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The Hidden Hands in Redistricting: Corporations and Other Powerful Interests

(Image: JR / Truthout)

Their names suggest selfless dedication to democracy. Fair Districts Mass. Protect Your Vote. The Center for a Better New Jersey. And their stated goals are unarguable: In the partisan fight to redraw congressional districts, states should stick to the principle of one person, one vote.

But a ProPublica investigation has found that these groups and others are being quietly bankrolled by corporations, unions and other special interests. Their main interest in the once-a-decade political fight over redistricting is not to help voters in the communities they claim to represent but mainly to improve the prospects of their political allies or to harm their enemies.

The number of these purportedly independent redistricting groups is rising, but their ties remain murky. Contributions to such groups are not limited by campaign finance laws, and most states allow them to take unlimited amounts of money without disclosing the source.

Today’s story is the first chapter in an in-depth examination of how powerful players are turning to increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques to game the redistricting process, with voters ultimately losing.

For special interests, there’s a huge potential payoff from investing in such efforts.

“Reshaping a map is very powerful” for donors, said Spencer Kimball, a political consultant who is executive director of Boston-based Fair Districts Mass. “It’s a big opportunity to have influence at the state level and the congressional level not one race at a time but for 10 years.”

Skillful redistricting can, of course, help create Republican or Democratic districts, but it can also grace incumbents with virtually guaranteed re-election or leave them with nearly no chance at all. In the process, it can also create seats almost certain to be held by minorities or break those same groups apart, ensuring that they have almost no voice.

But it’s not cheap, and that’s where corporations and other outside interests come in. They can provide the cash for voter data, mapping consultants and lobbyists to influence state legislators, who are in charge of redistricting in most states. Outside interests can also fund the inevitable lawsuits that contest nearly every state's redistricting plan after it is unveiled.

In Minnesota, for instance, the Republicans’ legal efforts to influence redistricting arebeing financed through a group called Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting.

Fair Redistricting describes itself as independent, but it has much of its leadership in common with the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a group with ties to the political empire of the Koch brothers, industrialists from Kansas who’ve spent millions funding conservative causes. The head of the Freedom Foundation, Annette Meeks, told ProPublica she has “no involvement” with Fair Redistricting. But both organizations’ tax filings list the same address: Meeks’ home address.

Fair Redistricting is registered under the name of her husband, Jack Meeks, who is also on the board of the Freedom Foundation. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Who is actually paying for Fair Redistricting’s lawsuit and lawyers? And what district lines are they pushing for? The group doesn’t have to say and has so far kept its finances and plans under wraps. Annette Meeks did not respond to questions about the group’s donors or its ties to the Koch brothers, but she said the group complies with all legal filing requirements. But the group’s public tax filings contain no information on its contributors.

Fair Districts Mass, which says it’s advocating better representation of minorities in and around Boston, is another window into how money can move through the system. The group describes itself as “citizen-funded.” But it also sought permission from state election officials for unlimited corporate funding. Donations “can include corporate contributions,” the group’s website announces. “Better yet,” the site notes, “we are not required to file reports regarding donations or expenditures.”

The group says its proposed maps would lead to better representation of Latinos and African-Americans.

“Minorities are very underrepresented in Massachusetts politics,” said Kimball, the group’s executive director. “We’re here to change that.”

But minority groups say Fair Districts' proposed maps would not likely help them. (See ourinteractive feature showing the group’s maps and our analysis.)

“I don’t see a person of color getting elected in this district, if that’s the goal,” said Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of Oiste, looking at one of the maps Fair Districts has touted as helping Latinos and African-Americans. Oiste has been fighting for increased Latino representation and civic participation in the state for more than a decade.

“Even though the numbers might look as if that might be favorable to communities of color,” St. Guillen said, “if you look at voting patterns, it actually wouldn’t be.”

Others from Massachusetts have said the proposals made by Fair Districts Mass wouldn’t help them at all. At a town hall meeting in Lynn, which would be cut out of its historic district along Boston’s North Shore by the proposal, labor unions, the city's chamber of commerce and politicians from both parties converged on the town hall, urging that the board not adopt a plan that would carve out Lynn.

Lynn's Latino business owners are “very proud to be a part of the North Shore,” said Frances Martinez, executive director of the North Shore Latino Business Association. “Our business owners decided to come here because they know this is a place to stay and grow for their families. Please keep the district together.”

What Fair Districts’ proposals would do is hurt the traditional pro-labor and Democratic incumbents in the area. For instance, Lynn’s notably pro-union congressman, John Tierney, would effectively be drawn out of a seat—a finding included in the group’s own research.

Fair Districts can raise unlimited, undisclosed cash for its efforts, thanks to an innovative argument it made to state election officials.

This strategy had its roots in a lesson learned 20 years ago by a Republican redistricting guru named Dan Winslow. During the 1990 redistricting cycle, Winslow twice sought permission from state election officials for a group called the Republican Redistricting Committee to accept unlimited corporate donations without having to disclose them.

At the time, Winslow argued that the group didn’t have specific political aims and would also provide redistricting resources to minority groups.

Each time, the board refused to exempt the organization from campaign finance laws on the grounds that a group with “Republican” in its name and Republican politicians as leaders could not credibly claim to be independent.

Last year, a lawyer in Winslow’s firm filed an almost identical request to accept unlimited corporate donations, but this time for a group that left “Republican” out of its name. The state agreed to his request. The group he was filing for? Fair Districts Mass.

Winslow, now a Republican state representative and legal adviser to Fair Districts, said the group has no partisan agenda.

“It’s not about shifting Massachusetts from Democrat to Republican,” Winslow said. “It creates an opportunity for challenges, for challengers to challenge the status quo.”

Fair Districts Mass Chairman Jack Robinson has run unsuccessfully for Congress three times as a Republican. Last year, when he announced the formation of Fair Districts, he said he was changing his registration to Independent.

Robinson said that change was important to Fair Districts’ “unique” ability to accept undisclosed corporate donations.

“In order to show that we are really nonpartisan, I decided to become an independent,” Robinson said.

Robinson also said the lack of disclosure has benefits.

“This is a very political process,” he said. “If you’re running a company in Newton, Mass., where Barney Frank is, and you want to donate to us, and our plan says Barney Frank has to run against another congressman, I could understand why people would not want to disclose their donations.” Frank is, of course, a powerful Democratic congressman.

The national Democratic and Republican parties are also working to limit disclosures about fundraising for redistricting. Both parties have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on redistricting through their traditional conduits of money into state politics, the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. And both have been pushing to keep increasing parts of those efforts exempt from disclosure requirements.

Last year, the National Democratic Redistricting Trust sought and was granted permission by the Federal Election Commission to allow members of Congress to solicit unlimited, undisclosed donations for the trust. The group, set up to fund lawsuits that inevitably spring up during redistricting fights, argued that redistricting is not a primarily political activity. Legislators doing the same fundraising, but directly for their parties, would be violating McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws. The trust is currently funding the Democratic legal response to Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting.

The GOP formed its own opaque group dedicated to redistricting. Making America’s Promise Secure, which was headed by prominent Republicans Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, was able to secure 501(c)4 status from the IRS as a “social welfare”organization—the same status granted Disabled American Veterans and the Lumberjack World Championships Foundation. Groups with that status do not have to disclose donors or how they spend money. And there is no limit on how much individual donors can contribute.

Florida, railroads and friends

As old hands at redistricting like to say, it’s personal. Working at the state level, you can give lasting help, or demonstrate your loyalty, to not just one party or the other but to specific candidates, who may one day return the favor.

Congresswoman Corrine Brown, an African-American Democrat from Florida, appears to be a case in point. Brown represents one of the most irregularly shaped districts in the nation. It is 150 miles long but only the width of a highway bridge at its narrowest point and scoops heavily African-American neighborhoods out of Orlando, Gainesville and Jacksonville. (See our interactive map of Brown’s district and our analysis.)

The result of a deal between Republicans and minority representatives in the state legislature, the district and ones like it helped elect a more diverse congressional delegation but also ensured that the remaining districts would be whiter—and more Republican—because minority voters, who tend to vote for Democrats, had been carved out. Redistricting professionals call that “bleaching.”

Republicans gained control of the state legislature in 1996 after decades of Democratic control and have held it ever since.

Brown, then a state assemblywoman, had worked with Republicans to create the district. She subsequently ran for Congress in it and won. She has been unbeatable ever since. (Even though 2010 was a tough year for Democrats in Florida, she still won by a landslide.)

Her seat finally was threatened last year when a coalition of unions, civic groups and Democrats got a pair of anti-gerrymandering amendments on Florida’s ballot. The amendments banned legislative districts drawn to help or hurt particular incumbents or parties. To make it clear that the amendments were not an attempt to pre-empt the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they also explicitly ban the drawing of districts to deny representation to minority groups.

Florida’s black legislative caucus and the state chapter of the NAACP endorsed the amendments, as did Democracia, a Latino political group.

But Brown opposed the effort, becoming the “African-American Chairwoman” of a group called Protect Your Vote. The group, Brown said at news conferences and in public statements, would be a bulwark against the harm the amendments would do to minority voting rights.

The NAACP strongly condemned Brown’s position and issued a statement criticizing “the blatant use of scare tactics with African-Americans and Hispanics to justify the continued gerrymandering of districts that benefit only politicians.”

Though Protect Your Vote had little support from representatives of the minority groups whose rights it was supposedly trying to protect, it had a lot of support from corporate donors, who gave nearly $800,000. (The contributions were reported because they related to a ballot measure. Normally, donations to Florida redistricting efforts don’t have to be disclosed.)

Among Protect Your Vote’s supporters were two of Brown’s own corporate donors.

Last year, Honeywell International PAC gave Protect Your Vote $25,000. The same year, the PAC gave Corrine Brown’s campaign $10,000. Also in 2010, Honeywell hired a former Brown aide as a lobbyist, according to federal lobbying disclosures. And many of the company’s government contracts fall under the purview of Brown’s membership on the Transportation and Infrastructure and Veterans’ Affairs committees.

In a statement, Honeywell said its PAC contributed money to defeat the anti-gerrymandering amendments because it supports “redistricting that is consistent with the historical practices that have served the State’s many diverse constituents well for decades.”

Another $25,000 donation to Protect Your Vote came from CSX Transportation Corp., a Jacksonville-based railroad and trucking company.

CSX has a long, friendly history with Brown, the ranking Democratic member of the House subcommittee on railroads.

Brown championed the controversial SunRail commuter rail project, using her position on the subcommittee to help secure federal funding that made the $1.2 billion project possible. The SunRail deal is worth more than $600 million to CSX. (Here's a video of Brown on the House floor extolling the virtues of the plan.)

Federal officials raised questions about just how many commuters the project would serve, and the Federal Transit Administration ranked the SunRail project last in terms of cost effectiveness on a recent list of national projects in the “final design” phase.

“The Protect Your Vote campaign had strong, bipartisan support, and was intended to maintain the integrity of reapportionment,” said CSX spokesman Gary Sease. “As a Florida-based corporation, we supported this bipartisan initiative.”

In November 2010, the Florida amendments passed despite Protect Your Vote’s efforts. The group filed an appeal in federal court shortly thereafter, alleging, among other things, that the new redistricting methodology outlined in the amendments did not do enough to protect incumbents. The suit was thrown out Sept. 9.

Brown and Protect Your Vote filed an appeal, vowing to take the case as far as the Supreme Court.

Brown declined to comment, saying it was a legal matter.

Unions and others play the game in California

Corporations, of course, are not the only special interests that have intervened in the redistricting process in less-than-transparent ways.

Last year, unions and others spent millions in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to kill a proposition making redistricting fairer and more transparent in California. The proposition put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission, a move opposed by Democratic politicians in the state legislature and Congress who stood to lose comfortable districts that in many cases were drawn personally for them.

The group called itself Yes on Fair, Yes on 27, No on 20—A Coalition of Entrepreneurs, Working People, Businesses, Community Leaders Such as Karen Bass, & Other Concerned Citizens Devoted to Eliminating Bureaucratic Waste. But most of the more than $7 million the group raised came from unions, large individual donations from prominent Democratic donors like George Soros—and no fewer than 35 Democratic politicians. (Disclosure: A Soros foundation has also provided a small portion of ProPublica’s funding.)

Among the group’s donors were Nancy Pelosi; above-mentioned “community leader” Karen Bass, who was speaker of the state assembly at the time and has since been elected to Congress; and Congresswoman Lois Capps, whose coast-hugging district was so long and narrow it was nicknamed the “ribbon of shame.”

Bass now says she supported the idea of an independent redistricting commission. However, based on how the commission was designed, “I was concerned about the impact on representation from communities of color.”

Capps did not respond to requests for comment.

The group immediately spent its cash to deploy some of the most questionable tactics endemic to California’s ballot-measure system. Nearly $3 million was spent on professional signature gatherers and another $1.8 million on California’s notoriously misleading voter guides. The mailers come from legitimate-sounding groups that are actually fictions cooked up by political consultants to mislead voters.

Though Yes on Fair was funded exclusively by Democratic interests, it spent $64,000 on the “Continuing the Republican Revolution” voter guide, which featured a bald eagle and a quote honoring Ronald Reagan at the top but urged voters to reject the citizens’ redistricting commission on the grounds that it represented bureaucratic waste. Similar voter guides were sent out representing fictitious religious, feminist, environmentalist and law-enforcement groups. Perhaps the most insidious was the “Our Voice Latino Voter Guide,” which urged a vote against establishing the citizens' commission even though Latinos stood to greatly benefit from it.

Despite Yes on Fair’s efforts, the measure for the commission passed anyway.

Once the commission was created, it offered another, limited glimpse into business interests’ attempts to influence redistricting.

An early participant in the state’s redistricting process was the California Institute for Jobs, Economy and Education, which submitted proposed district maps and testified before the redistricting commission.

But there is little evidence of the institute’s existence. It has no website and has published no scholarly research. The institute first shows up in public records, registered as a corporation in California in May 2011, just after the redistricting process had begun. It is registered with the same street address and suite number as Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, a law firm that specializes in campaign finance and lobbying law.

The entity’s true purpose, according to someone close to it, was to represent “business interests” across California. Top-level individuals involved with the so-called institute also have ties to JOBS PAC, a pro-business committee in California that lists Philip Morris, AT&T and Chevron as donors.

Tom Hiltachk, managing partner at the firm that shares its address with the institute, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Intern Ariel Wittenberg also contributed reporting to this story. Azavea provided geographic services.

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