Politics

Morning Digest: Court blocks Alabama House map, ruling Black voters are entitled to a second seat

While the high court’s far-right majority has sought to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act at every turn, it bears noting that this decision was authored by two judges appointed by Donald Trump and one originally named to the bench by Ronald Reagan.

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In their 217-page decision that adjudicated claims in three related cases, that trio of judges concluded that plaintiffs were “substantially likely” to satisfy the test used by the Supreme Court to determine when, under Section Two of the VRA, a redistricting plan “provides ‘less opportunity’ for racial minorities … ‘to elect representatives of their choice'” compared to white voters.

Central to plaintiffs’ argument is the fact that Black Alabamians make up about 27% of the state but are only able to elect the candidate of their choice (generally speaking, a Black Democrat) in one of the state’s seven districts, or just 14%. Conversely, whites comprise 63% of Alabama’s population yet 86% of districts are majority-white. And even with a second Black-majority district, whites would still be over-represented, since 71% of districts would still be home to a white majority.

Proportionality is only one part of the inquiry, though, and Section Two in fact specifies that there’s no right to representation for members of racial minorities in equal proportion to their population. But plaintiffs were also able to show that they were likely to demonstrate the other factors necessary to achieve their ends.

In particular, two of their experts, both of whom the court termed “highly credible,” drew multiple illustrative maps to demonstrate that Alabama’s Black population is “sufficiently geographically compact” to allow the creation of a second “reasonably configured” district with a voting-age Black majority.

While there are countless ways to draw such a seat, the expert plans focused on uniting the state’s “Black Belt,” a predominantly African American string of poor rural counties that run across the lower tier of the state; under the GOP’s now-blocked map, they were split between three districts. (The region originally earned its name from its dark, rich topsoil, which inspired white slave owners to build cotton plantations there, in turn leading to its large Black population.)

Section Two also requires challengers to show that voting is racially polarized, meaning that Black voters tend to support the same candidate while whites typically vote as bloc to defeat Black voters’ preferred choice. The court ruled that this question was “not genuinely in dispute” but nonetheless devoted many pages to demonstrating the truth of it. The judges specifically took note of the conclusion of a third plaintiff’s expert that, in recent races pitting a Black candidate versus a white one, “Black support for the Black-preferred candidate always exceeded 90% and white support for the Black-preferred candidate never exceeded 12.6%.”

Finally, said the court, Black Alabamians have less “opportunity to elect” their preferred candidates when considering the “totality of the circumstances”—an inquiry that led the judges to consider the state’s “well-documented, pervasive, and sordid history of racial discrimination,” in the words of still another expert for the plaintiffs. The court extensively recapped this sad past—which isn’t even past—from the violent terror whites deployed to disenfranchise Blacks during reconstruction to legislative efforts to suppress Black voting power all the way up to the present day.

To remedy this violation of the Voting Rights Act, the court ordered lawmakers to draw two districts where Black voters either make up a majority or “have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice”—meaning that a sufficient number of white voters are likely to “cross over” to support Black voters’ preferred candidate. Given Alabama’s racial polarization, however, such crossover voting is likely to be limited at best, prompting the judges to advise the legislature that “any remedial plan will need to include two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”

Redistricting

Stay on top of the map-making process in all 50 states by bookmarking our invaluable redistricting timeline tracker, updated daily.

KS Redistricting: A committee in Kansas’ Republican-run House advanced a congressional map previously passed by the state Senate in a party-line vote on Monday. The plan would target Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids by splitting the Kansas City area in order to make her 3rd District redder, taking it from a 54-44 win for Joe Biden to a 51-47 Biden margin instead. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has expressed opposition to dividing the Kansas City region but has not yet said whether she’d veto the map. If she does, Republicans have the two-thirds majorities necessary to override her, but only if they can avoid defections.

MO Redistricting: The bipartisan commission handling redistricting for Missouri’s state House has reached a unanimous compromise on a new map, despite a party-line split last month that prompted it to release two separate plans. A similar commission in charge of redrawing the state Senate’s districts, however, failed to produce any maps at all in December and missed a final deadline earlier this week to agree on a single proposal. As a result, its duties will now be taken up by panel of six appellate judges to be chosen by the state Supreme Court.

NY Redistricting: As expected, a final Tuesday deadline for New York’s bipartisan redistricting commission to approve new congressional and legislative maps has come and gone without any agreement being reached, officially handing the task of crafting new districts to the Democratic-run legislature. Thanks to their two-thirds supermajorities, Democrats will be able to draw lines to their own political benefit.

PA Redistricting: Pennsylvania’s Republican-run state Senate passed a new congressional map on a party-line vote on Monday, following similar action earlier this month by their counterparts in the state House, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to veto the plan. As a result, redistricting is all but certain to be handled by the state courts, where litigation is already pending.

TN Redistricting: Both chambers of Tennessee’s Republican-run legislature have now passed the GOP’s new congressional redistricting plan, which chops up the city of Nashville—previously kept whole in a single district—between three separate seats. While Republican Gov. Bill Lee has yet to sign the map, the gerrymandering has already had its intended effect, as veteran Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper immediately announced his retirement following the map’s approval. See our TN-05 item below for the complete fallout.

Senate

CT-Sen, CT-Gov: Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal is far from a top-tier Republican target in dark blue Connecticut, but CT Insider’s Dan Haar reports that Republican fundraiser Leora Levy, who served as Donald Trump’s ambassador to Chile, is considering taking him on. Levy sought the GOP nod last year in a special election for a state Senate seat, but the party’s nominating convention selected another candidate.

One name we hadn’t previously heard in connection to this race was former state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who has been eyeing a bid against Gov. Ned Lamont for some time, but former state Sen. John McKinney touted her as a possible Blumenthal opponent on Sunday. There’s no word if Klarides, who would be in for a difficult gubernatorial primary against 2018 nominee Bob Stefanowski, is at all interested in taking on the senator, though Haar writes she “declined to comment on a possible run for U.S. Senate.” 

Governors

IL-Gov: Two Republicans looking to unseat Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin and venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan, are going up with TV ads well ahead of the June primary.

Irvin’s opening commercial commends him for having “called in” the National Guard to stop a “riotous mob” in 2020, a claim he’s made before. As WCIA noted last week, though, it was Pritzker, the man Irvin is hoping to beat, who deployed the Guard to Aurora and other communities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder; a state National Guard spokesperson also confirmed that, while mayors may make this request of the governor, they don’t have the authority to call the Guard in.

AdImpact says that Irvin is spending almost $500,000 on this opening buy, something he can afford to do after raising $1.1 million from several wealthy donors. Conservative megadonor Ken Griffin hasn’t yet written him a check, though this will probably change before long.

Sullivan, meanwhile, uses his spot to echo Donald Trump and blame Pritzker for crime in Chicago, which was a perennial issue in city politics long before Pritzker was elected. After touting his service in Afghanistan as a civilian intelligence analyst, the candidate declares, “Pritzker’s leftist agenda is literally killing us, turning parts of Illinois into a war zone.” AdImpact reports that the commercial is part of a $960,000 buy.

MN-Gov: Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has acknowledged he’s interested in seeking the Republican nomination, though he’s denied that he’s made up his mind yet.

OH-Gov: Former Rep. Jim Renacci has released a Fabrizio, Lee & Associates internal that shows him defeating Gov. Mike DeWine 46-38 in the May Republican primary, which would be a huge upset in a race that has been largely overshadowed by Team Red’s wide-open and already very expensive Senate nomination fight. As Politico notes, though, the memo did not include numbers for DeWine’s other intra-party foe, farmer Joe Blystone. This is the first poll we’ve seen of the GOP’s gubernatorial primary in the better part of a year.

House

CA-09: Politico reports that former Trump aide Steven Cheung is considering running against Democratic Rep. Josh Harder, who is seeking re-election in a Stockton-based seat that would have favored Joe Biden 55-43. Cheung, writes Politico, “would likely earn a Trump endorsement, but it’s unclear whether that would actually boost his chances.”

GA-07: Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux has earned an endorsement from Sam Nunn, who represented Georgia in the Senate from 1972 to 1997, in her May Democratic primary showdown with fellow incumbent Lucy McBath.

IL-01: Nonprofit head Jonathan Swain, who is a former chairman of the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals, has filed with the FEC for a potential bid to succeed his fellow Democrat, retiring Rep. Bobby Rush.

IN-09: Howey Politics reports that former Rep. Mike Sodrel, a Republican who served one term in a previous version of this seat from 2005 to 2007, has filed to run again.

RI-02: An aide to Providence City Council President John Igliozzi has acknowledged that he’s interested in entering the Democratic primary for this open seat, while Democratic state Rep. Joseph Solomon has also acknowledged he’s thinking about competing here.

TN-05: Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper announced Tuesday that he would retire, a declaration that came one day after Tennessee’s Republican legislature passed a new gerrymander designed to turn his 5th Congressional District red. Cooper’s existing seat, which includes all of Nashville, backed Joe Biden 60-37; however, by splitting the city between the 5th, 6th, and 7th Districts, the GOP has created a new 5th that would have favored Donald Trump 54-43.

A few Republicans already started to express interest in running in the August primary for the revamped 5th District, which now includes several dark red areas near Nashville, even before Cooper made his decision public, though one person already has a head start. Music video producer Robby Starbuck launched his campaign back in June without much fanfare and ended September with $100,000 on-hand. Starbuck also attracted some attention last month when North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn brought him onto the House floor, a move that likely violated the chamber’s rules; an unnamed source told The Hill at the time that the far-right congressman lied to security and claimed that Starbuck was one of his staffers.

Three more Republicans also told Axios last week that they were considering: former state House Speaker Beth Harwell, who took fourth in the 2018 primary for governor; Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles; and attorney Kurt Winstead, who is a retired brigadier general in the Tennessee National Guard.

On the Democratic side, community activist Odessa Kelly entered the primary against Cooper back in April and sounds like she plans to continue her campaign: Kelly tweeted Tuesday, “[P]eople-powered movements in this state have been building power for years and no map is going to slow us down.” The candidate filing deadline is in early April.

The departure of Cooper, who has been one of the most prominent moderate Democrats for some time, ends a decades-long career that included two stints in the House representing two very different constituencies. Cooper grew up in a long-established political family: His grandfather was a former state House speaker while his father, Prentice Cooper, served as governor from 1939 to 1945. (The future congressman was born nearly a decade later.)

The younger Cooper worked as an attorney before he sought elected office in 1982 campaigning for the sprawling 4th District, which included rural communities to the south and east of Nashville. He decisively won the primary before beating Republican Cissy Baker, the daughter of Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, 66-34 in a closely watched race.

Cooper quickly established himself as anything but a loyal vote for the Democratic leadership by opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and supporting the Reagan administration’s MX missile project, but he also took some stances that could have harmed him in his rural seat. The congressman backed abortion rights, voted in favor of gun safety measures, and loudly criticized the tobacco industry in a region where it held immense sway. Despite all of this, though, Cooper never had any trouble holding the 4th District.

Cooper sought a promotion in 1994 when he campaigned in the special Senate election to succeed Vice President Al Gore (appointed Democratic Sen. Harlan Mathews did not run), but he faced a tough race in a historically Democratic state that was moving to the right. Cooper himself spent that cycle as one of the most prominent opponents of President Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform plan, and he sponsored an alternative bill he nicknamed “Clinton Lite” that was very friendly to the insurance and healthcare industries. (First Lady Hillary Clinton, who was spearheading the reform push, attributed Cooper’s sabotage to his Senate hopes.) Neither plan ended up passing, but even though Cooper’s antics made him radioactive in the Clinton White House, it didn’t do him much good back in Tennessee.

The congressman faced a tough fight against Republican Fred Thompson, and though an early poll gave Cooper a 37-16 lead, his prospects plunged as the GOP gained strength nationally. Thompson himself initially ran a chaotic campaign and even talked about dropping out in May, but the actor proved to be a strong contender who, despite his lobbyist background, persuasively argued he had the anti-establishment credentials Cooper lacked. The Democrat responded to Thompson’s high-profile red pickup truck ride across the state by labeling him a “Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon–spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist,” but he just couldn’t puncture Thompson’s folksy image.

It also didn’t help Cooper that national Democrats were more committed to aiding Sen. Jim Sasser, who was in a tough general election battle of his own against physician Bill Frist, than in helping him in the special. Cooper would later say that he knew two months before Election Day that both he and Sasser would go down, and he was right: Thompson beat him in a 61-39 landslide as Frist was also unseating Sasser by double digits, which made this the last time that a state’s entire Senate delegation changed hands on the same night until last year’s Democratic sweep in Georgia.

Cooper moved to Nashville afterwards and spent the next several years as an investment banker and instructor at Vanderbilt University, but Thompson’s 2002 retirement indirectly gave him an opportunity to return to the House. Democratic Rep. Bob Clement left the safely blue Nashville-based 5th District behind to unsuccessfully run for the Senate, and Cooper entered the primary to succeed him.

Cooper quickly emerged as a leading candidate in the crowded race even though he hadn’t previously represented any of the city, but he faced serious opposition from state Rep. John Arriola and Davidson County Sheriff Gayle Ray. Ray, who had the support of EMILY’s List, ran ads arguing that Cooper’s 1994 healthcare plan wouldn’t have provided essential services to women, while the NRA backed Arriola over both Cooper and Ray. The former congressman, however, enjoyed a huge financial edge over his rivals thanks in part to self-funding, and he ended up beating Arriola by a wide 47-24.

While Cooper never again gave his party as much trouble during his second stint in Congress as he did during the 1994 fight, he once again resumed his role as a thorn in the side for his leadership. He often opposed Nancy Pelosi in speakership elections (though he backed her in 2021 for the first time in years), and he voted with the Trump administration nearly 40% of the time in 2017 and 2018.

Cooper, though, seemed completely safe at home, especially after his brother, John Cooper, was overwhelmingly elected mayor of Nashville in 2019. So it was a surprise when the congressman won his primary the next year by a surprisingly modest 57-40 against Keeda Haynes, a public defender who was running an underfunded campaign against him from the left, in what proved to be his last campaign. Community activist Odessa Kelly launched a campaign to deny him renomination months later, but he ultimately retired rather than try to defend a seat that was now gerrymandered against him.

TX-15: VoteVets has thrown its support behind Ruben Ramirez, an Army veteran who twice unsuccessfully competed for the Democratic nomination in the old version of this seat. Ramirez went up against Rep. Rubén Hinojosa in 2012 and took fifth place with just 5% in what was a pretty low-profile primary.

Ramirez ran again when Hinojosa retired four years later, and he originally tried to be listed on the ballot as “Ruben Ramirez Hinojosa” to include his mother’s maiden name. The candidate, who was identified as “Ruben Ramon Ramirez” in 2012, said he wasn’t trying to confuse voters into thinking he was the incumbent and argued he’d long used “Hinojosa” and “Ramirez” interchangeably. However, he ended up getting listed as “Ruben Ramirez” after party officials threatened legal action, and he ultimately earned 6% of the vote. The 15th is open again because the eventual winner of that contest, Vicente Gonzalez, is now running for the revamped 34th District.

TX-28: Human rights attorney Jessica Cisneros has released her first TV ad of the race (in both English and Spanish), which is focused on healthcare. When her aunt “had cancer but no insurance,” says Cisneros, “we did what many families do: We sold steak plates to pay for her care.” By contrast, she charges that her opponent in the March 1 Democratic primary, Rep. Henry Cuellar, “holds thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraisers, taking from the drug and insurance companies charging high prices—or even denying us care.” She concludes by touting her support for Medicare for All.

Politico reports that Cisneros is spending $60,000 to air the spots, the same amount Cuellar has put behind his own TV ads that recently began running. Cuellar also put out some new media of his own on Tuesday: a homemade-looking video in which he stands in front of what he says is his childhood home, insists he hasn’t done anything wrong in spite of his home and campaign HQ getting raided by the FBI last week, and says he’ll continue to run for re-election.

Obituaries

Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat who ran the lower chamber from 1994 until he stepped down in 2015 months before he was convicted on corruption charges, died Monday at the age of 77. Silver spent his 21 years as head of the assembly as one of the so-called “three men in a room,” an elite group consisting of the governor, speaker, and state Senate majority leader that together essentially decided the state’s major policies. (They were always men until 2019, when Andrea Stewart-Cousins became Senate leader.)

Silver, who worked as an attorney, rose through Democratic politics at a time when New York City’s local neighborhood clubs were incredibly powerful. While he lost a 1974 primary for the City Council by less than 100 votes, he won the nomination two years later for a safely Democratic Assembly seat in Lower Manhattan that included turf once represented by Alexander Hamilton and Al Smith. Silver rose through the ranks and became an ally of Speaker Saul Weprin when he assumed power in 1991.

Weprin suffered a severe stroke in early 1994 and Silver quickly moved to position himself to succeed him, with the Village Voice writing, “With all the morbid agility of someone scouring the Times obituaries for a vacant apartment, the state assembly wasted no time stepping over Speaker Saul Weprin’s comatose body to elect his successor.” Silver was quickly named interim speaker, and he took over the job permanently after Weprin died weeks later.

With Silver completely safe at home and Democrats firmly in charge of the Assembly (it and the GOP-run Senate dutifully agreed on maps that maintained the status quo in each chamber), he was assured to keep his place in the room as long as his caucus was happy. Majority Leader Michael Bragman decided to test the speaker’s power in 2000 when he tried to rally members unhappy with the leadership, but Silver quickly responded by stripping Bragman of his title and demoting his allies while threatening to do the same to anyone else who joined in the coup.

Bragman still took his case to the floor where, as The New York Times wrote, he argued the speaker had “stifled debate on major issues, reduced rank-and-file lawmakers to bit players and given powerful lobbyists too much say in the day-to-day affairs of the chamber.” The challenger told his colleagues, “Member after member is forced to go to the speaker to ask for anything, from paper clips to chairmanships, from parking passes to staff needs. And they have told me that they feel that their requests are being kept in a favor bank. Either you do what the speaker wants, or you don’t get the things you need.” While most of the GOP minority backed Bragman, Silver kept his post 85-63.

That was the last serious threat to Silver until early 2015, when federal prosecutors indicted him for concealing a multi-million-dollar kickback scheme. This was too much for Assembly Democrats, who successfully pressured him to step down shortly after. Silver was ultimately convicted, which automatically cost him his place in the legislature. (GOP Senate Leader Dean Skelos was found guilty less than two weeks later in an unrelated scandal.) Silver’s guilty verdict was overturned thanks to the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it harder to convict public officials for corruption, but his retrial ended with the same verdict as the first. After a lengthy appeals’ process, Silver eventually reported for prison in 2020.




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