In State Legislatures are Torching Democracy, which appears in this week’s New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer examines what is happening in my state, Ohio, as an exemplar of what’s gone wrong in American politics.
Mayer recounts an interview with David Niven, a political science professor from the University of Cincinnati, who, “told me that, according to one study, the laws being passed by Ohio’s statehouse place it to the right of the deeply conservative legislature in South Carolina. How did this happen, given that most Ohio voters are not ultraconservatives? ‘It’s all about gerrymandering,’ Niven told me. The legislative-district maps in Ohio have been deliberately drawn so that many Republicans effectively cannot lose, all but insuring that the Party has a veto-proof supermajority. As a result, the only contests most Republican incumbents need to worry about are the primaries—and because hard-core partisans dominate the vote in those contests, the sole threat most Republican incumbents face is the possibility of being outflanked by a rival even farther to the right.”
Ted Strickland, Ohio’s Democratic governor from 2007-2011 told Mayer: “The legislature is as barbaric, primitive, and Neanderthal as any in the country. It’s really troubling.” On the other hand, Mayer quotes the extremely contented, complacent, and complicit Republican who rules Columbus today, Matt Huffman, the current president of the Ohio Senate: “We can kind of do what we want.”
Mayer reports: “The vast majority of Ohio residents clearly want legislative districts that are drawn more fairly. By 2015, the state’s gerrymandering problem had become so notorious that seventy-one percent of Ohioans voted to pass an amendment to the state constitution demanding reforms. As a result, the Ohio constitution now requires that districts be shaped so that the makeup of the General Assembly is proportional to the political makeup of the state. In 2018, an even larger bipartisan majority—seventy-five percent of Ohio voters—passed a similar resolution for the state’s congressional districts. Though these reforms were democratically enacted, the voters’ will has thus far been ignored.” That is because this year as redistricting took place following the 2020 Census, the five Republicans on the seven member redistricting commission were led by Republican Senate President Matt Huffman, Republican House Speaker, Bob Cupp, and Republican Governor, Mike DeWine. “Currently, the Republican members have a 64-35 advantage in the House and a 25-8 advantage in the Senate. This veto-proof majority makes the Republican leaders of both chambers arguably the most powerful officeholders in the state.”
Mayer describes the story of this year’s redistricting from the point of view of Allison Russo, the minority leader in the Ohio House and one of the two Democrats on the redistricting commission: “(T)he Republican members drafted a new districting map in secret, and earlier this year they presented it to her and the other Democrat just hours before a deadline… The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the map—and then struck down four more, after the Republican majority on the redistricting commission continued submitting maps that defied the spirit of the Court’s orders… The Republicans’ antics lasted so long that they basically ran out the clock… At that point, a group allied with Republicans, Ohio Right to Life, urged a federal court to intervene, on the ground that the delay was imperiling the fair administration of upcoming elections. The decision was made by a panel of three federal judges—two of whom had been appointed by Trump. Over the strenuous objections of the third judge, the two Trump judges ruled in the group’s favor, allowing the 2022 elections to proceed with a map so rigged that Ohio’s top judicial body had rejected it as unconstitutional.”
Mayer traces what happened to Ohio back to 2010 and 2011 as Republicans developed a “REDMAP” strategy to take over state legislatures and Congress: “In 2010, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Citizens United decision, which allowed dark money to flood American politics. Donors, many undisclosed, soon funneled thirty million dollars into the Republicans’ redistricting project, called REDMAP, and the result was an astonishing success: the Party picked up nearly seven hundred legislative seats, and won the power to redraw the maps for four times as many districts as the Democrats.”
For some background on the “RedMap” plan, we can turn to Gordon Lafer, whose 2017 book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time,” explores the Republican strategy to take over state legislatures: “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… ‘RedMap’ for short… aimed at winning control of legislatures that would be charged with redrawing congressional districts, following the 2010 census. This effort—funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, and ALEC member corporations—helped turn eleven states all red, with Republicans controlling the governor’s office and both legislative chambers. Critically this sweep included a belt of states running across the upper Midwest, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. Newly empowered in traditionally pro-union states that are battlegrounds in national politics, corporate lobbies and their legislative allies moved quickly to enact sweeping reforms intended to advance their economic agenda and cement their political advantage.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 34-38)
In this week’s article, Mayer expands the list of powerful sponsors of far right interests in today’s Ohio. Added to the corporate interests are hot-button advocacy groups promoting pro-gun, anti-reproductive freedom legislation along with efforts to control the school curriculum. For example, Mayer describes the Center for Christian Virtue, a statewide organization affiliated with the religious right’s national Alliance Defending Freedom. Mayer interviews one Ohio state representative, Gary Click, who “acknowledged to me that the group had prompted him to introduce a bill opposing gender-affirming care for transgender youths, regardless of parental consent. The center, in essence, handed Click the wording for the legislation.”
Mayer’s focus is legislative gerrymandering’s effect on on hot, culture war legislation including reproductive rights, but she does discuss one proposed bill on education—to ban the discussion in the public schools of divisive topics like race, racism, and LGBTQ concerns. In fact three such bills have been proposed—HB 322, HB 327, and HB 616. The Legislature also recently passed a bill to permit school districts to arm teachers and another banning transgender girls from school sports.
However, Mayer doesn’t mention another important complication gerrymandering has inserted into Ohio’s debate about public school teaching about racism. After a battle on the State Board of Education about an anti-racism resolution, passed in 2020 and later rescinded under pressure from powerful Republican legislators, Governor Mike DeWine has, with impunity, imposed a gerrymandered map of State Board of Education districts. The Governor’s map is based on one of the state senate district maps previously rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court. The governor’s new, gerrymandered State Board district map violates state law and will, in future elections, dilute the voting power of African American citizens in metropolitan Cleveland and Columbus. Despite a campaign by advocates for a fair State Board map, the Governor’s map will very likely be formally adopted tomorrow, on August 10, 2022.
Beyond the scope of Mayer’s article, however, Republican-gerrymandered Ohio legislative politics have also undermined the very foundation of the state’s system of public schools, which educate 1.8 million students. The most recent FY 2022-2023 state budget, passed in July of 2021 included a new “Fair School Funding Plan” designed supposedly to remedy years of inequitably distributed and inadequate school funding. But in that same budget bill, the Ohio Legislature underfunded the new school funding plan and failed to launch a full phase-in of the program because it spent the money instead to expand school privatization (See here, here and here.) The budget bill significantly lifted the number of students who can qualify for private school tuition vouchers, expanded eligible sites for charter schools from a limited number of school districts to every district in the state, and significantly increased the dollar amount of each EdChoice voucher and overall funding for privately managed charter schools, both of which are paid for out of the public school foundation budget. And the Legislature continues to consider HB 290, the Backpack Bill, an education savings account neo-voucher program, which would make all Ohio students eligible for a publicly funded voucher—again at the expense of Ohio’s school foundation budget.
Once again, Gorden Lafer describes the deeper attack on public education itself as a centerpiece of the Republican 2010 “RedMap’ plan: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda…. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goal of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards…. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector…. (T)he sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government. Finally the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education. In all these ways, then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda….” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)
As an Ohio citizen and a strong supporter of public schools which are required by law to protect each student’s rights and meet each student’s needs, I am delighted that Jane Mayer has called attention to the reality we are experiencing. Unfortunately for Ohio’s citizens, gerrymandering poses serious challenges.