democratic voters to know more about the candidate for whom they’re being asked to cast a ballot.

SWANSON’S GUBERNATORIAL CAMPAIGN has prompted former and current employees to reveal what they say is political activity within her office. Most who spoke to The Intercept did so on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation by one of the most powerful Democrats in the state. They told The Intercept that, throughout Swanson’s tenure, they and other employees scheduled campaign events and stuffed envelopes while working in the attorney general’s office. They also said employees staffed campaign events during the business day and on the weekends. According to a source with detailed firsthand knowledge of these practices, not all employees were asked to participate, and those who did engage in campaign work were typically shuttled from the attorney general’s large office in downtown St. Paul to a much smaller executive suite at the state Capitol, to maintain discretion. Multiple sources said political work also took place in the downtown office, in the consumer services division, and in the Medicaid fraud unit, among other places. Sometimes, according to another source who left the downtown office this year, attorneys were asked to spend full days doing public relations work, researching information to rebut any negative news articles about the attorney general.

The current and former staffers described how Swanson’s inner circle would ask workers, including attorneys, to conduct political work for the attorney general. According to these sources, Swanson’s revolving network of allies included individuals from different levels of her office, with varying job titles, responsibilities, and qualifications. To induce participation, they emphasized that Swanson was a rising political star who would one day be governor, and therefore in control of thousands of appointments that she could give to her supporters. Sources described these supporters making these pitches one-on-one, often behind closed doors.

Five employees told The Intercept that they believed that advancement in the attorney general’s office was partly tied to participation in political events on Swanson’s behalf, though she never explicitly stated this. According to these accounts, supporting Swanson politically yielded professional rewards, including promotions and pay raises. One source described other benefits, such as tickets to sporting events. Two sources told The Intercept they were aware of political activity in the office but declined to participate, including, in one instance, after receiving a direct overture. They said they felt no pressure but speculated that this choice may have affected future promotions.

Publicly available state payroll databases showed seven employees identified to The Intercept as politically tied to Swanson receiving high salaries, and, sometimes, substantial raises in short periods. The salary of one employee described by three sources as an important Swanson supporter increased 127 percent in a recent six-year period. Another, who the Swanson campaign confirmed volunteered to help produce campaign materials, received a 130 percent salary increase in three years. Sources made clear that these seven individuals did not represent a complete list of Swanson’s political allies.

When asked whether those seven staffers’ compensation had any relation to their political activities, Wogsland, the office spokesperson, said they were all “highly-capable and talented individuals and valued members of our staff. Their pay raises and salaries are based exclusively on their talent, merit and responsibilities.” He added that their salaries were commensurate with those of their peers.

Since 2013, six of the seven identified staffers had made a combined 46 contributions to Swanson’s political campaigns, including $11,175 to her recently launched gubernatorial effort. State records show only one donation was made to any other Minnesota political campaign.

“If you wanted to be someone who went from being a low-level analyst answering phones to someone with an office and a secretary, you had to participate [in campaign events],” said one former staffer who worked closely with Swanson for years.

That employee’s account is substantially similar to the descriptions shared by current and former employees, most of them lawyers, who worked at the attorney general’s office during different periods, spanning from before Swanson’s first term in 2007 until today. Sources were reached independently of one another and worked in different divisions.

Linda McEwen, who worked at the state Capitol office as Swanson’s executive assistant from 2007 to 2009, said she directly witnessed employees engaged in political campaigning while there. McEwen was fired at the end of 2009, citing conflicts with Swanson over her mentor and former attorney general Mike Hatch’s role in office management. (She then went to work as the executive assistant to the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota, for the next six years.) McEwen told The Intercept that, during her tenure, she knew which employees were participating in campaign work, and she saw firsthand those individuals receive disproportionate promotions and pay raises.

“They’d recruit folks out of the consumer division, who were generally young and wanting to build their careers and connections in politics,” said McEwen, referring to staffers Swanson used to mobilize others. “I worked closely with Swanson, I was right across the hall from her office, and I would schedule these people to accompany her to campaign events.” McEwen thinks she herself was hired because she volunteered on Hatch’s gubernatorial campaign.

“There’s no question” that raises and promotions were tied to whether staffers were willing to work on campaign events, McEwen added. “I saw it directly, including for senior staff who were given raises beyond what other people were given because they were politically supportive and politically involved in her campaign,” she told The Intercept.

McEwen is now retired, and she said she’s in a place in her life where she feels she can speak out publicly. She said, “I always told myself that if she ever ran for governor I would come forward.”

Swanson spends unusually little on campaign staff. Her attorney general campaign committee, which has spent $660,000 since the beginning of 2014, does not report a single dollar of payroll or employee expense. In the current gubernatorial race, among the 10 candidates with the highest campaign expenditures, staff expenses account for about 25 percent of all campaign spending — an average of about $107,000 per candidate. Every one of those candidates reported significant staff costs — all, that is, except for Swanson, who again reported $0 in payroll or employee expense. This was despite spending nearly $470,000 overall, more than all but three other candidates. 

Asked if Swanson maintains separate campaign staff, Stanoch, her campaign spokesperson, responded that her previous attorney general campaigns had been “volunteer-driven.” She did not address the present gubernatorial campaign.

After seeking comment from the attorney general’s office about the activities described above, The Intercept also received a communication from a private attorney representing unnamed clients at the office. He stated that “to the extent any of these individuals ever participated in the democratic process, whether in support of the Attorney General or any other candidate or cause, it was done on their time and not paid for by the government.” He noted that government employees are free to use “extracurricular time, vacation hours, lunch hours, etc.” as they wish. He added that his clients “are highly-credentialed, hard-working professionals” whose salaries are “commensurate with other similarly situated employees.” The Intercept requested an interview with the employees through their lawyer but did not receive a response prior to publication.

SWANSON’S CAMPAIGN FOR governor has been brief, but dramatic. Up until early June, she was running for re-election as attorney general. But after failing to win the DFL endorsement at a statewide convention, she abandoned that bid and jumped into the governor’s race at the last minute. (She lost the attorney general endorsement to a relatively unknown progressive candidate after opting not to address the delegates.) Two progressive candidates for governor emerged at that same convention: Erin Murphy, a former Minnesota House majority leader running on single-payer health care who scored the party’s formal endorsement; and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who is considered another strong liberal challenger. Swanson’s late entry into the race – one day before the state’s filing deadline for candidates and after the endorsement convention had passed — meant that party delegates never had a chance to weigh in on her candidacy.

But if she had hoped to sneak through the primary with little public scrutiny, those hopes were dashed when news broke in July that her running-mate, Rep. Rick Nolan, rehired a former legislative director to work on his 2016 re-election campaign just months after a group of female staffers reported him for routine sexual harassment. A subsequent leaked recording revealed Nolan discussing the “fragility” of white-collar women.

Following these revelations, progressive and feminist groups immediately called on Swanson to drop Nolan as her lieutenant governor, but she made no public comment for over 24 hours. This prompted Minnesota residents to take to Twitter to discuss other moments when their attorney general was missing in action, getting the hashtag #WhereIsLori to trend locally on the website.

Eventually, Swanson issued a statement on the matter, in which she condemned sexual harassment while reiterating her support for Nolan, who had apologized. Her campaign also suggested the accusations against Nolan were part of an effort to politically advance her gubernatorial opponents, sparking a fresh round of public outrage.

Swanson’s trajectory through Minnesota politics has been defined by unusually close ties to Mike Hatch, Minnesota’s previous two-term attorney general and three-time candidate for governor.

The two have been a team for decades. Swanson’s first job out of college in 1989 was working as an analyst for the state commerce department, where Hatch was commissioner. Impressed by her work, Hatch encouraged her to attend law school, and afterward hired her at his private law firm. In 1998, when Hatch launched his bid for attorney general, Swanson helped run his campaign. By 1999, 32-year-old Swanson was named deputy attorney general.

Hatch dramatically changed the culture of Minnesota’s attorney general’s office, which had formerly been one of the most highly regarded in the country, according to reports from people who worked there. Employees who worked under Hatch described him as a “foul-mouthed screamer and a bully” where any second-guessing of an order “could lead to a sudden loss of status with the management, an unwanted transfer, or being called into a meeting and offered a choice between resignation or dismissal.”

When Hatch left to run for governor in 2006, and Swanson ran to replace him as attorney general, staffers thought that breaking up the duo might lead to improvements within the office. But when Hatch lost, and Swanson won, Swanson’s first official move was to rehire her mentor back. She placed Hatch in charge of all complex litigation.

The continuation of the Hatch-Swanson relationship demoralized an office that was hoping for a fresh start. In her first 18 months, more than 35 percent of the rank-and-file attorneys quit or were fired. Swanson described the turnover as “healthy” and insisted morale was fine. She added that some attorneys who left “were not good fits” because they were not willing to work hard enough. 

THE CULTURE OF fear that permeated the attorney general’s office under Hatch and Swanson prompted attorneys to launch a union drive in the spring of 2007. Employees reached out to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, a public-sector union that had backed Swanson during her campaign. When a majority of assistant attorneys general signed union cards and asked to meet with Swanson, she declined, saying her staff lawyers were not covered under the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. In response to a question from The Intercept, Wogsland cited two Minnesota statutes as evidence that employees working for the state attorney general can’t unionize. But the staff attorneys and AFSCME disputed the attorney general’s legal conclusions, countering that nothing in the law barred Swanson from meeting with a union representing her employees.

What followed was described by insiders as an ugly chapter of union busting. In 2008, three assistant attorneys general sent Swanson a letter on behalf of the organizing committee asking her to recognize “the will of the staff to be represented by a labor union.” The organizing cohort also asked Swanson to work with them to amend the Public Employee Labor Relations Act so that it would “unambiguously include” the 135 attorneys and other at-will professional staff working in her office. They pointed to the unionized attorneys in Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis counties, as well as the unionized city attorneys in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They got no response and published their letter online.

According to local reports at the time, Swanson then circulated a staff memo that called the online letter “a political swipe” and charged the authors with bringing “embarrassment to this Office.” Swanson later accused AFSCME of ginning up fake turmoil in order to advance its agenda, and insisted, again, that her staff’s morale was good. Employees later said they were asked to sign petitions pledging loyalty to Swanson and disavowing the union effort. One employee who spoke to The Intercept said they were asked to sign such a letter.

Some staffers said they were fired for their union activities, the local news outlet Pioneer Press reported in 2007. One pro-union attorney was fired less than a month after being given a raise and a letter of commendation. When the employee asked why she was being dismissed, she was told “it was office policy not to give a reason why,” and was escorted out.

Swanson denied these accusations at the time. In interviews with The Intercept, staff close to Swanson recalled the attorney general seeking out intel on those who supported the union effort and then later terminating them without explanation. Swanson’s campaign did not directly respond to the union-busting allegation, but said, “the law simply does not allow for [unions] and as the chief legal officer of the state, the Attorney General must follow the law.”

Hatch, Swanson’s mentor at the time, at the time issued a statement disavowing any sort of union at the attorney general’s office. “The state must speak with one voice on legal matters,” he said. “A union is simply not compatible with the constitutional and fiduciary relationship of trust and confidence owed to the Attorney General.” Hatch dismissed the employees who spoke to reporters as “disgruntled” and “mud throwers.”

The union effort died.

SWANSON IS RUNNING for governor as a “proven progressive,” but former employees at the attorney general’s office said she complained privately about the modern Democratic Party moving too far left.

Sources who worked close to Swanson described an aversion to public appearances or statements that might suggest a too-liberal political affiliation. This included, they say, a reluctance to appear at political events in Minneapolis or St. Paul, out of concern that it would associate her with the cities’ progressive urban politics. Despite Minnesota legalizing gay marriage in 2013, Swanson notably did not join the more than a dozen other Democratic attorneys general in signing briefs supporting marriage equality the following year, and she declined to explain why. (Swanson ultimately declared her office’s support in 2015, two months before the Supreme Court made it the law of the land.)

Instead, her political image is maintained through a heavy focus on constituent services. Former lawyers told The Intercept that they spent substantial amounts of time authoring personalized responses to non-pressing constituent questions and complaints, particularly from rural parts of the state. Some lawyers said they felt this was a frustrating political exercise that furthered Swanson’s political goals while diverting work hours from the office’s core legal duties. This has been a longstanding concern. In 2009, the Minnesota Monthly quoted a former assistant attorney general who quit under Swanson saying, “If a lawyer is working on a $200 million case and is being told to write letters to people complaining about coupons misrepresenting the price of melons at Cub Foods, you begin to wonder if their time is being used wisely.”

Wogsland, the office’s spokesperson, defended this work. “We are extremely proud that we make it a priority to help people in need,” he told The Intercept. “Doing so enhances, not diminishes, the legal work of the office. There have unfortunately been some attorneys employed in the office over the years who believed they were too important to interact with the public.”

That’s not to say that the office of the attorney general steers clear of political lawsuits. Indeed, in the age of Donald Trump, Democratic attorneys general have honed the legal playbook advanced by Republican attorneys general under Barack Obama, filing case after case challenging the Trump administration’s policies.

But while Swanson’s campaign has strongly touted the role she’s played in the resistance, some political observers say she has been unusually slow to sue the federal government compared to her Democratic counterparts around the country. Since January 2017, Paul Nolette, a Marquette University political scientist, has tracked the number of lawsuits filed by Democratic attorneys general against the administration. With 15 such suits, “Swanson is near the bottom of the list, well behind small offices like Vermont and D.C.” which have filed 29 and 27 cases, respectively, Nolette told The Intercept. She “has also largely deferred taking the lead on multistate litigation,” Nolette added, noting that she has the power and legal authority to do so. “She has taken a different path than her predecessor a few years ago, Skip Humphrey, who was one of the most active [attorneys general] nationally during his time in office,” he said.

Minnesota legal observers have also criticized Swanson for filing big lawsuits, including against the Trump administration, that generate favorable press coverage, but that quickly flounder or settle once reporters have moved on.

“There was a relentless focus on media attention, getting the headline,” said Prentiss Cox, a longtime employee in the Minnesota attorney general’s office who now works as a consumer law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Cox worked under Swanson when she was deputy attorney general, eventually leaving the office to teach law. After her 2006 election, she picked him to head an influential predatory lending task force. “If it wasn’t a headline, it wasn’t important,” he said.

Locals point to the Trump travel ban lawsuit brought by Washington state in February of last year, which Minnesota jumped quickly into as a plaintiff. Together, they won a temporary injunction, earning the state a slew of positive press. But six weeks later, Swanson quietly withdrew from the lawsuit.

“She’s never explained it,” said Kara Lynum, an immigration attorney in St. Paul. “We joined the Washington case and dropped out, and then she could have signed onto the Hawaii lawsuit which went to the Supreme Court, but she didn’t do that either,” Lynum added, referring to a second nationwide lawsuit against the travel ban.

Wogsland, the spokesperson for Swanson’s office, said “it made sense for Minnesota to monitor the litigation that moved forward (Hawaii) and be in a position to file an ‘as-applied’ challenge in the event that the order unconstitutionally applied to the people in the State of Minnesota.” He said Minnesota remains positioned to file such a challenge “if necessary and supported by the facts and the law.”  (In June, the Supreme Court ruled against Hawaii, upholding the ban.)

As she runs for governor, Swanson has been also pointing to consumer protection victories, including lawsuits she filed against an arbitration firmfor-profit colleges, and pharmaceutical companies.

One example her campaign has pointed to is Swanson’s 2012 lawsuit against Accretive Health, a voracious hospital debt collector that has since changed its name to R1 RCM.

After launching an investigation, Swanson’s office published a jaw-dropping six-volume report into Accretive’s practices in one Minnesota hospital system. The attorney general’s office prominently publicized the report online, an archived version of the website reveals. It detailed practices like patient bedside debt collection and mandatory meetings for emergency room personnel to learn that “their primary mission [was] the collection of money as opposed to the well-being of the patient.” The report described the hospitals coordinating with the firm to identify the easiest targets for increased collections. For example, one manager noted, “We need to get cracking on labor and delivery, there is a good chunk to be collected there.” Accretive ultimately negotiated a contract with the hospital system that delivered over $100 million annually to the collection firm.

Minnesota ultimately settled the case for $2.5 million and an agreementthat the company would delete Minnesota health data and not return to the state for up to six years, a moratorium that ends this November. An independent financial analyst noted at the time that the penalty had little financial impact on the company, which ended the quarter with a cash-balance of $214.5 million. The dramatic report, a copy of which has been independently obtained by The Intercept, is no longer available on the attorney general’s website, nor are other mentions of the case or its settlement. (Wogsland, the office spokesperson, said it’s been taken down because “the website contains information about current and recent cases and the Accretive matter is 6 years old.”)

Nevertheless, Swanson’s gubernatorial campaign has been presenting this Accretive episode as a reason to vote for her. Swanson referenced the Accretive investigation in her first TV ad, and Stanoch, the campaign spokesperson, told The Intercept that the attorney general “threw a Wall Street-owned corporation out of Minnesota for hounding patients for money while they were suffering medical emergencies in the hospital.”

Cox, the consumer law professor and former assistant attorney general, told The Intercept that he wouldn’t have spoken up about Swanson’s record four years ago, but that he feels compelled to do so in today’s political environment. He said, “It’s really important that we elect people who fundamentally care and support the public institutions that are under attack.”