Eric Holder addresses Wisconsin redistricting panel, prompting criticism from GOP

MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers’ redistricting commission heard from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at its first meeting Thursday, as Republicans and Democrats squabbled over whether the panel’s work will be tainted by partisanship.     

The Democratic governor has called for drawing election maps in a nonpartisan way, but the panel he has assembled tilts toward his party. 

Three of the nine commissioners have donated to Democratic candidates (compared with one who has donated to Republican candidates). One of the judges who helped select the commissioners recently endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

And the marquee testimony Thursday came from Holder, who served as President Barack Obama’s attorney general and now leads the Democratic National Redistricting Committee

ARCHIVES:New election data highlights the ongoing impact of 2011 GOP redistricting in Wisconsin

Republican state lawmakers said that showed the panel is biased, but commissioners said in their virtual hearing all they want to do is draw fair maps.

“Our goal is not to get bogged down in politics and our goal is not to infight, not to address this important task with the party line’s approach,” said the commission’s chairman, Christopher Ford, who has not made political donations.  

“We hope to create a map free of partisan bias and advantage.”

Anthony Phillips, who has given about $7,400 to Republicans, said he got involved because he sees gerrymandering as a cause of government dysfunction. 

“I feel, like most of us, that our democracy is a bit of a mess,” he said. “And I’d like to ensure a better democracy for our children.”

But GOP legislative leaders see it differently. 

“The commission is hardly nonpartisan with (Gov. Scott) Walker recall signers, contributors to political candidates, members of a liberal organization and (a role for) a judge who just endorsed Joe Biden for president,” said a statement from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.

His swipe at a liberal organization was a reference to two commissioners belonging to the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, which has pushed for nonpartisan redistricting and sided with Democrats on much of its lobbying agenda.

In a brief appearance, Holder noted Republican lawmakers took just seconds last year to shut down a special legislative session on requiring background checks for all gun purchases even though the idea is supported by 80% of Wisconsinites. 

“That is the kind of political cowardice that you see when people lock in legislative power through gerrymandering,” Holder said.

“Gerrymandering’s corrosive effects on our politics have contributed to gridlock and polarization, and that then leads to cynicism too many Americans feel about our government. Gerrymandering is truly an attack on our democracy. We now have politicians who are unaccountable to the people.”

Andrew Hitt, chairman of the state Republican Party, said having Holder testify made it plain that the commission is stacked for Democrats. 

“The idea that Governor Evers’ commission is somehow ‘nonpartisan’ is a joke,” he said in a statement.

Also testifying Thursday was Ruth Greenwood, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center of Washington, D.C. She represented Democrats in a challenge to Wisconsin’s maps but also went to court to fight a Maryland map that hurt Republicans. 

She has also worked to prevent gerrymandering by Democrats in Illinois, Virginia and Colorado.

“My passion for fair maps has nothing to do with whatever party might be in the majority in a state at any given time,” she said by email. “I will keep working with people of all parties to ensure that the voices of voters, not politicians, are heard through (the) redistricting process and in the resulting plans.”

States must draw new election maps every 10 years after each census to account for changes in populations. The shape of the districts can play a decisive role in which party controls state legislatures and Congress.

Republicans in Wisconsin controlled all of state government in 2011 and were able to draw maps that benefited them. This time, they may have to negotiate with Evers because of his veto powers. 

The commission Evers has formed has no formal powers. He wants the Legislature to take up the maps that it draws, but Vos and other Republicans have said they won’t do that.

“The Wisconsin Constitution clearly places the responsibility of redistricting with the Legislature, not with a partisan commission,” Vos said in his statement. “We will be following the constitution. The bill will go through the regular legislative process, which will allow for legislative and public input.”

If Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on maps, courts will have to decide where the district lines go. In that case, it’s possible the commission’s maps would be presented to the courts for them to consider. 

The commission was selected by a panel of three retired judges, including former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who endorsed Biden last month. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.