Thirty years ago, Republicans thought ending gerrymandering was a good idea. They were right.

Listening to congressional Republicans today, Democrats’ democracy reform bills are “a brazen power grab” and “the single most dangerous piece of legislation pending in the United States Congress.” Yet, one of the most important reforms being advanced by Democrats today — the redistricting provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act — isn’t a Democratic idea at all but a Republican one.

The year was 1989. The next round of congressional redistricting wouldn’t be for another two years, but Republicans were already worried. With the Democratic Party in control of key state legislatures and governorships, Democrats would have free rein to gerrymander maps to guarantee themselves a comfortable majority in the House for the coming decade. For Republicans, that meant continuing to be consigned to the same perpetual minority they had been in since 1957 — even though they regularly won half the nationwide congressional vote and in many parts of the country were becoming increasingly competitive.

But President George H.W. Bush, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and other Republicans had a bold idea: pass federal legislation to make the map-drawing process fairer.

In June 1989, the Bush administration told reporters that it would push for passage of “legislation aimed at outlawing gerrymandering.” The core of the proposal would be “‘neutral criteria’ to be used in drawing the nation’s congressional districts after the 1990 census.” If states refused to follow these criteria when drawing districts, voters would have the ability to take states to court to force a redraw of maps.

To be sure, Republicans conceded that redistricting reforms faced an uphill fight in a Congress dominated by Democrats. But they strongly pushed back against Democratic accusations that the legislation was merely a GOP power grab. At a press conference in late June 1989, Bush told reporters that he was “outraged by a suggestion of that nature” and that he was “looking [at the matter] as objectively as I can.”

Sen. McConnell and congressional Republicans would go on to include redistricting reform in not one, but three separate democracy reform bills they would propose over the next two years. (In a reverse echo of the fights today, not a single Democrat would co-sponsor any of the bills.) Read more

Republicans torpedo debate on voting rights in dangerous moment for democracy

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When Senate Republicans voted unanimously to block debate on the Freedom to Vote Act on Wednesday, they fulfilled Mitch McConnell’s “hope and anticipation” that not a single GOP senator would break ranks — ensuring that a measure protecting voting rights and secure elections, increasing campaign finance transparency and cracking down on partisan gerrymandering would not come to the floor.

So much for West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin’s promise to get 10 GOP colleagues to support the compromise bill, which he led.

It’s a perilous moment for democracy.

Now Democrats must decide if they are going to push to abolish the filibuster to secure voting rights, or whether they will let Republican state legislatures, which are making an unprecedented push to curtail voting rights, run the table in the 2022 and 2024 elections and for the next 10 years as as they draw new voting districts based on the 2020 census.

The stakes are high.

Molly McGrath, a voting rights attorney, advocate, and organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project told the Wisconsin TV show Up Front’s Mike Gousha on Wednesday that in the absence of federal action, state-level voter suppression bills around the country could determine the outcome of elections for years to come. “It’s almost like death by 1,000 cuts,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of restrictions that are going to have a very, very big impact on people who will be able to cast a ballot, a huge impact on traditionally disenfranchised communities.”

The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported that, in an unprecedented year so far for voting legislation, 19 states have enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote.

All of those state laws make it absolutely essential for Congress to act to protect voting rights, McGrath said. “Doing nothing doesn’t keep us in neutral,” she explained. “Doing nothing on the federal level actually takes us backward.” Read more

Number of religious leaders, people of faith condemning Lt. Governor’s “filth” remark against LGBTQ community grows

Rev. Nancy Petty of Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.

Though Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s hateful attack on LGBTQ people was uttered in a Christian church, it continues to draw a growing chorus of condemnations and calls for his resignation from people of faith and religious leaders. Last week, a group of North Carolina-based church leaders issued a rebuke to Robinson in an event outside of his official office. The group demanded:

— that Robinson plainly and publicly apologize for his remarks and the damage they inflicted on LGBTQ people everywhere,

— that he sit down and engage in dialogue with the protesting group,

— failing items #1 and 2, that he resign or be removed from office.

 

Today, the national group Faithful America (which is organizing a petition calling for Robinson’s resignation) issued this statement:

Washington, D.C. — For months, far-right Christian nationalists have turned public school board meetings into battlefields, waging their culture wars at the expense of children’s education. These incidents have sprung up around the country, but North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson is taking the practice to a whole new level by telling a church congregation that right-wing Christians should take over public schools to prevent the teaching of LGBTQ equality.

Nearly 10,000 members of Faithful America and counting, the largest online community of Christians acting for love and social justice, are now calling on Robinson to resign. Their voices join a chorus of other organizations who are exerting pressure as well, including People for the American Way, the Human Rights Campaign, and multiple state senators in North Carolina.

Video of Robinson’s remarks surfaced this month in which you can clearly hear him tell a room full of congregants “there’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth.” The comments were made this past summer.

After public outcry, Robinson has refused to so much as apologize for his comments, instead insisting that his warped religious beliefs about LGBTQ people are separate from his political responsibilities. But the truth is, he has a long history of making religiously-charged political statements, including incorrectly calling America a “Christian nation.”

Needless to say, Robinson’s expressed views on the LGBTQ community are an affront to the Gospel as much as they are an affront to public office.

“Derision and exclusion are antithetical to the loving and inclusive teachings of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to open our arms and our hearts to all of our neighbors, to respect the God-given dignity of all of God’s creation, and to never turn away a person because of who or how they love,” said Rev. Nathan Empsall, executive director of Faithful America. “Lt. Gov. Robinson’s remarks are a vile betrayal of Christian values, and Faithful America’s members have no patience for anyone who hijacks Jesus’s name to advance a political agenda of hate and division.”

Meanwhile a large group of North Carolina-based Jewish leaders weighed in as well:

We, the undersigned, condemn Lt. Governor Mark Robinson’s continued bigoted rhetoric attacking the North Carolina LGBTQ community. While the Lt. Governor recently attempted to justify his hateful words, we find his clarification to be lacking. Given his history of inflammatory statements, we demand he clearly and unequivocally apologize.

In the Book of Genesis, we read very clearly that God has created humanity in the Divine Image, which compels us to recognize all of humanity to be a part of the Creation and deserving of our support and love, not hatred nor insult. Members of the LGBTQ community, like the rest of us, are created in the image of God and have added tremendously to the lives of people in this state and country. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect as individuals, let alone for their contributions to our world.

Lt. Governor Robinson’s oratory and writings have been laced with Holocaust-themed language, which not only belittles the six million Jews and members of the LGBTQ community who were murdered during the Holocaust, but is particularly frightening in light of growing antisemitism and homophobic acts which we witness in North Carolina and the U.S.

The Book of Proverbs teaches, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” (Pr. 18:21)

Lt. Governor: Your cruel, damaging words have real-world consequences. LGBTQ youth are at great risk for suicide and self-harm. We have lost faith in your leadership and find your rhetoric to be blasphemous.

Acknowledge and apologize, repair and change your ways, Lt. Governor. Those are the steps of the repentant soul. We can no longer tolerate an elected official who holds such a high office in our great state of North Carolina speaking with such vitriolic, antisemitic, and homophobic language that reflects so poorly on our state, incites further hatred and life-threatening behaviors, and only divides our population.

Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon, Beth David Synagogue, Greensboro
Rabbi Philip J. Bentley, Agudas Israel Congregation, Hendersonville
Rabbi Kenneth Brickman, Sandhills Jewish Congregation, Pinehurst
Rabbi Mark Cohn, Temple Emanuel, Winston-Salem
Rabbi Robin Damsky, Limitless Judaism, Durham
Rabbi Lucy Dinner, Temple Beth Or, Raleigh
Rabbi Ariel Edery, Beth Shalom, Raleigh
Rabbi Dr. Andrew Vogel Ettin, Temple Israel, Salisbury
Rabbi Libby Fischer, Temple Emanuel, Greensboro
Rabbi John Friedman, Durham
Rabbi Fred Guttman, Emeritus, Temple Emanuel, Greensboro
Rabbi Rachael Jackson, Agudas Israel Congregation, Hendersonville
Rabbi Raachel Jurovics, Ph.D., Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina
Rabbi Asher Knight, Temple Beth El, Charlotte
Rabbi Andy Koren, Temple Emanuel, Greensboro
Cantor Karen N. Kumin, Yavneh: A Jewish Renewal Community, Raleigh
Rabbi Mitchell Levine, Congregation Beth Israel, Asheville
Rabbi Dr. Laura Lieber, Duke University, Durham
Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov, Temple Israel, Wilmington
Cantor Jacqueline Marx, Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary, Carrboro
Rabbi Batsheva Meiri, Congregation Beth HaTephila, Asheville
Rabbi Rachel Smookler, The Ruach Community, Charlotte
Rabbi Matthew Soffer, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham
Rabbi Eric Solomon, Beth Meyer Synagogue, Raleigh
Rabbi Jennifer Solomon, Beth Meyer Synagogue, Raleigh
Rabbi Michael Wolk, Temple Israel, Charlotte

At home in Scranton, facing a fight in D.C., Biden pitches his sprawling domestic agenda

President Joe Biden pitches his Build Back Better agenda during a stop in his childhood hometown of Scranton, Pa., on Wednesday, 10/20/21 (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla).

President declares “I think people are beginning to figure out what’s at stake”

SCRANTON, Pa. — President Joe Biden took the stage Wednesday in his childhood hometown surrounded by striking images of America’s infrastructure.

A retired Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority railcar sitting to his far right offered an example of how neglected the country’s infrastructure has been. Its letters were barely visible. The door’s paint was scuffed and faded.

Next to it, however, stood a refurbished trolley car, decked out in patriotic pennants and “Build Back Better” signs.

Biden used his speech at Electric City Trolley Museum in downtown Scranton to argue his signature domestic agenda will make the nation’s infrastructure resemble the tricked-out trolley instead of the rusted-out railcar.

That change will improve the nation’s economy and environment, he said.

“Did you realize the Chinese are now building a train that will go up to 300 miles per hour?” Biden asked. “You say, ‘What difference does that make, Biden?’ Well, guess what? If you can take a train from here to Washington much faster than you can go in an automobile, you take a train. We will take literally millions of automobiles off the road, saving tens of millions of barrels of oil.”

After spending the first few months of his administration dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and getting the nation vaccinated, the president has moved on to expansive infrastructure and economic plans.

They would include massive investments in transportation, broadband, early childhood education, and other areas. However, the razor-thin majority Democrats hold in Congress has meant a protracted and frustrating legislative fight for the president.

He’s not giving up. Read more

Oath Keepers in the State House: How a militia movement took root in the Republican mainstream

Rep. Mike Clampitt

Rep. Keith Kidwell

This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

North Carolina state representative Mike Clampitt swore an oath to uphold the Constitution after his election in 2016 and again in 2020. But there’s another pledge that Clampitt said he’s upholding: to the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militant organization.

Dozens of Oath Keepers have been arrested in connection to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, some of them looking like a paramilitary group, wearing camo helmets and flak vests. But a list of more than 35,000 members of the Oath Keepers — obtained by an anonymous hacker and shared with ProPublica by the whistleblower group Distributed Denial of Secrets — underscores how the organization is evolving into a force within the Republican Party.

ProPublica identified Clampitt and 47 more state and local government officials on the list, all Republicans: 10 sitting state lawmakers; two former state representatives; one current state assembly candidate; a state legislative aide; a city council assistant; county commissioners in Indiana, Arizona and North Carolina; two town aldermen; sheriffs or constables in Montana, Texas and Kentucky; state investigators in Texas and Louisiana; and a New Jersey town’s public works director.

ProPublica’s analysis also found more than 400 people who signed up for membership or newsletters using government, military or political campaign email addresses, including candidates for Congress and sheriff, a retired assistant school superintendent in Alabama, and an award-winning elementary school teacher in California.

Three of the state lawmakers on the list had already been publicly identified with the Oath Keepers. Other outlets have alsoscouredthelist, finding police officers and military veterans.

People with law enforcement and military backgrounds — like Clampitt, a retired fire captain in Charlotte, North Carolina — have been the focus of the Oath Keepers’ recruiting efforts since the group started in 2009. According to researchers who monitor the group’s activities, Oath Keepers pledge to resist if the federal government imposes martial law, invades a state or takes people’s guns, ideas that show up in a dark swirl of right-wing conspiracy theories. The group is loosely organized and its leaders do not centrally issue commands. The organization’s roster has ballooned in recent years, from less than 10,000 members at the start of 2011 to more than 35,000 by 2020, membership records show.

The hacked list marks participants as annual ($50) or lifetime ($1,000) members, so not everyone on the list is currently active, though some said they viewed it as a lifelong commitment even if they only paid for one year. Many members said they had little contact with the group after sending in their dues but still supported the cause. Others drifted away and disavowed the group, even before Jan. 6.

The list also includes at least three people who were arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and who federal prosecutors did not identify as Oath Keepers in charging documents: Andrew Alan Hernandez of Riverside, California; Dawn Frankowski of Naperville, Illinois; and Sean David Watson of Alpine, Texas. They pleaded not guilty. These defendants, their attorneys and family members didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Justice Department also declined to comment.

According to experts who monitor violent extremism, the Oath Keepers’ broadening membership provides the group with two crucial resources: money and, particularly when government officials get involved, legitimacy.

Clampitt said he went to a few Oath Keepers meetings when he joined back in 2014, but the way he participates now is by being a state legislator. He has co-sponsored a bill to allow elected officials to carry concealed guns in courthouses, schools and government buildings, and he supported legislation stiffening penalties for violent demonstrations in response to last year’s protests in Raleigh over George Floyd’s murder. Clampitt said he opposes violence but stood by his Oath Keepers affiliation, despite the dozens of members charged in the Capitol riot.

“Five or six years ago, politicians wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with Oath Keepers, you’d have to go pretty fringe,” said Jared Holt, who monitors the group for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “When groups like that become emboldened, it makes them significantly more dangerous.”

The state lawmakers

Then-state Delegate Don Dwyer from Maryland was the only elected official at the Oath Keepers’ first rally, back in April 2009. Dwyer was, by his own account, a pariah in Annapolis, but he was building a national profile as a conservative firebrand. He claimed to take direction from his own interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and a personal library of 230 books about U.S. history pre-1900.

The Oath Keepers’ founder, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate named Stewart Rhodes, invited Dwyer to speak at the group’s kickoff rally — they called it a “muster” — in Lexington, Massachusetts, the site of the “shot heard round the world” that started the Revolutionary War in 1775.

“I still support the cause,” Dwyer told ProPublica. “And I’m proud to say that I’m a member of that organization.” He left politics in 2015 and served six months in prison for violating his probation after a drunk boating accident.

Dwyer said he was not aware of the Oath Keeper’s presence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. “If they were there, they were there on a peaceful mission, I’m sure of it,” he said. Informed that members were photographed wearing tactical gear, Dwyer responded, “OK, that surprises me. That’s all I’ll say.”

Among the current officeholders on the list is Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, who was already publicly identified with the Oath Keepers. Finchem was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 but has said he did not enter the building or engage in violence, and he has disputed the characterization of the Oath Keepers as an anti-government group. He is currently running to be Arizona’s top elections official, and he won former President Donald Trump’s endorsement in September.

Serving with Clampitt in the North Carolina General Assembly, deputy majority whip Keith Kidwell appeared on the Oath Keepers list as an annual member in 2012. Kidwell declined to comment, calling the membership list “stolen information.” A spokesperson for the state house speaker declined to comment on Kidwell’s and Clampitt’s Oath Keepers affiliation. Read more