The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eric Holder’s ‘opposition’ to gerrymandered districts in N.Y. and Md.

(Seth Wenig/AP)
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“I indicated my opposition to what had happened, with [what] the legislature did in Maryland. I agreed with the judge in [what] he did there. In New York, what I’ve said is that those are not the maps I would have drawn in New York.”

— Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” May 8

The partisan makeup of the next Congress is being shaped by fights over the congressional lines being redrawn in every state. Holder’s group has filed suit against Republican efforts to draw maps that it says are gerrymandered to build safe Republican seats and wipe away Democratic gains in population in key states.

But both parties can play this game. CBS’s Margaret Brennan asked Holder about reporting that had aired before his interview about gerrymandered maps in New York and Maryland — states controlled by Democrats — that were thrown out by the courts. She noted that Holder had not filed suit in those states: “Do you have a problem with what happened there?”

Holder responded he “indicated my opposition” to the map drawn by Maryland’s legislature and that he would not have drawn the maps in New York. He added: “I think you can’t compare, however, what happened in New York and Maryland to what is going on in Texas, Georgia, potentially Florida, Wisconsin — where Republicans have really gone to town in terms of gerrymandering, fundamentally different from what Democrats have done.”

Notice how Holder’s language is passive and carefully parsed when talking about Democratic maps — and forceful when talking about GOP maps?

Let’s examine what Holder has said and done about those maps.

The Facts

During the redistricting process, Holder has aggressively criticized maps drawn in states controlled by Republicans. For instance:

  • “The Republican led Texas State House voted for the passage of an aggressively gerrymandered House map, further solidifying their goal to eliminate competitive seats and double down on their rigged maps from ten years ago.” (Oct. 13.)
  • “North Carolinians made it clear at the start of the redistricting process that they wanted to end partisan gerrymandering. Instead of listening to the people, Republican legislators did the opposite today by passing maps that are heavily manipulated in favor of their party and that will deny real political power to the most populous and diverse areas of the state.” (Nov. 4)
  • “Republicans in the General Assembly have rushed state legislative maps through a closed-off, opaque redistricting process and failed in their duty to lead and serve Georgians.” (Nov. 16)

But when the New York and Maryland maps were drafted, Holder was silent. In Maryland, where Democrats hold seven of eight House seats, the lone Republican seat was nearly wiped out, even though Republican candidates won more than a third of the votes. In New York, where Democrats hold 19 seats and Republicans eight, the map would have given Democrats 22 out of 26 seats. (New York is losing one seat in redistricting.)

After courts rejected the maps and ordered new maps drawn, Holder issued these statements, which suggested the new maps in these states should be largely like the old ones.

  • Maryland, March 25: “The judge is right and the legislature is not wrong. An adherence to fairness and democracy principles may result in a map not significantly different than the one initially drawn. The principles outlined by Judge Battaglia are sound. I hope the Maryland legislature will follow them in the court mandated redraw. And those Republicans who support the court in Maryland should also support the application of these principles across the nation — in states like Texas, Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida.”
  • New York, April 29: “A fair map is one that follows the Census data and accurately reflects the way a state’s population has shifted in the previous decade. In New York that meant a population shift away from rural areas and into urban and suburban areas, and an overall increase in the number of people of color throughout the state. While a new map may look different than the one drawn by the legislature, it should still continue to reflect this truth from the Census data. It is also worth remembering that all maps submitted in the process, from the commission maps to the legislature’s map, increased the number of seats winnable for Democrats — because that is what is consistent with the data.”

Both statements make a point that Harrell Kirstein, a NDRC spokesman, emphasized in an interview: Census data indicated a shift in population toward urban and suburban areas and with people of color. So he argued the New York and Maryland maps at least shift the new lines in that direction, in contrast to states where the group has argued minority population growth was not reflected in the maps. The Justice Department has filed suit in Texas, saying the new district lines diminished the voting strength of people of color.

In a conference call with reporters on Feb. 10, before the New York State Court of Appeals rejected the state’s map, Holder did indicate some slight discomfort with it, especially its lack of competitive seats. “Now, you know, I might have done the map a little differently, you know? And I could say that about maybe all of the maps,” he said, according to an audio recording. “Even those ones that I think would’ve done pretty fairly. I’d like to see more competitive districts.”

He then added a dig at GOP redistricting efforts, arguing the New York map nonetheless was better than Republican states: “So I think that what happened in New York, you know, as I said there might have been things I would have done differently, but that map is far more defensible than what Republicans did in Texas, what they tried to do in North Carolina, what they tried to do in Georgia.”

Regarding Maryland, Kirstein said that Holder was not claiming on “Face the Nation” that he opposed the map before a Maryland judge threw out the map in a ruling that called it an “extreme gerrymander.” Instead he said Holder’s comment should be understood as one thought — that he agreed with the judge. Kirsten also pointed to an interview that Holder gave on the Joe Madison radio show on March 30.

“I thought the judge was right, and that the legislature was not necessarily wrong,” Holder said. “And what I meant by that was that I can understand what the judge said there and was concerned about what Democrats had done in Maryland. The legislature followed the Census Bureau data but not as closely as it should have. We’ve seen increases in the number of African Americans in Maryland, an increase in the Hispanic population, an increase in the concentration of the urban population. But the Democrats went too far and the maps they drew were not maps that I would have drawn. I think the court ultimately was right and I think now the Democrats should go back and look at what the judge has said and redraw the maps.”

The Pinocchio Test

Holder is a skilled practitioner of the Sunday news shows. An ordinary listener might have gotten the impression that Holder was not a fan of the gerrymandered New York and Maryland maps. But he certainly did not object to them with the fervor that he did Republican maps — and apparently would not have minded if they had passed muster with the courts.

Before the New York State Court of Appeals rejected the map, Holder had told reporters he “might have done the map a little differently,” primarily to craft more competitive districts. The comment is roughly consistent with what he said on “Face the Nation” — though he also told reporters the New York map was “defensible.”

In Maryland, Holder said he “indicated my opposition” to what the legislation did and agreed with the judge. But his statement after the ruling actually did not indicate opposition to the legislative action: “The judge is right and the legislature is not wrong.” In an interview, he had said: “I thought the judge was right, and that the legislature was not necessarily wrong,” though he later added that the “Democrats went too far.”

Even when the maps were rejected, he suggested the new maps should be similar. That’s a strange way of showing opposition. Holder earns Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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