Reader’s Forum–Lou Hinman

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In Ratf**ked, David Daley tells, in vivid and painful detail, how the Republican Party, planning for the reapportionment that would follow the 2010 census, hatched a plan that would give them a crucial edge in the state legislatures that would carry out the redistricting.  They were so successful that they were able to control the gerrymandering of enough congressional districts to create a very probable Republican congressional majority until the 2020 census.

Gerrymandering was not new.  Almost from the beginning of two-party politics in the United States, gerrymandering has been used by both parties to make particular districts uncompetitive (“safe,” that is, for one of the parties or the other).  What was new was the novel idea of targeting particular state legislatures, and well laid plans to get a very slim party majority in them in advance of redistricting.

It may well be that the Republicans violated the gentlemen’s agreement with the Democrats about how this game was supposed to be played.  However, I feel that Ratf**ked makes too much of the Machiavellian ruthlessness of the Republicans, and is correspondingly too soft on the Democrats.  To me, it defies belief that Democrats were just too innocent to know how bad the Republicans were, or that they simply got caught napping.

Here’s why.

The Democratic Party’s calling card is that they are “the party of the common man.”  But since their main allegiance is to the shared control of the political process, they are careful not to get too strong.  If they were to get too strong, a few embarrassing questions could be asked about why they are not more effective in serving “the common man.”  If those mean and nasty Republicans get too strong – well, what can you do, they just don’t play fair!  (For more on this neglected subject, be sure to read Indispensable Enemies by Walter Karp.)

Not getting too strong demands, above all, not mobilizing their base.  So for example, when the Tea Party was busy organizing “town meetings” to oppose Obamacare, you might have thought the Democratic Party would have organized a few of the 38 million people who had no health insurance into town meetings of their own.  Of course, they did nothing of the kind.  For the Democratic Party, the mobilization of it’s base is to be avoided like the plague, because they may not be able to control it.

Similarly, if the Democratic Party were to get into a brawl with the Republicans over gerrymandering, it would weaken the Democratic machine in at least two ways.  First, they might actually win!  This would put pressure on them to use their increased power on behalf of “the common people” they are supposed to represent.  Second, even if they didn’t win it would turn over the rock under which gerrymandering and other manipulations by the two political machines thrive – about which the less said the better!

Finally, the Democratic Party is plenty ruthless when it comes to attacking insurgents in their own party (ask Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders) or independents (ask Lenora Fulani).

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

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Political Gerrymandering and the Constitution

 

New York Times

POLITICS

When Does Political Gerrymandering Cross a Constitutional Line?

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By ADAM LIPTAK               MAY 15, 2017

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The Supreme Court building in Washington, seen from the Senate. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal.  Credit:Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The Supreme Court has never struck down an election map on the ground that it was drawn to make sure one political party would win an outsize number of seats. But it has left open the possibility that some kinds of political gamesmanship in redistricting may be too extreme.

The problem, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a 2004 concurrence, is that no one has come up with “a workable standard” to decide when the political gerrymandering has crossed a constitutional line.

Finding such a standard has long been, as one judge put it, “the holy grail of election law jurisprudence.”

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will consider an appeal from a decision in Wisconsin that may have found that holy grail. The case, Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, arrives at the court in the wake of a wave of Republican victories in state legislatures that allowed lawmakers to draw election maps favoring their party.

The case started when Republicans gained complete control of Wisconsin’s government in 2010 for the first time in more than 40 years. It was a redistricting year, and lawmakers promptly drew a map for the State Assembly that helped Republicans convert very close statewide vote totals into lopsided legislative majorities.

In 2012, Republicans won 48.6 percent of the statewide vote for Assembly candidates but captured 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats. In 2014, 52 percent of the vote yielded 63 seats.

Last year, a divided three-judge Federal District Court panel ruled that Republicans had gone too far. The map, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple wrote for the majority, “was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.”

The decision was the first from a federal court in more than 30 years to reject a voting map as partisan gerrymandering.

Most cases reach the Supreme Court by way of petitions seeking review, which the justices are free to deny. The Wisconsin case is different. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal.

That means the Supreme Court is very likely to weigh in on the fate of political gerrymandering, probably during the court’s next term, which starts in October.

There are two basic ways to inject partisan politics into drawing legislative maps: packing and cracking. Both result in what Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, calls “wasted votes.”

Packing a lot of Democrats into a single district, for instance, wastes every Democratic vote beyond the bare majority needed to elect a Democratic candidate. Cracking Democratic voters across districts in which Republicans have small majorities wastes all of the Democratic votes when the Republican candidate wins.

In an influential article, Professor Stephanopoulos and his colleague Eric McGhee applied a little math to this observation. The difference between the two parties’ wasted votes, divided by the total number of votes cast, yields an efficiency gap, they wrote. In a world of perfect nonpartisanship, there would be no gap.

The gap in Wisconsin was 13.3 percent in 2012 and 9.6 percent in 2014.

The Wisconsin voters who sued to challenge the Assembly map argued that gaps over 7 percent violate the Constitution. That number was meant to capture the likelihood that the gap would endure over a 10-year election cycle, but critics say it is arbitrary.

Adopting it, they say, would transform American elections. A 2015 report from Simon Jackman, then a political scientist at Stanford and an expert witness for the plaintiffs, found that a third of all redistricting plans in 41 states over a 43-year period failed the 7 percent standard. Elections in 2012 and 2014 in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming featured efficiency gaps of more than 10 percent, Professor Jackman found.

Judge Ripple did not ground his opinion on the efficiency gap, relying instead on a more conventional legal test that considered discriminatory intent, the map’s partisan effects and whether they were justified by other reasons. But Judge Ripple did say that the efficiency gap corroborated the majority’s conclusions.

The case seems to be making Republicans nervous.

In a supporting brief, the Republican National Committee urged the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling. The efficiency gap, the brief said, “is a tool that advances the partisan interests of the Democratic Party.”

The gap, the brief said, is a product of geography rather than gerrymandering. Democrats have packed themselves into cities, effectively diluting their voting power, while Republicans are more evenly distributed across most states, the brief said.

Most people acknowledge that the distribution of the population explains at least some part of the gap. “Wisconsin’s political geography, particularly the high concentration of Democratic voters in urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison, affords the Republican Party a natural, but modest, advantage in the districting process,” Judge Ripple wrote, for instance.

Partisan gerrymandering, he wrote, amplified that advantage.

Using computer simulations, Jowei Chen, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has tried to disentangle any natural advantages enjoyed by Wisconsin Republicans from those created by gerrymandering. He found that it was not hard to draw maps favoring neither party.

Justice Kennedy may have been looking for a “workable standard” even simpler and cleaner than one that must take account of natural advantages. But if there is a holy grail in this area, the test identified in the Wisconsin case is almost certainly it.

Follow Adam Liptak on Twitter @adamliptak.

 

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David Daley on NPR’s Fresh Air

POLITICS

Understanding Congressional Gerrymandering: ‘It’s Moneyball Applied To Politics’

June 15, 2016    1:36 PM ET

Ratf**ked author David Daley says that Republicans targeted key state legislative races in 2010 in an effort to control state houses, and, eventually, Congressional redistricting. Radio Show Image

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/482150951/482182856

Below is the full transcript of the show, for those of you who would like to read it.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. Our guest today, Salon’s editor-in-chief David Daley, has a new book that he says began with a simple question. When President Obama won re-election in 2012 and a Democratic tide gave the party a big majority in the Senate, why did the House of Representatives remain firmly in Republican hands? The result was even more striking since voters cast 1.3 million more ballots for Democratic House candidates than Republican ones.

The answer, Daley decided, was effective gerrymandering of House districts following the 2010 census. And it’s state legislatures that draw most of the congressional boundaries across the country. The result of Daley’s research is his new book, which details an effort by Republican strategists to put money and campaign resources into targeted state legislative races in key states in 2010, so Republicans could control the statehouses and control congressional redistricting. Daley’s book has a title I can’t say on the radio. It refers to a crude term for a political dirty deed done cheaply. I’ll approximate the title as “Rat-bleeped: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy” [Actual book title is “Rat-F*****: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy.”]

Well, David Daley, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, it’s interesting that Republican control of Congress kind of feels like an ironclad reality of politics these days. But, you know, you remind us that in the election of 2008, when Barack Obama took the White House, the congressional picture was very different. Remind us of that election and where the Republican Party stood not so long ago.

DAVID DALEY: If you go back and watch the tapes from election night, the smartest minds in the Republican Party are despairing on television. They are trying to understand where all the Republican voters went. The Republicans realized that they were staring down a demographic tidal wave, that the nature of the electorate was changing and the Democrats were talking about a coalition of the ascendant and looking at a decade of changing politics. The Democrats took a super majority in the Senate – we forget – and how quickly it all changed.

DAVIES: Right. The Democrats then had a 60-plus-seat majority in the House of Representatives. And you write about a Republican strategist named Chris Jankowski. Tell us about him and what he saw as a way back.

DALEY: Chris Jankowski is one of the brightest strategists in the Republican Party. And what he saw was how the Republicans could make their way back state-by-state. Jankowski runs something called the Republican State Leadership Committee. And he has a eureka moment in 2009 when he realizes that the following year is a year that ends in zero and that elections at the end of a decade reverberate across the course of the next decade because of the redistricting which follows every census.

And Jankowski has got connections in statehouses across the country. And he realizes that if they can raise enough money that they can go in state-by-state and do battle – not on the presidential level but in specific statehouse and state Senate districts around the country – redo the maps in the following year if they’re able to win, and they’ve built themselves a firewall for the next 10 years.

DAVIES: And the critical link here, of course, is that in most states, it’s the state legislature that draws the congressional boundaries. They do the redistricting after each census. So he’s getting at Congress by going to statehouse and state Senate seats often little-known to voters. This was called Operation RedMap. Explain the idea.

DALEY: The idea was that you could take a state like Ohio, for example. In 2008, the Democrats held a majority in the statehouse of 53-46. What RedMap does is they identify and target six specific statehouse seats. They spend $1 million on these races, which is an unheard of amount of money coming into a statehouse race. Republicans win five of these. They take control of the Statehouse in Ohio – also, the state Senate that year. And it gives them, essentially, a veto-proof run of the entire re-districting in the state.

So in 2012, when Barack Obama wins again and he wins Ohio again, and Sherrod Brown is re-elected to the Senate by 325,000 votes, the Democrats get more votes in statehouse races than the Republicans. But the lines were drawn so perfectly that the Republicans held a 60-39 supermajority in the House of Representatives, despite having fewer votes.

DAVIES: That’s a 60-39 majority in the Ohio Statehouse.

DALEY: In the Ohio Statehouse that is drawing these lines. And the congressional delegation – Ohio has a 16-seat congressional delegation – 12-4 Republicans. So I began to unravel how this had happened – how the House stays in Republican hands after 2012 because all of these blue and purple states are sending delegations to Congress that are 12-4 Republican or in the case of Pennsylvania, 13-5 Republican, even though these are blue states that voted for Barack Obama and that often voted for more Democratic candidates in the aggregate than Republicans.

DAVIES: All right. Well, let’s talk about the efforts in statehouse races. Now, the idea of representative democracy and state legislatures is that state representatives and state senators are chosen by local voters to represent their interest and generally funded by local interests or, in some cases, state party interests. This is a little different, isn’t it, in bringing lots of national money to statehouse races? Describe the impact of national money coming into a statehouse race.

DALEY: It is more money than these races usually see. It can be a hundred percent of the budget that these candidates thought they were going to have to spend or imagined that they would face from an opponent. What Jankowski and his team did is they spent almost two thirds of this money in the last six weeks of the 2010 campaign. So these candidates not only never saw it coming, they didn’t have time to respond. Suddenly, every day in these small races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Ohio, national Republican dollars are targeting state legislators. And they are pulling out four, six, eight-page, full-color mailers out of their mailboxes every day for the last three weeks of this campaign, and they couldn’t believe what hit them and they had no means of responding to it.

DAVIES: Right, and these are mailers from a national Republican organization, and they’re not making the case that, hey, we need to have a Republican legislature so we can have a Republican Congress. They are very localized attacks on the Democrats. And you write about – I think the first specific case you write about is a guy in Pennsylvania, 20-year Democratic legislator named Dave Levdansky. Tell us his story.

DALEY: He represents a district out of Elizabeth, Pa., which is a steel-working community not far outside of Pittsburgh, very small town. He grew up there. His family had been there for years. He’d been re-elected every year since 1984. Had risen to a pretty authoritative position in Harrisburg, the state capital on finance issues. And I went to meet him, and he pulled out his folder of all of these mailers. And he just looked at me and said, I wouldn’t have voted for myself either if I was getting all of this stuff. And they were brutal attacks and misleading attacks. And they were deeply poll-tested and focus grouped in order to try to find the silver bullet that would take out these small-town guys.

What people don’t understand is that control of the Pennsylvania House was very, very tight that year. The Democrats had it by a nose. So if you could go in and spend just enough money to take out four or five guys, which was the goal, you could flip this for a song. This isn’t just brilliant politics. It’s Moneyball applied to politics because they got a bargain here.

DAVIES: Do you recall some of the mailings that were aimed at Dave Levdansky and, you know, what they said about him?

DALEY: The silver bullet that they found – and when I sat down with Jankowski, he remembered it really well – was something called the Arlen Specter Library. Arlen Specter was a senator of Pennsylvania, a longtime senator who had been a Republican and in recent years had just – I believe right after the 2008 election, he switches parties, becomes a Democrat. He was not the most popular politician in the state of Pennsylvania at that point in time, especially in the western part of the state, as he was from the Philadelphia area.

So there was a capital budget of about $600 million that the Pennsylvania House passes. What Jankowski and the RSLC did – and they – focus grouped and looked and looked trying to find the exact issue that would take out Levdansky. And when they told people that he had spent $600 million on a library for Arlen Specter, it outraged voters. And this was a difficult economic year. The recovery had still not come back around entirely. The small towns around Pittsburgh were hard hit, and they didn’t like the idea that their state legislator had authorized $600 million for an Arlen Specter Library.

And these mailers made it out to be this big marble monstrosity. And in reality, about $2 million of that entire capital budget was actually allocated for a Specter Library. And it was, you know, on a college campus to house his papers. And this was a significant, you know, player in the state’s political history. This was an educational institution grant, but it was turned into something that when Levdansky would walk into homes, people who he had known for years would say, I’m sorry, Dave, but I can’t vote for you this year because of the Arlen Specter Library.

DAVIES: So this was a legislator’s routine vote on a budget that included many, many, many, many things, and they pick out this one. Have to say, you see this a lot in political campaigns. But was…

DALEY: You do.

DAVIES: Yeah, but very effective in this case.

DALEY: Very effective.

DAVIES: So Dave Levdan – the – this national Republican group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, spends a couple-hundred thousand dollars, a dozen mailers or so and Levdansky loses by how much to a relatively unknown Republican?

DALEY: He loses by about 140 votes. It’s that close. And those mailers and that money made the difference. The Republicans take control of the Pennsylvania House. They take control of the Senate. They elect a Republican governor in Corbett that year and they own all three legs of the redistricting process. So as a result, you come back in 2012 and Obama wins the state by 310,000. There are a hundred-thousand more votes for Democratic House candidates than there are for Republicans.

DAVIES: That’s Congressional House candidates, yeah.

DALEY: Yes. Republicans take the delegation 13-5. And that means 51 percent of the vote turns out to 28 percent of the seats. That’s a real problem for a participatory democracy.

DAVIES: Chris Jankowski did not dodge your phone calls. He was proud to talk about this, wasn’t he?

DALEY: It’s the greatest political achievement in modern times. It’s the greatest political bargain, I think, that they are very proud of what they managed to do. I think if you’re a Republican, you look at this and say, boy, this was effective, it was efficient and we won. We played by the rules. We changed the rules, but we still played by the law and the game. And if the Democrats weren’t smart enough to figure this out themselves, well, see you in 2020, boys.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with David Daley. He is editor-in-chief of Salon. He has a new book about Republican efforts in the 2010 election to target state legislative seats, giving the party an advantage in Congressional redistricting. We’ll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re speaking with David Daley. He is editor-in-chief of Salon. He has a new book about Republican efforts in the 2010 election to target state legislative seats and thereby gain a huge advantage in congressional redistricting, which he says made a big difference in Republican representation in Congress. So we’ve been talking about this effort by this group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, to put not huge amounts of money, but enough money to make a difference in a few dozen state legislative races, hoping that Republicans could then control statehouses, and after the 2010 census draw the new congressional lines. OK, so take us inside this. Pick a state and talk about the redistricting process and how this made a difference.

DALEY: There are two prongs of this effort. The first prong, of course, is winning these races in 2010. Then in 2011, you have to be ready to redraw the maps. And what the Republicans were able to do in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and Michigan and Florida and Wisconsin was move the redistricting process deep behind closed doors and use redistricting as a blunt force partisan weapon in a way that it had not been all the way back to the first gerrymander in 1790.

So in Wisconsin, the operatives working on redistricting barricaded themselves into a law firm across the street from the Capitol and tried to claim attorney-client privilege for all of the negotiations and mapmaking that were going on. And they even made Republican members of the legislature there sign a nondisclosure agreement if they wanted access to the room. In North Carolina, they bring in a master mapmaker named Tom Hofeller, who is probably better at jiggering and rejiggering district lines than anybody. And they draw maps in North Carolina that give Republicans a 10-3 advantage on the congressional side.

And Hofeller has a presentation that he gives when he goes to talk to state legislatures, and it is all about secrecy and privacy. You do not fire the staff until you are completely sure that redistricting is done. You do not walk away from your computer and leave anything showing on it ever. You remember exactly what kind of legal hell one false email can put you in. It is as if he is training master spies in espionage and not, you know, drawing the lines that make up the fundamental building blocks of our democracy.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, we want to remind people the reason people are drawing congressional boundaries in hotel rooms and in secret is because typically, the lines are done by acts of state legislatures. And a lot of state legislation is drafted privately before it’s voted on. So in the end, you know, lawmakers do cast a vote, the votes are recorded, it’s signed by the governor. It’s a bill that conforms to rules of legislative procedure. But the real stuff gets done privately?

DALEY: Exactly.

DAVIES: Now, you know, gerrymandering isn’t new. And I don’t think politicians before 2010 were, like, totally benign in their use of…

DALEY: They certainly were not.

DAVIES: …Of this subject. So why was it so much more effective or aggressive in 2010? Is part of it technology?

DALEY: I think technology is almost all of it. Citizens United and the money that comes into the system is a piece of it. The really ingenious plan that Jankowski devises is part of it. But it’s the technology that makes these lines so precise and impregnable right now.

There’s a program called Maptitude that is used by lawmakers and operatives in just about every state who are working on redistricting. And I had someone who was involved in the redistricting in Arizona show me how it works. And there is more information available through Maptitude that – when you look at a congressional map and you say, boy, the shape of that is very strange. There is a reason behind each and every one of those curves. Every little jut and turn that on a map you say, I don’t know why that could possibly be there, a mapmaker knows why it’s there.

With Maptitude, it is fully loaded with just about every census information, with economic information, with every precinct-by-precinct results of elections all the way down ballot going back for years. And you can draw these lines with complete knowledge of how they will respond now. And the difference, frankly, between 2000 and 2010 – I mean, think of the way we texted in 2000. We didn’t have a keyboard on our phones. We used a number pad essentially to, you know, find a letter. Redistricting in 1990 and 2000, it was still horse and buggy. It becomes a rocket ship in 2010, thanks to computing power.

DAVIES: When this is done, when you look at some of these districts on a map, what do the shapes look like?

DALEY: They are incredibly strange. There’s a district in Michigan that I went out and drove every turn of between Detroit and Pontiac. It’s Michigan’s 14th. And it goes about 135 miles, and it takes you all day to, you know, go turn by turn. What you see first is that this is a district designed to connect the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit with the poorest neighborhoods in Pontiac so that you can put as many African-American voters into one district, make it a district that elects a Democrat with about 75 or 80 percent of the vote. And then all of the neighboring suburban districts as a result are more Republican. And as you take these turns, time and again over the course of the day, I would look at the map and say boy, there’s an interesting turn right here. There’s an interesting notch here. And every single time, there was a reason.

DAVIES: And the reason was to pack all the Democrats in that district so they wouldn’t weaken Republicans in surrounding districts.

DALEY: Yes.

DAVIES: David Daley has a new book about the 2010 elections and redistricting. After a break, he’ll assess the Democrats’ efforts in that election. Also, Maureen Corrigan will tell us about Susan Faludi’s new memoir. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews drummer Matt Wilson’s new album. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. We are speaking with Salon’s editor-in-chief David Daley. His new book focuses on Republican efforts to win key state legislative races in the 2010 elections so they could control statehouses that would redraw congressional boundaries. The result, Daley argues, was gerrymandering, which kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

Now, Democrats aren’t stupid, and they’ve been involved in redistricting for a long, long time. Where were the Democrats when all this was happening, when the Republicans were targeting these state legislative seats? Did they – were they just…

DALEY: They fell asleep at the wheel. This was a catastrophic strategic failure by the Democratic Party. Chris Jankowski tells me that throughout the fall of 2010, he’s out in the field and he can’t believe that the Democrats aren’t out there spending any money. The Democrats never saw this coming, and it’s political malpractice because the Republican Party announced their plans in big bright flashing neon lights.

In an op-ed piece in March 2010 in The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove says we are going to use redistricting this year to take back the Congress. It was announced. It was not hidden. I don’t know if the Democratic leadership simply doesn’t read The Wall Street Journal, but it was right there. Steve Israel, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the debacle of 2010 for Democratic Party, tells me that the Democratic National Committee simply whistled past the graveyard.

DAVIES: And in states where Democrats did control the statehouse – Maryland, Illinois – when redistricting occurred, did they do the same things? Did they gerrymander the lines so as to benefit their party?

DALEY: There are two examples of where Democrats did effectively gerrymander after 2010, and it is in Maryland and it’s in Illinois. And what the Republicans were able to do which is a little bit different is they were able to take states that were blue or purple and make them bright red. And that to me seems to be the difference. You can look at Maryland and say that there’s probably one or maybe two more seats that the Democrats control that they wouldn’t have had if you apportion seats based on the popular vote. But it’s certainly not as egregious as a state like Pennsylvania, where you have a majority of voters ending up with, you know, fewer than 30 percent of the seats.

DAVIES: You go around the country and look at what’s happening on this issue, and it seems you find some encouraging developments, people taking another look at redistricting methods. What do you see?

DALEY: I think that members of both parties want our votes to counts, and we want the system to work. And we’re aware that things aren’t quite working. And when you look at the kind of referendums that have passed on redistricting in red states and in blue states – in Florida, in Arizona, in California, in Ohio – it’s a sign that people understand that our democracy isn’t working. When you put a referendum about nonpartisan redistricting on the ballot, it wins. People fundamentally understand questions of fairness.

DAVIES: And in those states where they have passed, how have things changed?

DALEY: Well, commissions sometimes work and sometimes don’t work.

DAVIES: That is to say taking redistricting out of the legislature and putting it in the hands of an appointed commission, is that what that means?

DALEY: That’s exactly right. You can look at Arizona, which is a case that went to the Supreme Court. And that commission was upheld, its constitutionality. But it’s basic functioning – there’s a lot of questions about whether the partisanship simply seeped back in a secret, hidden way and whether the politicians simply found another way to game that system. Once it was taken out of the legislators’ hands, it stayed in the hands of the operatives.

In Florida, certainly, what you saw was an effort by Republican strategists in the state to conduct a shadow redistricting process in violation of the fair districts referendum. But the beauty of that was that because the referendum had been passed, good government groups in Florida were able to file a lawsuit, and in the discovery process unearthed a trove of emails showing exactly what had happened. And a number of those districts have had to be redrawn.

DAVIES: You know, the Supreme Court has pretty much ruled out interveening to reverse cases of partisan gerrymandering, where it’s simply about benefiting a political party. It’s been different for racial gerrymandering, and there are active cases. And I wonder if in effect the Voting Rights Act and other statutes that affect racial gerrymandering are the real arena for these fights. There are several active cases now, some in Virginia, I think, that deal with racial gerrymandering. What are we looking at?

DALEY: Well, I think that again is exactly right. Most of these cases really have their roots in what was called the unholy alliance between African-Americans in the South, Democrats who wanted to increase their representation and Republicans who wanted to turn the South into the solid South. And these efforts began in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. And that was the redistricting battle in those days. It was about a deal between African-Americans to increase their ranks in Congress and Republicans who wanted to increase their numbers as well. And it worked very well for both sides in that you grew the largest Congressional Black Caucus since the days of Reconstruction. But at the same time, Republicans took over all the rest of those states.

DAVIES: And the reason that alliance benefited both sides was that they drew the boundaries so that black voters were packed into a small number of districts, almost certain to elect black representatives.

DALEY: They could elect their own leaders. And if you are an African-American leader in the South, then you have been a key part of the Democratic constituency. But the constituency in Congress is all essentially white Democrats. It makes an awful lot of sense to try to find a way to increase representation. That came at a cost to the party.

DAVIES: And why would that be? Why would creating largely black districts cost the party congressional seats?

DALEY: Because it packed all of the Democrats into a handful of majority-minority districts. So what you see in North Carolina, for example, is after these new districts went into play in the early 1990s, the delegation suddenly shifts from 8-4 Democrats to 8-4 Republicans. And that happened across the South, and it essentially led to the extinction of the white Democratic Congressman in the South. There’s only a handful left these days.

DAVIES: And so then lawsuits now are aimed at re-crafting those boundaries.

DALEY: Exactly.

DAVIES: Let me play devil’s advocate on the Operation RedMap argument here. This was about the 2010 elections. And you note that while Operation RedMap targeted, you know, a few dozen congressional seats in efforts to flip statehouses, it was a big Republican tide that year in that they gained almost 700 state legislative seats nationwide. And if you look specifically at Pennsylvania, for example, going into that election, the Democrats had a narrow majority in the statehouse – five or six seats – and that Operation RedMap, this national Republican effort, targeted three, put money in, won all three. And that would’ve been enough to flip the statehouse from Democrat to Republican.

But there was such a Republican tide that after that election, the Republicans ended up with a 21-seat majority in the Pennsylvania Statehouse. If those three seats targeted by the national Republican effort had stayed Democrat, it would still have been a 15-seat Republican majority. I guess what I’m wondering is however smart and effective Chris Jankowski and these national Republicans were, there was a Republican tide here, and a lot of this would’ve happened anyway, wouldn’t it?

DALEY: There was a huge Republican wave election in 2010, and that is an important piece of this. But the other important piece of Redmap is what they did to lock in those lines the following year. And it’s the mapping efforts that were made and the precise strategies that were launched in 2011 to sustain those gains, even in Democratic years, which is what makes RedMap so effective and successful.

DAVIES: You know, when I looked at the book, it struck me that what Chris Jankowski and these national Republican strategists was sort of staring us in the face, right? I mean, everybody knew that congressional redistricting mattered. Everybody knew that they were largely done by state legislatures. It wasn’t a big leap to figure out that it might be worth some national effort to win state legislative seats. Are the Democrats more focused on this now than they were before?

DALEY: The Democrats have finally realized that they need a plan. They are doing what seems to me to be all the wrong things. They’re fighting the last war, and they’re trying to replicate the plan that the Republicans had in 2010. The problem is they’re going to have to win on Republican maps with less money and no elements of surprise. Seems to…

DAVIES: When you say Republican maps, you’re talking about Republican state legislative maps, not congressional maps.

DALEY: Yes.

DAVIES: Right, right.

DALEY: This is what we need to understand – there are so many different locks on the system right now that undoing this is going to take years and really concentrated efforts state by state, chamber by chamber. There is no one simple solution to this. And it’s going to take the Democratic Party a lot of time, possibly even a generation to undo what happened in 2010 and 2011.

DAVIES: What’s interesting to me about that is in 2010 – you focus on how after the Republicans took control of statehouses, they redo congressional maps so as to enormously strengthen the Republican’s hold on Congress. But the state legislative maps, were they also gerrymandered so that they…

DALEY: They were, so that’s what matters.

DAVIES: So in…

DALEY: Yes.

DAVIES: …2020 when you’re electing the legislatures that will do the next congressional redistricting, those races will occur in districts redone in 2010?

DALEY: There could be – there could be a huge Democratic wave nationally in 2020 that elects or reelects a Democratic president that year. However, if the Democrats can’t make a difference and some headway in changing control of the Ohio House or the Michigan Senate or the Wisconsin House or the Florida House, they will still have Republicans drawing these lines in 2021. And they will be locked in for another decade.

DAVIES: Unless there are movements to take redistricting out of the hands of legislatures.

DALEY: That will take some time.

DAVIES: You don’t think that’s going to happen in a lot of places anytime soon.

DALEY: I do not think that this is a problem that can be solved quickly or easily. And it seems to me that we are going to have Republican control at this level for a long time.

DAVIES: David Daley, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DALEY: Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Dave Daley is editor-in-chief of Salon. His book about the 2010 election and redistricting has a title we can’t say on the radio. I’ll approximate it as “Rat(Bleeped): The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy.” Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Susan Faludi’s new memoir. This is FRESH AIR.

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***

Conference Call with David Daley

Author of RATF**KED

Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST

Call: 641-715-3605
Pass code: 767775#

Gerrymandering heads to the Supreme Court

As we begin our reading of RATF**KED: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy,  you will also want to read the The New York Times  piece on April 21st outlining the current status of the legal fights around gerrymandering.

 The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. A panel of judges agreed that the State Assembly’s electoral districts had been gerrymandered before the 2012 election, favoring Republicans.CreditMichael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal, via Associated Press

The hand-to-hand political combat in House elections on Tuesday in Georgia and last week in Kansas had the feel of the first rounds of an epic battle next year for control of the House of Representatives and the direction of national politics as the Trump presidency unfolds.

But for all the zeal on the ground, none of it may matter as much as a case heading to the Supreme Court, one that could transform political maps from City Hall to Congress — often to Democrats’ benefit.

A bipartisan group of voting rights advocates says the lower house of the Wisconsin Legislature, the State Assembly, was gerrymandered by its Republican majority before the 2012 election — so artfully, in fact, that Democrats won a third fewer Assembly seats than Republicans despite prevailing in the popular vote. In November, in a 2-to-1 ruling, a panel of federal judges agreed.

Now the Wisconsin case is headed to a Supreme Court that has repeatedly said that extreme partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional, but has never found a way to decide which ones cross the line.

Some legal scholars believe this could be the year that changes that. If that happens, they say, an emphatic ruling against partisan gerrymanders would rank with another redistricting decision: Baker v. Carr, the historic 1962 case that led to the principle of one person, one vote.

 “My feeling is that there is increasing concern within the court about the extent of partisan gerrymandering over the last 10 or 15 years,” said Richard H. Pildes, a constitutional law professor at the New York University School of Law. “I do think this is a pivotal moment — a big, big moment.”

Gerrymandering has always been contentious. But the extraordinary success of a Republican strategy to control redistricting by capturing majorities in state legislatures in the 2010 elections has lent urgency to the debate.

Today, at a time of hyperpartisan politics and computer technology that can measure political leanings almost house by house, Republicans control legislatures in 33 states, 25 with Republican governors. They have unfettered command over the boundaries of at least 204 congressional districts — amounting to nearly half the 435-seat House.

In contrast, Democrats’ share of state legislature seats has shrunk to a level not seen since Warren G. Harding was president, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in recent years, their numbers in the House of Representatives have hovered near levels last seen during the Truman administration.

Partly because of the Voting Rights Act, gerrymanders based on race are flatly illegal, but ones based on partisan intent remain in limbo.

The Wisconsin case heads four legal actions on partisan gerrymanders that the Supreme Court could consider and, perhaps, consolidate. In Maryland, another three-judge panel will hear arguments over whether a Democratic legislature gerrymandered House districts in 2011 to oust a 10-term Republican congressman.

In North Carolina, a June hearing is scheduled in a suit over the unabashedly partisan carving of the state into 10 Republican and three Democratic House seats — this in a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The state representative who drew that map said he had engineered 10 safely Republican seats only “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

Experts disagree over how much gerrymandering has hurt Democrats. One prominent 2013 study mostly blamed geography, not partisanship, because Democrats tend to cluster in cities. But the most recent study, by a Princeton professor, Samuel S. H. Wang, concluded that gerrymanders had cost Democrats as many as 22 House seats in the 2012 election — nearly enough to flip the chamber’s control.

Politicians, on the other hand, appear certain of their electoral potency. Former President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., are spearheading an initiative to undo Republicans’ redistricting triumphs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and the former governor of California, is leading a movement to outlaw gerrymanders of any political stripe.

Wisconsin Republican leaders say they dominate the Legislature because they have both a better strategy and vision of governing, not because of illegal gerrymandering.

“In a year when people want change, even in a district that favors one party over another, a good candidate with a good message wins,” said Robin Vos, Wisconsin’s Assembly speaker.

But the court said in November that the redistricting clearly aimed to entrench Republican control of the Assembly. The party took 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats in 2012 despite losing the popular vote, and has since added three more.

As in all gerrymanders, Wisconsin’s mapmakers hobbled their opponents in two ways. One was to pack as many Democrats as possible into a few districts, leaving fewer Democrats for potentially competitive ones. In 2012, 21 of the 39 Assembly districts that Democrats won were so lopsided that Republicans did not even field candidates. In two more, Democrats captured at least 94 percent of the vote.

The other method was to fracture unwinnable Democratic districts, salting their Democrats among Republican-majority districts so that races there became closer yet remained out of Democrats’ reach.

“They just busted my district and put it into four or five others,” said Mark Radcliffe, a 45-year-old Democrat and former state representative, whose district encompassed Alma Center, in rural western Wisconsin. Mr. Radcliffe, who wound up in the district of another Democrat, chose to resign rather than run against a popular member of his own party.

John Steinbrink at his home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Mr. Steinbrink, a Democrat, had represented a district in far southeastern Wisconsin since 1996, but after redistricting, lost to a Republican who won 55 percent of the vote in 2012. Credit Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

John Steinbrink, another Democrat, had represented southeastern Wisconsin in the Assembly since 1996, supported by a Democratic base in Kenosha, six miles from where he farms corn and soybeans. After redistricting, Kenosha became a safe Democratic district, and Mr. Steinbrink was exiled to an adjoining district populated by rural conservatives. In 2012, his Republican opponent won with 55 percent of the vote.

“I could have moved to Kenosha” and sought re-election there, Mr. Steinbrink said. “But I don’t know how you farm in the city.”

The legal argument against such maps is akin to the one used for decades to outlaw ethnic and racial gerrymanders. Gerrymanders dilute a minority group’s votes, muffling its voice in the political process. The Wisconsin plaintiffs argue that whether the minority group is African-Americans or members of a political party makes no difference.

“When you’re talking about the opportunity to turn your vote into a policy or change, the 14th Amendment says you should have an equal chance, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said Ruth Greenwood, the deputy director for redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing plaintiffs in Wisconsin and North Carolina. “But if you’re a Republican in Wisconsin, you get an outsized say with your vote. And if you’re a Democrat in Rhode Island, you get an outsized say.’’

But while racial or ethnic gerrymanders can be statistically measured — a Latino remains a Latino from election to election — judges have struggled to identify overly partisan districts, knowing voter sentiments can quickly change.

In Supreme Court cases in 1986, 2004 and 2006, justices variously called partisan gerrymanders illegitimate, seriously harmful, incompatible with democratic principles and “manipulation of the electorate.” But they have never struck one down. And in 2004, they came within a single vote of ruling them impossible to judge, because nobody could draw the line between unavoidable political influence in redistricting and an unconstitutional rigging of the vote.

The Maryland lawsuit proposes a solution that some justices have pondered: an argument that gerrymanders violate the First Amendment, not the 14th, by retaliating against opponents who express contrary views. Under that standard, any partisanship-inspired district would be unconstitutional if it hobbled a minority party.

The Wisconsin plaintiffs’ attempt to break the logjam is a new standard, the efficiency gap. It is a numerical rating of parties’ “wasted” votes: those above the 50-percent-plus-1 needed to win a seat, and all votes cast in a loss. When the gap between the parties’ ratings exceeds a limit based on ratings from hundreds of past elections, the plaintiffs argue, the majority party should have to justify the boundaries it drew. Even then, plaintiffs would have to prove the party aimed to weaken the opposition.

 Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law professor and lawyer for the plaintiffs, said four of the five most partisan state legislature maps in the last 45 years were drawn after 2010. CreditTaylor Glascock for The New York Times

The Wisconsin case underscores how modern gerrymanders, using computers and political and behavioral data, have become increasingly effective. Measured by the efficiency gap, four of the five most partisan state legislature maps in the last 45 years were drawn after 2010, said Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law professor and lawyer for the plaintiffs.

In the House of Representatives, eight of the 10 most partisan maps were created after 2010, including Wisconsin’s and two in North Carolina.

One participant in the 2004 decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, may prove the fulcrum in the court’s deliberations. In that case, he held out hope that the court could find a solution to extreme gerrymanders that political leaders were unable or unwilling to address.

“The ordered working of our Republic, and of the democratic process, depends on a sense of decorum and restraint in all branches of government, and in the citizenry itself,” he wrote then.

At a time of soaring concern over hyperpartisanship, those words could resonate. That sentence “is the most important line” in the court’s decision, said Edward B. Foley, director of the Election Law Project at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

If the Wisconsin statistical standards do not persuade the justices, other proposals are waiting in the wings. But some worry that the debate may be close to hitting the brick wall it avoided in 2004.

“If the court doesn’t endorse some version of what the three-judge panel decided” in Wisconsin, said Ellen D. Katz, a University of Michigan scholar of election law, “then it may be they’re never going to find a standard they’re comfortable applying.”

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Conference Call with David Daley

Author of RATF**KED

Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST

Call: 641-715-3605
Pass code: 767775#

 

Reader’s Forum–Harriet Hoffman

TERRIBLE VIRTUE

A Novel by Ellen Feldman

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Harriet Hoffman at an informational picket protesting the privatization and undermining of public housing in NYC.

Margaret Sanger was not just a fighter for access to birth control and the founder of Planned Parenthood.  She was a political maverick who defied all kinds of cultural norms at great personal cost and was attacked as much for her personal lifestyle decisions as for the courageous campaign she led to provide birth control information for poor women.  As a political activist and mother of two children, I deeply felt the emotional pain and the social cost of her refusal to abide by the rules of the time, especially her decision to reject the expectations of traditional motherhood.

Actually universal access to birth control information took a very long time to be accepted in the U.S.  Before the sexual revolution in the mid-1960s there was little talk about birth control.  Those of us who were adolescents in the late fifties and early sixties can certainly remember what that was like.  “Nice” girls didn’t have sex and certainly didn’t tell anyone if they did; abortions were illegal until 1973 when Roe vs. Wade was decided; and you usually had to either get married or put your child up for adoption if you got pregnant.  In fact sex education in schools was practically nonexistent until about 20 years ago.

Sadly, this is a very timely book.  It is one hundred years since Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY, and today Planned Parenthood is under serious attack. Sanger chose Brownsville for her clinic because it was home to poor women whose lives and health were being negatively impacted by their lack of knowledge and access to birth control. While the attacks on Planned Parenthood today are focused on abortion, most people are unaware that Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of low cost health care and birth control in the U.S.  An estimated one in five women in the U.S. today has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life.  Without Planned Parenthood it is young and low income women and men who will likely be the ones to lose needed health services.

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the coordinator of the popular monthly independent volunteer gathering, Talkin’ Independence, a program of IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

 

Highlights of P4P’s Conversation with Ellen Feldman

 

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On Sunday, Janaury 22nd, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Ellen Feldman about her book, Terrible Virtue which is a fictional biography of Margaret Sanger.  I am sharing a few highlights of our conversation below and you can listen to the entire recording at the end of this post.

(Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Our first audio clip includes my introduction of Ellen, a look at what drew her to the story of Margaret Sanger, a discussion of the controversy surrounding Margaret’s pioneering activism, and discussion of the increased scrutiny Ellen came under when news of her novel’s movie deal went public. Take a listen:

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In this next clip Dr. Jessie Fields shares her fascination with the ways by which we access history.  Why is it that Ellen chose this format, a fictional novel that is firmly routed in fact, to explore the inner workings of a historical figure like Margaret Sanger?    Here Ellen’s explanation below:

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Independent activist Richard Ronner juxtaposed his impressions from the novel that “to be a visionary or make profound change, to be driven in such a way as to spend all of one’s life doing it, is ultimately a lonely and isolating experience” with his own experiences, sharing that what allows him to remain engaged and active is being part of building community. Give a listen:

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Kerry Malloy, an actor and member of the IndependentVoting.org national team, asked Ellen to talk about the experience of selling the rights to the novel to a become a movie. Give a listen to their exchange:

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Juliette Leak spoke with Ellen about the history of contraception being illegal in the US in the clip below:

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Attorney and Independent activist Harry Kresky touched on the ferocity of opposition to contraception, and how long it took for it to be legal for anybody. Was that a religious issue or was that the result of American puritanical attitudes towards sex? Ellen thinks it is both:

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Activist and P4P member Juliana Francisco struggled to understand why margaret got married – more than once no less – given her apparent aversion to the institution, and was intrigued by Sanger’s relationship to the suffragettes at the time.  In giving voice to suffragette opposition to Sanger and her outspoken approach to female sexuality, Ellen said they wanted to avoid being painted as morally questionable, “we don’t want to dirty our skirts with that, the vote is all that counts.” You can listen to their exchange here:

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As we neared the end of the call I asked Ellen to touch on Sanger’s relationship with the African American community, as we talked about her work with under represented female communities.

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You can listen to the entirety of our fascinating call with Ellen Feldman below. It was a timely treat to explore Margaret Sanger’s life and work with all of you.

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Stay Tuned

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Politics for the People

We will be hosting a lively exchange of our favorite political poems and some original poetry by our members as well.

NEXT SELECTION

 RATF**KED:

The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy 

By David Daley.

We will be kicking off this selection in April and our conference call with the author will be on Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST.

 

 

Readers’ Forum–Steve Richardson & Lou Hinman

STEVE RICHARDSON

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I finished the book last night.  Honestly, it was not my type of book.  I rarely read novels and found the quasi-biography and this author’s style awkward.  I could not even remember who Sanger was, so I did learn some ugly truths about the history of contraception.  I could have learned more from a brief article, but this book was written for people who already knew her public story.  I may be reading too much into the story but should get an interesting reaction from Ms. Feldman, either way.

Terrible Virtue is an intriguing title that isn’t really explained in the quote of Margaret Sanger or by the author.  Most readers, myself included, are probably grateful for the deeds that ultimately led to reproductive freedom for women in the U.S. and wondered what was terrible about them.  The answer comes in the form of letters/testimonials by Sanger’s family and friends.  They paid the price by loving someone who could not love them the way they wanted and probably deserved to be loved.  Over and over, Margaret made the choices that contraception would make possible for all women.  It did not paint a pretty picture; it made her appear selfish.  But it did keep her from falling into the traps that had kept virtually all women in misery until she made rebellion her singular goal.

Sanger indulged what ambitious men learned long ago – that great achievements require indifference to expectations, especially those of loved ones.  History is not made by people who cling to comfort and sentiment.  Anyone moved by friends’ ordinary concerns cannot hope to withstand extraordinary challenges from enemies.  This does not mean there are no feelings; it means there are many choices to be made and those choices have consequences.  Margaret Sanger was willing to endure the judgment and disappointment of those she loved to pursue a worthy objective.  Feldman’s book reminds us that heroes are not always seen that way by those who were sacrificed on their journey.        

 

Steve Richardson is a founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association and serves on IndependentVoting.org’s national Election Reform Committee.

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LOU HINMAN

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Terrible Virtue, by Ellen Feldman, is the story of Margaret Sanger, and her pivotal role in the long struggle to make birth control accessible and legal in the United States.

I remember that Lisa McGirr’s book The War on Alcohol (a Politics for the People selection two years ago) exposed how Prohibition was aimed at denying alcohol consumption to poor people, and the rapid influx of working class “foreigners” into American cities.  At the same time, the discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed the well-to-do to go on consuming alcohol.  McGirr showed how the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth, and how it’s overthrow was made possible by the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s and the building of a new electoral coalition.

The struggle for reproductive rights (although not over even now) overlapped the struggle against Prohibition, and involved the same underlying issue.  The rich and the well-to-do had access to birth control, but poor people did not.  Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in American in 1916.  In 1921 (the year after the Prohibition became law) she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

One of the virtues of Feldman’s book is its account of the appalling oppression of poor and working class women without access to birth control.  I have to confess that as a political activist who came of age at about the time that Margaret Sander passed away in 1966, I never thought much about this.

Another important virtue is Feldman’s moving account of Margaret Sanger’s development as a rebel.  Her rebellion was rooted, not in ideology, but in her hatred of oppression, and her fellowship with other working-class women – her sisters.  As she developed as an agitator and organizer, and as support for her work grew, she came to know many wealthy and influential people.  But she never let herself be deflected from her goal, and used her privileged social location to broaden the base of support for her cause.

Another virtue of Ms. Feldman’s book is that she depicts the personal conflicts and sacrifices Margaret Sanger endured in becoming a leader.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

A Review of Terrible Virtue

NY JOURNAL OF BOOKS: TERRIBLE VIRTUE

BY: JANET LEVINE

March 29, 2016

“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.

But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”

With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.

What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.

The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.

Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.

Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.

Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”

This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers Forum–Susan Massad

Review of Terrible Virtue

1/1/17

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Dr. Susan Massad at a recent protest against efforts to privatize and undermine public housing in NYC.

Terrible Virtue is an extraordinarily apt title for this fictional account of the life of Margaret Sanger, rebel, feminist, founder of Planned Parenthood, and crusader for the right for all women to access effective birth control.  Thru diverse narrative voices, of Sanger’s children, her lovers, her sister and husband, the author, Ellen Feldman, gives us a way into the life of this very historically conflicted character.  Margaret Sanger was a  complicated and difficult woman. Called by some, even today, a eugenicist, racist, and quack.  And, for the many women whose cause she championed, Sanger was a hero.

I found myself alternately applauding her and judging her: Self sacrificing and self-centered; champion of the poor and seduced by the rich; passionate lover and manipulator of emotions; single issue cause and worldly vision; love of family and single-minded passion for the cause; rebel and conformist; blind to the individual and embracing the mass.   Many of these contradictions and conflicts that Feldman exposes in the life of this committed social/political activist are ones that I, as a long-time political activist, have experienced and could easily identify with.

In reading the book I realize how close we still are in 2016 to Sanger’s cause of providing effective measures for family planning for all woman. Planned parenthood is under attack, access to effective birth control information restricted, abortion rights greatly curtailed, and funding for research on more effective methods of contraception virtually halted.  America’s deeply religious and moral roots have been exposed as a woman’s right to choose becomes once again a question rather than a fact for millions of women all over the world.

In 1961 I was in my final year of medical school at the University of California in San Francisco when the “pill” was introduced into our world. As part of a routine lecture to our class of 100 students, ten of whom were woman, we were told that there was now a pill that woman could take that would prevent pregnancy.  This rather amazing scientific breakthrough was presented as yet another fact for us to put down in our notebooks–how the pill works, dosage schedules,  side-effects, cost, etc. The derisive comments and  sniggers scattered thru-out the room, and the handful of students who walked out of the lecture hall were not even worthy of comment. To most of us the pill was just one of the amazing contributions that medical science had made to our “can do” post-war society.  We were enamored by science. It was our great love.

At the time, so great was the distance between our science and our lives that I did not even make the connection between my own experiences and this extraordinary breakthrough in technology.  Both of my two sisters had experienced unplanned “out of wedlock” pregnancies.  In our middle class home the pregnancies were concealed from all but close family and friends, and the off-springs sent to a loving families for adoption. I was berated by our family doctor whose office I visited at the age of 21 to ask about being fitted for a diaphragm.  He wanted to know how I could even be thinking of having sex when my sisters had already shamed our family.  And then there were my many friends who had crossed the border to go through the ordeal of a Mexican abortion.  The “pill” like most other scientific breakthroughs, was not neutral. Terrible Virtue is a stark reminder of this fact.

Feldman’s Margaret flirts with spirituality, eugenics and the temptations of an upper class life at the same time she champions the cause of masses of poor woman who did not have access to contraception. The book is bookended with the question, “If you could do it again, would you do it the same?”  In these early years of the 21st Century where a woman’s  right to access effective contraception is again under attack it is not even clear that one could do it the same. Sanger was unique for her time and, to me, her commitment to providing, against all odds, effective means of pregnancy prevention to poor woman is a legacy worth applauding.

Dr. Susan Massad is a retired physician. Dr Massad is on the faculty of the East Side Institute and an activist with the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

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Terrible Virtue–a movie in the making

 

Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger Getting Biopic Treatment From Black Bicycle & Justine Ciarrocchi

Deadline Hollywood

by

December 14, 2016 8:30am

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EXCLUSIVE: As the organization’s centennial year draws to a close, the story of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sander will be heading to the big screen as Black Bicycle Entertainment and producer Justine Ciarrocchi have partnered to acquire rights to author Ellen Feldman’s novel Terrible Virtue. Black Bicycle’s Erika Olde will develop and produce the film adaptation alongside Ciarrocchi.

Ciarrocchi is the producing partner of Jennifer Lawrence and is developing Zelda, which tells the story of Zelda Fitzgerald. Ron Howard is attached to direct the film with Lawrence in the title role. The Oscar-winning actress is not attached to the Sanger project.

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Published by HarperCollins in March, Terrible Virtue focuses on Sanger as the daughter of a hard-drinking, smooth-tongued free thinker and mother worn down by 13 children, who vowed her life would be different. Following Sanger’s training as a nurse, her work alongside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists and other progressives and eventually her devotion to the cause of legalizing contraception, the film examines the risks she took and the impact she had that lasts to the present day.

One of the most groundbreaking and controversial figures in American history, Sanger emerged from the labor movement as the pre-eminent American voice for women’s sexual health and legalization of contraception. Credited with coining the term “birth control,” she established the first American birth control clinic in 1916, devoting her life to making contraception legal and along the way facing arrest and exile.

Sanger remains an icon and hero to progressives and feminists but a greatly reviled figure to the anti-abortion movement, which frequently has taken comments by Sanger about overpopulation out of context to imply racist intent. Work on bringing her story to the big screen begins just as abortion and birth control opponents look to make significant gains with the election of Donald Trump.

“Margaret’s story as an advocate who led the battle for birth control and eventually founding Planned Parenthood is so relevant given our recent election and today’s climate as we are once again forced to deal with basic human rights,” said Olde. “I share a mutual passion of the subject with Justine and look forward to bringing this topic and heroic individual to the forefront.”

Said Ciarrocchi: “The scope of Sanger’s complexity, both as a revolutionary and human being, is extraordinary. I blew through Feldman’s novel with such urgency, struck by the nuance, transparency and daring of her portrait. Her story explores the often brutal nature of activism and, most audaciously, the plight of the female soul. I’m thrilled to have found such passionate partners in Erika and BBE.”

Black Bicycle Entertainment is in production on Home Again, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer; Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead, starring Jessica Chastain, which just wrapped principal photography; and Whitney Cummings’ The Female Brain.

The acquisition of Terrible Virtue was negotiated by CAA, which represents Black Bicycle, Ciarrocchi and Feldman. Feldman is repped for publishing by the Emma Sweeney Agency.

 

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