Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sunday Long Read: It Doesn't Make Census

This week's long read is Charles Bethea's New Yorker profile of Stephanie Hofeller, the estranged daughter of the late GOP master gerrymandering guru Thomas Hofeller, whose death last year led to discovering her father's plans to rig the Census permanently in favor of the Republican Party.

At around half past nine on the last day of September, Stephanie Hofeller was parked at a Speedway in Kentucky, where she lives, when she got a strange sense that she should Google her father, whom she hadn’t seen in more than four years. One of the first results that popped up was an obituary in the Times, which had been published six weeks before. “Holy shit,” Hofeller said to a friend who was in the car with her. “My father’s dead.” She did some more Googling, to make sure it wasn’t a hoax—given her father’s notoriety, she figured it might be. “I remember feeling a lot of things,” Hofeller told me recently. “It’s hard to decide how you feel when you find out a parent you had that kind of deeply fraught history with is dead.” She added, “I’d spent so long considering him a dangerous enemy to me and the country.”

Thomas Hofeller, who died in August, at the age of seventy-five, was raised in San Diego and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. In the early eighties, after completing a doctorate in political science at Claremont Graduate University, he became the R.N.C.’s data-operations manager. In that position, he began to grasp how the redrawing of political maps could usher in a sweeping tide of Republican power in state legislatures. Congressional redistricting became his specialty; the Times obituary referred to him as “the Michelangelo of the modern gerrymander.” The former congressman Lynn Westmoreland worked closely with Hofeller on Republican redistricting efforts in Georgia between 2000 and 2010. “Redistricting is the science of politics,” Westmoreland told me. “It’s also a blood sport for adults, because it controls ten years and it controls peoples’ lives. It’s the purest form of brass-knuckle politics that there is. And, of the people I worked with over many years, Mr. Hofeller was the go-to guy, the best.” He added, “When you do this for forty years, as Tom did, you’re not just doing it for the moment. You’re trying to prepare for legal challenges, to anticipate what changes could be made, population growth and decline, the winds of the political environment in states and districts. Tom, he understood it all.”

Hofeller preferred to keep the details of his work private and to avoid paper trails. “E-mails are the tool of the devil,” he explained to fellow-operatives. Still, he did leave some documentation behind. About a week and a half after Stephanie learned of her father’s death, she made a trip to her parents’ retirement home, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her mother, Kathleen, still lives, looking for keepsakes. She later described the visit in a deposition for a lawsuit concerning legislative redistricting in North Carolina. In her father’s bedroom, she found a jewelry box, which had been hers as a child. She also found four external hard drives and eighteen thumb drives that had belonged to her father. One of the drives was labelled “NC Data.” Hofeller took the drives to the hotel where she was staying and began to scan the contents of the devices, which contained some seventy-five thousand files. She found early photographs of her two children—buried treasure, she called them in the deposition—and a music recording that she’d made, as well as letters she’d written. She also found a number of files related to her father’s work.

A couple of weeks after Hofeller’s visit to her parents’ home, Chris Morden, a lawyer in Raleigh who had done estate planning for Thomas and Kathleen Hofeller in 2016, filed a petition to have Kathleen Hofeller deemed legally incompetent. The petition cited Kathleen’s recent victimization in a “gift card payment scheme,” and an alleged attempted transfer of money to India, a country to which Kathleen has no apparent connection. The petition also reported that Kathleen “is believed to be under influence of previously estranged child.” In response to the petition, an interim guardian was appointed.

“There was my mother, with all of her accounts frozen, scared to death, as only a competent person can be in that situation,” Stephanie wrote to me in an e-mail. “How could I proceed? I was not my father’s colleague, not his co-worker, or vetted friend, not even his son, only his daughter and an ordinary citizen—free from the naïveté that Tom Hofeller had ever been an honest man.” In the deposition, Stephanie said that she was worried that many lawyers in Raleigh would be more concerned about her father’s political work than about her mother’s well-being. And so she called the Raleigh office of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group focussed on government accountability, to ask for a referral. The group was the plaintiff in a gerrymandering lawsuit challenging legislative maps for North Carolina that had been drawn by her father.

It was just a few days before the midterm elections, and the Common Cause office was particularly busy. When Stephanie told the group’s executive director in the state, Bob Phillips, on the phone, that she was Thomas Hofeller’s daughter, he assumed she was going to yell at him and blast the organization’s efforts. “Then, of course, the conversation quickly became something different,” Philips told me. “It wasn’t about our case. It was about her need to get an attorney for a hearing a few days later, for her mother, regarding her father’s estate and a potential guardian that was going to be appointed. She felt like everyone was against her in Raleigh. The people around, connected with her dad, were all against her. She had no one she could really trust.”

Phillips referred her to Jane Pinsky, the person who, as Hofeller recalled, “probably knew more Raleigh lawyers than anyone else on his staff.” Pinsky agreed to help, and she and Hofeller spoke multiple times on the phone. In the course of those conversations, Hofeller expressed her frustration with what her mother was going through and what she saw as the political motivations of those involved. She mentioned a recent column in the Raleigh News & Observer, in which the journalist David Daley, who has written extensively about gerrymandering, was quoted as saying, “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if on a hard drive somewhere in Raleigh Tom Hofeller has another set of gifts for legislators.” In fact, Hofeller told Pinsky, she had multiple hard drives that had belonged to her father. She didn’t know, she says, that the drives could be used in Common Cause’s litigation—the case she knew about, Rucho v. Common Cause, was already on its way to the Supreme Court. But the group, it turned out, had just filed another gerrymandering lawsuit.

On February 7th, a settlement was reached regarding Morden’s petition of incompetency. The interim guardian was dismissed; Kathleen Hofeller agreed to put most of her assets into an irrevocable trust overseen by a neutral trustee. She was not deemed incompetent. (Morden declined to comment for this story; his law partner, Nickolas Sherrill, listed as the attorney on Morden’s petition, did not respond to requests for comment.) Six days later, the plaintiff’s attorneys in Common Cause’s new case, Common Cause v. Lewis, subpoenaed Thomas Hofeller’s old hard drives.

And the rest is our current history.  Chief Justice Roberts scrapped the DoJ's legal defense of the citizenship question based on the Hofeller hard drives, and it may have saved the least for now.

We'll see if it holds.

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