Correction to This Article
An earlier edition of this story incorrectly stated that ACORN advisers posed as a prostitute and a pimp. In fact, two conservatives who posed as a pimp and a prostitute sought tax tips from ACORN advisers.

Groves brings scholarly depth to bear in leading census, winning over critics

Bob Groves brings an academic background in statistics and surveys to overseeing the Census Bureau.
Bob Groves brings an academic background in statistics and surveys to overseeing the Census Bureau. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When Bob Groves was asked by President Obama to undertake the mammoth job of leading the 2010 Census, Groves paused.

He was happy heading the University of Michigan's prestigious Survey Research Center, which documents the attitudes and behavior of Americans from childhood through retirement. Ann Arbor had been his home base since graduate school four decades earlier, shaping him into a world-renowned statistician. If he became director of the Census Bureau, he would have to abandon four students he was advising. And he wouldn't have time to ride his beloved red BMW sports touring bike.

A scientist at heart, Groves understood the political perils of the job: He would be second-guessed and lambasted for the cost, questions and methodology used to count 309 million Americans. He had been in the line of fire before, as an associate census director in the 1990s.

But he also knew that the census is a foundation of American democracy, a once-every-10-years effort used to determine congressional seats and how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid is distributed.

Colleagues and family members said he told them, somewhat mournfully, that this was his moment to contribute. "It was payback time for me," Groves said of his decision to accept the job.

Since the nation's first census in 1790, the count has been directed by politicians, academics, businessmen, civil servants and journalists. But never has it been run by someone like Groves, who worked one summer as a prison guard and studied the Portuguese revolution of 1910 before becoming steeped in the minutiae of survey-taking.

On Capitol Hill, his appointment was greeted with suspicion by some Republicans, including Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), who said Groves will usher in "the political manipulation of census data for partisan gain."

But in his 10 months on the job, Groves, 61, has managed to disarm congressional detractors, largely by listening to their criticisms and, in some cases, making changes. Now, McHenry said, he is impressed by Groves's performance: "I believe he's shown significant success in his first year, getting the bureau on the right track."

Complaints about cost

Groves has deflected several controversies. He severed a partnership with the liberal community organizing group ACORN soon after a video surfaced in which ACORN advisers gave tax tips to conservative activists posing as a prostitute and pimp. He offered an apology for "Negro" being included as an alternative to black or African American on the census question about race and said it probably won't be in the next census.

But complaints about the $14.7 billion cost of the census persist. Several congressmen have questioned a $2.5 million ad that aired during the Super Bowl as part of a $340 million marketing campaign. And Groves was bombarded with e-mails asking why the census spent so much money to mail notices that the forms were coming and, later, postcards that the forms had been mailed. Groves said it will save money in the long run if more people respond because of it.

Although many decisions on the census were cemented long before Groves arrived, his success will be measured in part by how many Americans return the forms. Seventy-two percent mailed in the 2000 Census. As of Tuesday, 50 percent had returned the 2010 Census.

Groves has crisscrossed the country, encouraging people to return their census questionnaires by census day, Thursday. He has ridden an Alaskan dog sled, taken a spin in a NASCAR pace car and posed with Dora the Explorer. On most mornings, he takes the Metro from the downtown apartment he shares with his wife, Cynthia, to the bureau's Suitland headquarters, arriving in time to preside over an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting with senior staff members.

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