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John Light

John is TPM‘s Prime editor. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, UN Dispatch, Vox, Worth, and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. Before joining TPM, John was a producer for Bill Moyers and WNYC, and worked as a news writer for Grist. He grew up in New Jersey, studied history and film at Oberlin College, and got his master‘s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Articles by John

Hello, Prime subscribers. Here’s a recap of what happened in Prime this week.

You likely heard that Michael Cohen was in court. Ahead of the court date, Josh Marshall pulled together the various “threads of sleaze and criminality” to explain why, while the Cohen story is ostensibly separate from the Russia probe, the two are likely closely interwoven.

Ahead of the hearing, one of the big questions was who Michael Cohen’s secret, third client was, Zack Roth wrote. We got the answer in court: Fox News talker Sean Hannity. Stormy Daniels, meanwhile, showed up, seemingly to troll Cohen. Allegra Kirkland was there, and she took in the scene. Josh, meanwhile, wondered why Hannity was so bent on having his cake and eating it too: He appeared to want to make clear that Michael Cohen was not his lawyer while also maintaining attorney-client confidentiality about their discussions.

That start to the week virtually assured that this would be another in which Cohen — and speculation about what his legal troubles meant for the President — would dominate the headlines. Trump allies came out of the woodwork to allege that Cohen would flip on the President, implying, Allegra points out in her Weekly Primer on the investigations, that the President is not innocent. Even if the President chooses to pardon Cohen, Cohen still could be in trouble in the state of New York, Josh wrote. Meanwhile, Josh continued to dig in to Cohen’s past, including some of his ties to wealthy Ukrainian immigrants who have thrown quite a bit of money into the taxi business.

Paul Manafort was also in court, where Tierney Sneed witnessed his lawyers arguing that their client should be able to pay them with millions of his dollars — dollars that he currently can’t touch due to money laundering allegations. And James Comey was out on tour, expounding on the “emptiness” behind the President’s eyes for rooms full of fans; Allegra attended one such event.

Beyond the vacuum-like pull of the Russia probe news, a judge held Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in contempt of court and, David Kurtz writes, all but accused him of lying. Kobach has long pushed claims of widespread voter fraud — claims that bought him political capital but that did not hold up in court. Democrats, meanwhile, are running on an agenda of expanding voting rights and repairing gerrymandered district maps, but if they are to succeed, author Dave Daley told me in a Q&A this week, they’ll have to do more than win legislative seats: They’ll have to win key offices that control the redistricting process. Exactly what those offices are vary from state to state.

In her Weekly Primer on voting rights, Tierney Sneed noted that advocates of expanding the franchise won a key victory when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an automatic voter registration bill. The state’s Democratic legislature was on a roll, and also sent Murphy bills to stabilize Obamacare markets and put in place a statewide individual mandate to replace the Obamacare mandate that was tossed out with last December’s GOP tax cuts. Alice Ollstein has the details of those measures in her Weekly Primer on the battle over the future of Obamacare.

That’s it for Prime this week. But another week’s coming. Hang in there.

<<enter caption here>> on January 20, 2018 in Morristown, New Jersey.
Governor Phil Murphy attends the 2nd Annual Women’s March On New Jersey on January 20, 2018 in Morristown, New Jersey. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

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In 2018, we’ll be giving a weekly Golden Duke. This award, named for former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, is given to a political figure by TPM following an attention-grabbing display of corruption, abuse of power, or risible behavior. For the past several years, we’ve handed out a few Dukes around New Years. (Here are 2017’s winners.) In 2018, we’ve decided to up the frequency. There are more than enough deserving candidates.

This week’s winner is Eric Greitens, Missouri’s Republican Governor, a former Navy Seal and Rhodes Scholar who was elected in 2016 but who now, following a series of scandals, is facing escalating calls from his own party to step down. Missouri GOP strategists told Allegra Kirkland this week that they worry the governor’s meteoric downfall could still be on voters’ minds in November — especially if Greitens refuses to leave office.

The latest blow to the Greitens’ administration came on Wednesday when Missouri’s Republican Attorney General, Josh Hawley, accused Greitens of “unauthorized taking and use of property”; Hawley said his office has evidence that Greitens forwarded the donor list from The Mission Continues — a charity he co-founded with the mission of empowering veterans — to his gubernatorial campaign. Donors to the nonprofit ultimately contributed $2 million to Greitens’ successful 2016 effort.

The felony charge, however, is not the most serious problem facing Greitens.

We’ve known for months about an extramarital affair Greitens had in 2015 and allegations that he blackmailed his former mistress; he was indicted on invasion of privacy charges related to the allegations in February. A report from a committee of Missouri legislators tasked with investigating the allegations came out last week, and was far worse than expected, including allegations that Greitens pressured his mistress to perform oral sex while she wept on his basement floor.

Greitens also allegedly took a picture of the woman while she was partially nude and blindfolded, leading to the invasion of privacy charge. “You have to understand, I’m running for office, and people will get me, and I have to have some sort of thing to protect myself,” the woman recalled the future governor saying when she confronted him about it.

At this point, Greitens is left with few allies. Three Republican lawmakers in the Missouri legislature even appealed to President Trump to get Greitens to step down. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the allegations were “something that we’re taking very seriously.” But the governor refuses to leave.

It’s unclear if Greitens will change his mind and voluntarily step down, be impeached, or attempt to ride out the allegations. But it appears he’ll have to adjust his political ambitions; he will likely have little use for the ericgreitensforpresident.com domain name he registered.

For his refusal to read the writing on the wall, Greitens is our Duke of the Week.

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Alice Ollstein reports from Ohio that Democrats are running strategically in the 2018 midterms. They know recapturing the state legislature may not be in the cards, but they are attempting to win the races that will put them in control of the levers of power that matter when it comes to redistricting following the 2020 Census. It’s part of a larger national strategy, one arm of which is spearheaded by Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, to rebalance America’s democratic system after Republicans successfully tilted it in their favor through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and other restrictive voting measures following the 2010 election.

The details of that GOP plan are chronicled in great detail in journalist Dave Daley‘s 2016 book, Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. Daley, the former editor-in-chief of Salon.com, tells the story of how Republicans set out to win key state elections and draw new electoral maps with extreme precision to ensure that Democrats would be blocked from power for decades.

I spoke with Daley earlier this month about Democrats’ strategy on voting rights heading into 2018 (it’s a good one), whether the Supreme Court would provide a solution to partisan gerrymandering (probably not this year), and whether a wave election in 2018 will be enough to make a difference for these broader democracy issues (it’s complicated). Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

 


 

TPM: What are your thoughts on how Democrats are addressing voting rights? There’s the Eric Holder group and Democrats have made this one of their priorities in 2018. Are they doing the right things and are they doing enough?

Dave Daley: There are a lot of Democrats who have become overly focused on taking back the House in 2018 and what they need to understand is that even if they get that kind of generational wave it does not mean that they have solved the problem of gerrymandering. They will have to run and win a similar generational wave in 2020 in order to keep control of the House.

Moreover, these lines after the 2020 Census will be drawn almost entirely by state legislatures. Those state legislatures have been gerrymandered just as effectively as Congress and in many ways are more difficult for Democrats to unknot. And this is why I talk about how this could hold for a generation. Democrats in Ohio are down 66-33 in the statehouse. In North Carolina’s House it’s something like 75-45. Democrats haven’t had much luck even breaking Republican supermajorities in some of these states, let alone taking control of the chambers.

So the Democrats’ road back is much longer than just winning 2018. And it’s going to require winning elections at the state level, at the local level. It’s going to require winning judicial elections in certain states. In a state like Ohio it is going to mean winning the state auditor’s office because the state auditor has a seat on the redistricting board there.

In many ways I would not measure a wave by the number of seats Democrats take in the US house, as important as that might be as a block on the Trump agenda. You measure a wave by the number of seats Democrats are able to win back for 2021 redistricting. And there are multiple seats like that that will be on the ballot this year. Those seats include key governors’ races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida where the governor holds veto power over the redistricting and Democrats would get a better deal in those states if they could at least have that seat at the table. Republicans were able to draw these maps in 2010 because they had complete control of the process in all of these states. Democrats have to find a way to win themselves a spot in the room. And if they don’t they have to find a way to flip back incredibly tilted state legislative chambers in 2020. And that’s going to be a dramatically uphill fight in all of those states.

I think that the Holder group has done a really smart job of focusing Democratic attention in the right places if they want to have those seats at the table. You can see it in the attention they spent on the Wisconsin Supreme Court case. This is a really important race as for districting in Wisconsin and the Democrats knew it, invested in it, spent time in it and they told people why it was important. They made a case to their voters that policy outcomes over the next decade are going to be dictated by what legislative lines look like and this Supreme Court case could have an impact over what those districts look like. So they’re making the right argument to their voters.

TPM: You told Vox ahead of the 2016 election that, because of the way maps are drawn, Democrats had basically lost the house for a generation. Now Democrats are very excited about a potential blue wave. How are you thinking about the 2018 midterm elections this year?

Daley: I think that the decision in Pennsylvania [by the state Supreme Court, striking down a heavily gerrymandered map] could conceivably put enough seats in play that the Democrats could make an easier run at the House in 2018. You’re looking at suddenly four to six additional seats from a blue state where there had been a frozen map for this entire decade, and that is going to attract better candidates. You’re going to have more competitive elections in a state where Democrats need to make some gains if they want to have a shot at the House.

I would say this: In five key swing states — Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan — Republicans hold a 49 to 20 advantage in those five states. And Democrats had not successfully flipped a seat from red to blue in 2012, 2014 or 2016 on these maps. So thats a 29-seat advantage. It’s a wider advantage than Republicans have in the House overall, and from five competitive swing states it probably should be closer to 50-50.

The lack of success the Democrats have had in cutting into those advantages in those states would have made the House a real challenge. But then you suddenly through a half dozen Pennsylvania seats into the mix.

TPM: So with the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court decision, one of the things that was unique and somewhat exciting for people who follow these things is that it was a decision based on the state constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t want to get involved. Is that something that can be applied to other states and provide hope for reformers?

Daley: Yes, I think so. Especially after we saw oral arguments in the Benisek Maryland case [challenging partisan gerrymandering at the U.S. Supreme court] in which the court just seemed completely befuddled and frustrated. So I think that people who had hoped that [Supreme Court Justice] Anthony Kennedy would sort this out and then ride off having helped save democracy are probably feeling a little more pessimistic about that.

But the beauty of the Pennsylvania case was that it was decided based on the state constitution. Pennsylvania has a clause in the state constitution that requires essentially free fair and open elections, and the state Supreme Court said that this kind of extreme gerrymandering that was done with the intention of diluting Democratic votes violated that constitutional right.

There are 25 other states across the country that have similar clauses in their state constitutions. So no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court does on gerrymandering this Spring, there will still be a road for reformers in many states to follow the same path that the citizens in Pennsylvania did.

TPM: With the U.S. Supreme Court, there seems to be a sense that theres a racing-the-clock situation to get a ruling on partisan gerrymandering. Anthony Kennedy seems like the key vote, and he may not be on the court much longer because he’s getting up there in age. Do you think he’ll be the one to decide this or do you think the way things are going we’re not going to have a decision before he retires?

Daley: I could go on for a long time about that. Reformers have believed that Kennedy was one of them, in a way, ever since his decision in the Vieth case in 2004, in which he sided with the conservatives on the court but he sprinkled breadcrumbs to show the kind of standard on partisan gerrymandering that he might back. And he talked about how technology was a threat and yet also a promise in that it might show us a technological standard that would show when a gerrymander had gone too far. And he also talked about a First Amendment path that when the partisanship was used in a way as to burden representational rights you might have a First Amendment violation.

So the cases out of Wisconsin, North Carolina and Maryland [this term] follow that roadmap very closely. It’s one reason why folks were so optimistic that Kennedy would see something in those cases that appealed to him before he retired. I think that after oral arguments in the Maryland case it seems apparent that Kennedy is still cogitating. Kennedy still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. This may prove harder than people imagined.

TPM: What are some of those signs from oral arguments that lead you to feel that he is still making up his mind?

Daley: You had, for example, Justice Breyer suggesting that the court take all three of partisan gerrymandering cases in front of it, reargue them next term, and call everyone in, set up a blackboard, put all of the theories up there and try to work it out. The other eight justices didn’t exactly break out their doodle apps and figure out a time for that. It’s been six months since the court heard oral arguments in the Wisconsin case. If the court was close to a standard, I don’t think Breyer suggests an all-day hash session to work through all these theories.

So I think that told people that the Court isn’t particularly close. And now it’s April and you’re looking at June, when we ordinarily expect that these decisions are handed down. And they’ve only got six to eight weeks to figure out what they’ve not been able to figure out in six months. So it seems challenging to say the least.

The backdrop to all of this is that nobody knows when Kennedy might announce his retirement. It could very well come in June as well. You have justices on the court who are clearly not in good health and that kind of hangs over all of these deliberations as well. And you have a president who is probably going to fill those seats with much more conservative judges. We already know that there are four justices on the court who are likely to say that partisan gerrymandering is non-justiciable because we already saw that back in the Vieth case.

So on one hand we are as close to a real standard of partisan gerrymandering as Justice Kennedy settling on something that he likes. On the other hand, we’re one justice away from this being taken off the table as an issue for the court to consider in the future. So it’s a real hinge moment that still could go either way.

TPM: Some people interpret the citizenship question on the Census as an indication that Republicans have gerrymandered as far as they can. Now they need a new strategy. Do you share that reading of it?

Daley: I think they have gerrymandered as far as they can in all likelihood. There are a couple of states they’ll still go after in 2020, but they’ve squeezed about as much as possible out of that lemon.

I think there’s a multi-pronged strategy that, even if its not an intentional strategy, it looks like one. First is you take control of all these state legislatures, and then gerrymander the state legislatures and Congress so as to lock in durable control for your side barring a generational wave. The next thing you do in many of those states is pass voter ID laws or other kind of techniques to make it harder for people to register or access the ballot. And the piece after that becomes the Census. And what’s scary about that question is the Census is the basis of reapportionment. The Census determines how many congressional seats your state receives. So if you successfully drive down participation among Latinos and other minority groups you could conceivably drive down population counts in those states and create an imbalance of representation that favors whiter, rural, more conservative states. Then the number of representatives in Congress digs into the number of electoral college votes a state receives.

I’m not convinced Republicans sat down with all of this as a plan in mind when they did all of this. But when you look at all of these steps together they certainly all point in the same direction.

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