For six years, Eric Holder was the nation's top law enforcement official, serving as U.S. Attorney General under President Barack Obama.
Now the former attorney general has taken up a new cause — ending gerrymandering and bringing reform to the way political districts are drawn — and he brought the fight to Columbia on Thursday.
Holder, who is serving as the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led a panel discussion on gerrymandering at Second Nazareth Baptist Church in the Edgewood neighborhood. Other Democrats on the panel included state House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, state Sens. John Scott and Mia McLeod and former state Democratic Party chairman and current U.S. Senate candidate Jaime Harrison. About 100 people attended the event at the 116-year-old church in the predominantly African-American neighborhood.
With the U.S. census set for 2020, and redistricting at all levels of government to follow in 2021, Holder is pushing for district maps to be drawn in a more fair manner, noting that maps are often manipulated along racial lines, and created in a way that protects incumbents.
"We create these 'safe' districts for Republicans, and let's be fair now, we create them for Democrats, as well, and then [politicians] only have to worry about a primary, as opposed to a general election," Holder said. "That means that, if you are in a 'safe' seat, you have to move further and further to the right [politically], or further and further to the left, and the notion of compromise is seen as a weakness, and things therefore don't get done. Then we have [governmental] gridlock that creates cynicism and people lose faith in our system of government.
"That's not the way the founders intended it to be. We need to have lines drawn in a fair way."
Holder insisted his redistricting reform push is not meant to create political districts that swing in favor of Democrats. He noted that former Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined him in the anti-gerrymandering push. Schwarzenegger has called gerrymandering a "national scandal."
"We are not here to gerrymander for Democrats," Holder said Thursday. "That's not what we are all about. We are here to make sure the line drawing is done in a fair way. ... If the battle is really about ideologies, about policies, about philosophies, Democrats and progressives will do just fine against conservatives and against Republicans."
Gerrymandering is a way of political life in South Carolina, where the Republican controlled Legislature has drawn state House and Senate boundaries that often break down along racial lines and produce very few swing races in general elections. A vast majority of the seats in the Legislature are "safe" for one party or the other.
The state Legislature also draws U.S. House district lines every 10 years, most of which have been been considered safe for Republicans, save for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's Democratic stronghold in the Sixth District. And there is the First District, which flipped to a Democrat for the first time in almost 40 years in 2018 when Joe Cunningham won the seat. A number of factors contributed to Cunningham's narrow victory, including the quickly booming population of the Charleston area.
"The system is designed in such a way, in many places, that politicians are picking their voters, and people who are casting ballots don't have an opportunity to choose who they really want to be their representatives," Holder said. "We've got to change that."
Holder says a first step in redistricting reform is to get a good, robust count of the population in the 2020 census. He's concerned about the Trump administration's insistence that a citizenship question be on that census. While courts are still determining whether that question will appear on the census, NPR reports that the Census Bureau is already sending out test questionnaires with the question "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"
"What they are really trying to do is to try to diminish the [census] count in certain communities," Holder noted. "Let me be frank: They want fewer Hispanics counted. They have created a climate of fear around the whole question of immigration, and they think they can build on that fear by asking that citizenship question."
Harrison, currently the associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, stressed that undercounts in the census can drastically affect federal money that is allotted to different areas.
"Federal resources are allocated based on census tracts, the counting of individuals in those particular areas," Harrison said. "So, if you undercount, then that means that resources that could flow into those areas no longer does that. So, when you are looking at resources as it relates to health care or resources impacting the environment, those resources will not flow into communities [that are undercounted]."
On the local level, the City of Columbia has started a committee that is expressly working on making sure the Capital City is not undercounted in the 2020 census.
Lexington County resident Rosamunda Peggy Butler came to Thursday's forum, and expressed concern about gerrymandering. An African-American woman and a former member of West Columbia City Council, Butler says she feels underrepresented in Lexington County, where the population has swelled to near 300,000.
"I live in Lexington, which is one of the largest and most affluent counties in South Carolina," Butler says. "However, it doesn't look like me. We have no [black] representation on Lexington County Council. My school board does not reflect me. ... I was the first African-American elected to West Columbia City Council in 1993, 26 years ago. Nothing has changed, and it won't until we get those numbers right as far as redistricting, gerrymandering and the census."
Butler's concern is not unfounded. The population of Lexington County is right at 295,000. About 15 percent of its residents are African-American (about 44,250 people), and yet none of its County Council members are black, and all 14 members of its legislative delegation are white.