Eric Holder Is Tired of Being Polite

eric holder

Eric Holder is still getting used to letting loose.

 He says firing Robert Mueller “would raise the possibility of impeachment” for President Donald Trump, and that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is both “racially insensitive” and “racially unaware.”

But when I spoke with Holder 10 days out from the 2017 election, the most important thing the former attorney general thought he could do was to remind the mostly African-American parishioners at Rising Mount Zion, a Baptist church in Virginia’s sleepy capital, about last Nov. 9, “when we woke up to the orange man.”

The former attorney general is still finding his voice as a Trump critic. And his new mission as the leader of Democratic redistricting efforts is taking him into unfamiliar territory.

He was pushing the congregation to get out and vote, to get everyone they know to go out and vote, and make sure Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam wins Tuesday’s governor’s race against Republican Ed Gillespie.

Holder’s a Democrat, but it wasn’t Northam’s tax plans or social views or life story that brought him there. It was the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the Obama-backed group he chairs, which decided months ago that the most important way this year to shape the future of gerrymandering was ensuring a Democrat is in the Virginia governor’s mansion when the next set of House and state legislative maps get drawn after the 2020 Census.

The $1.2 million the NDRC has put behind Northam, some direct to his campaign and some through its own digital ad program, is nothing compared with the group’s plan for 2018: a goal of raising over $30 million, to be deployed largely into governors races—with a focus on large states where substantially shifting the legislature is out of reach, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Where recapturing the statehouse is within reach, or where there’s a chance to bust up a GOP supermajority—as in Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada and North Carolina—they will back and help direct Democrats’ efforts.

For a career prosecutor with little experience in campaign politics, it’s a surprisingly hard-nosed strategy: The plan is to clock some wins in 2018, so that for the 2020 cycle they’ll have both more big donors and more beachheads for wider efforts in statehouses, with the boost of a presidential cycle. And then, maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to start digging themselves out of the hole Republicans have left them in from years of investing in down-ballot races and outmaneuvering them in gerrymandering. For those who doubt all this redistricting stuff really matters, NDRC staffers point out that four of the nine House seats that Democrats flipped in 2016 were in Virginia and Florida, following litigation that changed the maps.

That will keep Holder out on the trail, continuing his own years-long transformation from buttoned-down lawman to political elbow-thrower, with the slight stiltedness that comes from not being at all used to this campaign business.

“You don’t do politics when you’re attorney general, but as a private citizen and as a defender of the Obama legacy, I’m free to say what I want and to say it in the way that I’d like to,” Holder told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast, conducted in a conference room at Rising Mount Zion after he was done revving up the congregation. “I think what I’m doing now is really a continuation of that which I did as attorney general, speaking out for a more fair, a more just, a more equal America, talking about protecting voting rights, talking about criminal justice reform.”

Holder has always had a radical streak, going back to his days as a Malcolm X admirer at Columbia University. Still, he allows, it’s a measure of the Trumpification of politics that a cautious former attorney general is calling the president the “orange man.”

“I probably would not have done that while I was attorney general. I didn’t have an orange man who I was serving under, but, I mean, I would not have said that about a former president, for instance, while I was attorney general,” Holder said. “But now, I’m just a citizen and I’ve got the full range of my voice back.”

Holder spent years at the Department of Justice, and his old life still holds him back sometimes. He says it’s considering how his opinion would be heard as the former top law enforcement official in the country that stopped him, and the NDRC as a group, from submitting an amicus brief for the challenge to partisan gerrymandering that was before the Supreme Court in October—though he agrees with the challenge, and thinks that Chief Justice John Roberts was making a mistake in oral arguments by suggesting that overturning the current system would politicize the courts.

“With all due respect to the chief justice, if you decide this case against the plaintiffs, you’re making a political statement there,” Holder said.

The plaintiffs in that case, a challenge to the Wisconsin gerrymandering maps, are supported by good government groups, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and three dozen Republican and Democratic members of Congress who signed an amicus brief on the subject. But some involved with the NDRC had doubts whether it was the best case to bring to the justices.

The Supreme Court’s decision could come at anytime between now and the end of the term in June. Meanwhile, by the first quarter of next year, the NDRC plans to officially outline its priorities in statewide and statehouse races, as well as ballot initiatives, in what’s meant to be a seal of approval for other groups to direct their own money and attention. The group makes no secret about favoring electing Democrats as a way to tilt the maps back in their favor, so they’ll also be steering allies away from efforts that don’t help Democrats, like a proposed 2018 Colorado ballot initiative that would strengthen the voice of unaffiliated voters in redistricting.

The NDRC has kept its operation to just seven employees, outsourcing most of its research and other work—“what we are is the first-ever strategic hub for a comprehensive redistricting,” explained NDRC Executive Director Kelly Ward. “We don’t have to, nor should we, rebuild infrastructure.”

So far, a majority of NDRC money and attention is going to legal challenges, and though the group is currently hiring a litigation director, most of the work is being handled by well-known Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias. Already this year, they’ve been pursuing cases in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, and expect that this will be an even bigger part of their role in off years ahead, and in challenging maps drawn in states where they don’t do well in elections.

Taken all together, some top Democratic operatives have been left wondering whether the NDRC will amount to much more than yet another bank account to pass money through. Ward doesn’t exactly push back on this, but points to the three Nevada state Senate seats that the NDRC has put $50,000 into as an example of how a redistricting-minded approach can make a major difference in local races.

And though Barack Obama has repeatedly said the NDRC would be his political activity of his post-presidency, Holder said that he didn’t get any specific commitments when he agreed to chair the group. Though the Obama campaign-born group Organizing for Action has now partnered with the NDRC and Obama himself did one fundraiser in Washington over the summer, people familiar with his plans don’t expect him to do much more for the group in 2018. There will likely be some more fundraising, but it’s not as if he’s going to start endorsing Assembly candidates across the country.

Holder says he’s not concerned. He and Obama are friends in addition to colleagues, and the former attorney general says they don’t need to talk specifics. Much goes unsaid between them.

Some of that, he says, is Obama’s reaction to Trump.

“He’s a little more reticent, I think, than me to get out there publicly and say the things that I’ve said, but I think he probably feels them,” Holder said. “I get angry, I get disheartened, but it also gives me a sense of determination, that I’m not going to crawl up in the fetal position and simply cry.”

At Rising Mount Zion, another church that morning and a GOTV rally held in the small garage of a local brewery, Holder invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, who’s now been consulting on their legal challenge in Georgia and joined a NDRC check-in meeting Holder had with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in early October.

“Debts have to be repaid,” Holder told the first church. “We need to send Donald Trump a message. … You’re telling Donald Trump that’s not the America I want. We want the America of Barack Obama.”

He said he was exhausted by the president. Sounding like Obama, Holder talked about making sure “Pootie” and “Ray Ray” got off the couch to vote. He noted that they needed big margins because “voting machines get lost.”

He said Trump’s America can feel like it’s not the same country that elected his friend in 2008.

Afterward, I asked him if that’s how he feels.

“The election of Barack Obama did not magically transform us as a people and eradicate bigotry, eradicate neo-Nazis and, you know, white nationalists. They were still there, but they didn’t feel empowered in the way that I think they do now,” Holder said. “Is this a different America? I think we’re going to know on the basis of the election we see here in Virginia in 2017, what happens in the midterms in 2018, and ultimately, what happens in 2020.”

Edward-Isaac Dovere
Politico

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