The filibuster can be conquered: I know — I helped do it
It’s now conventional wisdom that the filibuster — or just the threat of a filibuster — will likely raise havoc with the core of President Biden’s legislative agenda: voting rights, immigration reform, gun control and climate change. Pundits of all stripes are wringing their hands at the prospect of senatorial deadlock. But only a handful have proposed any concrete actions to avoid this legislative cataclysm.
There is one shining example, however, when the filibuster — against all odds — was conquered.
The historic Civil Right Act of 1964 never would have survived in its final form unless the bipartisan pro-civil rights coalition found a way to defeat Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) and his band of 18 Southern Democrats. More to the point, what happened then — 57 years ago — provides a useful roadmap for today.
A few basic facts:
All the smart money in 1964 said the filibuster, led by Sen. Russell, could not be defeated. The reasons were obvious. In 1964, Senate Rule XXII provided that 67 senators were needed to limit debate. Optimistic nose-counts indicated the bipartisan pro-civil rights forces lacked 12 “critical” votes to reach 67.
These votes could only be found from among traditional mid-western Republicans and conservative western Democrats. In their wildest imaginings, these conservative senators never considered supporting legislation to expand federal authority over personal property rights in granting equal access in restaurants, hotels, and jobs.
Worse yet, if the pro-civil rights forces seriously weakened these provisions as the price for ending the filibuster — the traditional strategy that Sen. Lyndon Johnson had used in 1957 to pass that civil rights legislation — the pro-civil rights allies in the House, especially Rep. William McCullough (R-Ohio), would revolt. The legislation would then likely perish in conference.
One could not escape the reality that breaking the filibuster was simply impossible.
The strong bill passed by the House (H.R. 7152) and supported by President Lyndon Johnson would fall victim to various weakening amendments and either die outright or be rendered toothless.
That was the well-established pattern. And that was what most observers forecast when the legislation finally cleared the House in February 1964.
Sen. Russell was expected to divide his 18 senators into three teams that would alternate holding the floor, thus permitting the other two to rest. The pro-civil rights senators, on the other hand, had to produce 51 senators at any time, day or night, to defeat southern quorum calls or motions to adjourn. This was expected — to erode pro-civil rights resolve over time and make likely weakening amendments or outright defeat.
Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) asked his assistant leader, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) to serve as the floor leader of the House-passed bill. As Sen. Humphrey’s principal assistant for domestic issues, I ended up coordinating with the staff of other senators, communicating with the Department of Justice, and working with outside allies.
Working together, we hammered out a detailed strategy that we believed could eventually force Senator Russell to surrender:
Make the Southern Democrats hold the floor and debate the bill itself. Don’t let them read from the Chicago phone book or discourse on Auntie Sue’s fried chicken. Pro-civil rights senators, both Democratic and Republican, were assigned responsibility for major titles of the legislation. These “captains” would force Southern Democrats to debate, not just ramble on.
Deal fairly and openly with the Southern Democrats so no one — especially undecided conservative Republicans — could claim that the filibusterers had been denied a fair shot.
Establish and enforce a whip system that would ensure 51 pro-civil rights senators were present whenever Southern Democrats “suggested the absence of a quorum.” In 60 days of debate, the whip system failed but once.
Never schedule a cloture vote until victory was assured. No “test votes.” No amendments prior to cloture. A premature loss could only weaken the pro-civil rights forces.
Organize and focus outside groups supporting the bill. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights served as the coordinating body. Actively seek support among the three mainline religious denominations to make racial justice a compelling moral issue.
Operate an intelligence system that focused in detail on developing leverage with undecided senators. One example: We telephoned “talking points” each morning to the wife of a conservative mid-western senator so she would be well-armed for their nightly dinner conversation.
Publish a daily mimeographed “Pro-Civil Rights Newsletter” that would be delivered each morning to every senator and the media, outlining what to expect each day and to refute Southern Democratic arguments.
The recounting of what happened in 1964 points the way in 2021.
Force the opposition to hold the floor and talk. No more premature “test votes.” No weakening amendments prior to cloture. Get organized by assigning senators to monitor the floor and be ready to defeat likely quorum calls. Coordinate closely with outside support groups and the media. Stay on the offensive.
Make a special effort to get religious denominations fully involved. Protecting the right to vote in 2021 has the same potential to become a moral issue as compelling as the defeat of Jim Crow was in 1964.
Force a rules change — using the nuclear option, if necessary — that shifts the load to those filibustering. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has suggested amending Rule XXII to provide that filibusterers would have to produce 41 votes to maintain the floor. Having to produce 41 votes at all hours, day or night, possibly for weeks, shifts the burden to those wanting to block action.
This approach has the compelling advantage of preserving the filibuster itself, thus recognizing the concerns of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and, I’m willing to bet, a handful of moderate Republicans.
The moral imperative of the struggle to preserve the right to vote as the foundation of American democracy must be hammered home relentlessly. As the filibuster drags on, and if the forces for passage hang tough, pressure for positive action will grow.
This battle can be won. And it surely is worth waging.
I spent much of today thinking about the Republican Party. Its roots lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854, when it became clear that elite southern slaveholders had taken control of the federal government and were using their power to spread their system of human enslavement across the continent.
At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security.
As a younger man, Lincoln had watched his town of New Salem die because the settlers in the town did not have the resources to dredge the Sangamon River to increase their river trade. Had the government simply been willing to invest in the economic development that was too much for the willing workers of New Salem, it could have brought prosperity to the men who, for lack of investment, failed and abandoned their town. The government, Lincoln thought, must develop the country’s infrastructure.
Once in power, the Republicans did precisely that. After imposing the first national taxes, including an income tax, lawmakers set out to enable men to be able to pay those taxes by using the government to give ordinary men access to resources. In 1862, they passed the Homestead Act, giving western land to anyone willing to settle it; the Land-Grant College Act, providing funds to establish state universities; the act establishing the Department of Agriculture, to provide scientific information and good seeds to farmers; and the Pacific Railway Act, providing for the construction of a railroad across the continent to get men to the fields and the mines of the West.
In 1902, Republicans fascinated with infrastructure projects joined forces with southern Democrats desperate for flood control to pass the Newlands Reclamation Act. Under the act, the federal government built more than 600 dams in 20 western states to bring water to farmland. “The sound and steady development of the West depends upon the building up of homes therein,” President Theodore Roosevelt wrote. Water from the western dams now irrigates more than 10 million acres, which produce about 60% of the nation’s vegetables and 25% of its fruits (and nuts).
Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt combined this focus on infrastructure development with the need for work relief programs during the Depression to create the 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted trees, built fire towers, built trails, stocked fish, and so on. In 1935, Congress created the Works Progress Administration. During its existence, it employed about 3 million workers at a time; built or repaired more than 100,000 public buildings, including schools and post offices; and constructed more than 500 airports, more than 500,000 miles of roads, and more than 100,000 bridges. It also employed actors, photographers, painters, and writers to conduct interviews, paint murals of our history, and tell our national story.
As the country grew and became more interconnected, pressure built for a developed road system, but while FDR liked the idea of the jobs it would produce, building the road fell to Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. Three years after he became president, Eisenhower backed the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, saying, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.” The law initially provided $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of road; at the time, it was the largest public works project in U.S. history.
In America today, there is good news. The Biden administration has rolled out vaccines at a faster pace than anyone foresaw. Today, President Biden announced that health care workers have administered 150 million doses of the vaccine and, at an average of 3 million shots a day, they are on track to administer 200 million by his 100th day in office. He is moving the date for states to make all adults eligible for a vaccine from May 1 to April 19.
The vaccines have dovetailed with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan from last month and the spring weather to speed up the economic recovery. Economists had expected a job gain of about 660,000 in March, but nonfarm payrolls actually rose by about 916,000. And now Biden has rolled out a dramatic new infrastructure proposal, the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.
So why was I thinking about the Republicans today?
In this moment, Republican lawmakers seem weirdly out of step with their party’s history as well as with the country. They are responding to the American Jobs Plan by defining infrastructure as roads and bridges alone, cutting from the definition even the broadband that they included when Trump was president. (Trump, remember, followed his huge 2017 tax cuts with the promise of a big infrastructure bill. As he said, “Infrastructure is the easiest of all…. People want it, Republicans and Democrats.”) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warns that Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” that will require “massive tax increases.”
Biden has indeed proposed funding the Democrats’ infrastructure plan by raising taxes on corporations from their current rate of 21% to 28% (but before Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, that rate was 35%). It ends federal tax breaks for oil and gas companies, and it increases the global minimum tax—a tax designed to keep corporations from shifting their profits to low tax countries– from 13% to 21%.
This is in keeping with our history. Americans since Lincoln have proudly used tax dollars to develop the country. During Eisenhower’s era, the corporate tax rate was 52% (and the top income tax bracket was 91%). The Newlands Act was designed to raise money through public land sales, but in 1928, when Congress authorized what would become Hoover Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation began to operate out of the government’s general funds.
But it was Lincoln’s Republicans who first provided the justification for investing in the nation. In the midst of the deadly Civil War, as the United States was hemorrhaging both blood and money, Republican lawmakers defended first their invention of national taxes. The government had a right to “demand” 99% of a man’s property for an urgent need, said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Justin Smith Morrill (R-VT). When the nation required it, he said, “the property of the people… belongs to the [g]overnment.”
The Republicans also defended developing the country. In a debate over the new Department of Agriculture, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee William Pitt Fessenden (R-ME), famous both for his crabbiness and for his single-minded focus on the war, defended the use of “seed money.” With such an investment, he said, the country would be “richly paid over and over again in absolute increase of wealth. There is no doubt of that.”
The Republican outrage over Major League Baseball moving the All-Star game out of Georgia after the passage of the state’s new voter suppression law reveals a bigger crisis in American democracy: the mechanics of our current system do not reflect the will of the majority.
Consumer-driven corporate America is increasingly throwing its weight against the new voter suppression measures across the country. While MLB and Coca-Cola are out front on the new Georgia voting law, American Airlines, Microsoft, and Dell are all opposing the new Texas voter restriction measures. These corporations are focused on those Americans with buying power, and on those they predict will have that buying power going forward. When they take a stand against voter suppression laws, they are making a bet that the future of America is moving away from the Republicans toward a more inclusive society.
They have drawn the fury of current Republican lawmakers, especially those in Georgia, who are insisting that these corporate decisions are part of a culture war in which Democrats are pressuring corporate leaders to “cancel” things with which they disagree. But MLB is not known as a progressive league. Its fanbase is primarily White and does not tend to lean left. The players were not involved in MLB’s decision to move the All-Star game out of Atlanta, a decision that will cost Georgia about $100 million. Nonetheless, former president Trump yesterday called for his supporters to boycott “Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, ViacomCBS, Citigroup, Cisco, UPS and Merck,” all companies on the record against the new voter suppression bills.
The emphasis of corporate America on what its directors think the majority of its consumers want shows the same sort of disconnect national polls reveal. Americans as a whole do not like the policies of current-day Republican lawmakers. Seventy-seven percent of us like the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and yet not a single Republican voted for it. Eighty-four percent of us like background checks for gun purchases, and yet that policy is anathema to Republicans.
Seventy-nine percent of us want the government to fix our roads, bridges, railroads, and ports. Seventy-one percent of us want the government to make sure we all have high-speed internet. Sixty-eight percent of us want the government to replace our lead pipes, the same percentage as people who want the government to support renewable energy with tax credits. Sixty-four percent of us want to pay for these things by increasing taxes on corporations and big businesses.
Republican lawmakers oppose all of these popular measures.
Because our political system is currently skewed toward the Republican Party, its members’ opposition in Congress is far more powerful than it is on the ground. Because of gerrymandering, Democratic candidates in 2020 defeated their Republican opponents by 3.1 percentage points nationally and yet lost a dozen seats in the House of Representatives.
The Senate is even less fairly representative. It is currently divided evenly, with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats (technically, 48 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats). But the 50 Democrats represent 41.5 million more people than the Republicans do (the U.S. has a population of about 328 million).
That Republican minority can currently stop all legislation other than budget bills and judicial appointments through the process known as the filibuster, which forces 60 members of the Senate to agree to a bill before it can move forward.
As current-day Republican lawmakers fall farther out of sync with what the majority of Americans want, they have turned to the courts to shore up their vision of a world in which government cannot regulate business, protect civil rights, or provide a basic social safety net, but can enforce rules popular with evangelical religious practitioners (although evangelical religion is also on the wane, apparently in part because of its political partisanship). “By legislating from the bench, Republicans dodge accountability for unpopular policies,” writes Ian Millhiser in a terrific piece in the New York Times on March 30. “Meanwhile, the real power is held by Republican judges who serve for life — and therefore do not need to worry about whether their decisions enjoy public support.”
And yet, the party is nervous enough about its eroding power base that a Republican-aligned group has launched an initiative called the “American Culture Project,” intending to redirect the “cultural narrative” that its organizers believe “the left” now controls with “cancel culture” and “woke supremacy.” Set up as a social welfare organization, the American Culture Project does not have to disclose its donors or pay federal income taxes. Through ads on Facebook and other platforms, it hopes to swing voters to the Republicans; it is organized in at least five states– Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia—under names like “Arise Ohio,” “Stand Up Florida,” and “Mighty Michigan.”
A fundraising email shared with Isaac Stanley-Becker of the Washington Post, who broke the story, says, “We are building assets to shape and frame the political field in advance of the 2022 election and beyond…. [Y]our support of our outreach can be the difference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate staying under control of the Democrats or shifting back to pro-freedom Republican majorities.”
How the Yankees’ Luckiest Batboy Ended Up in an Unmarked Grave
Eddie Bennett earned fame in the dugouts of the Major Leagues. He had almost slipped from memory when New Yorkers teamed up to honor his short, dramatic life.
April 2, 2021
For 85 years, visitors to St. John’s Cemetery in Queens skipped past an unmarked grave in Section 34, Row DD. This is where Edward Bennett, a batboy for the New York Yankees — maybe the most famous batboy in the Major Leagues — was buried and forgotten.
For most of the 1920s, Eddie Bennett was the Yankees’ handyman, mascot and good luck charm. He was the first to shake hands with a player after he crossed the plate, and he ferried Babe Ruth’s bats from the locker room to the dugout for the slugger to find the perfect fit — sometimes as many as 33 of them. “There ought to be a law,” Eddie jokingly complained to an adoring press corps that had made him a fixture of the sports columns.
He was such an integral part of the team, in fact, that he was voted a share of the team’s earnings. When the players got diamond rings to celebrate the Yankees’ crushing World Series victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1927, the batboy got one, too. “Feel the weight of it,” he bragged to a reporter.
How Mr. Bennett ended up in an unmarked grave in Middle Village, Queens — and how it was discovered and marked by a lifelong Yankees fan and a diocesan priest — is a tale of luck and charity and a fitting denouement to his drama-filled life.
His back story was a big part of his appeal. By the time he got to the Yankees, Eddie Bennett had come a long way. He was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1903, and as an infant, he fell out of his carriage and twisted his spine, which stunted his growth and left him with a misshapen back.
When he was around 16, he was sacked from his job as a courier on Wall Street, the year after the Spanish flu swept through Brooklyn and killed both his parents. Looking for work, he found himself walking to the Polo Grounds, where the Chicago White Sox were visiting the Yankees for a doubleheader.
As he slipped under the bleachers to get a drink of water, Happy Felsch, a White Sox center fielder, spotted him. He laid his hand on the lump on the teenager’s back.
“Kid, are you lucky?” Mr. Felsch asked.
“Well, of course,” Eddie replied. What else could he say?
Where many of the time would have dismissed the youth for his physical ailment, Mr. Felsch saw a talisman.
“In baseball, it was a superstitious age, far more than we can appreciate today,” said Gabriel Schechter, a baseball historian and author of a biography of Charlie Faust, a mentally challenged mascot for the New York Giants.
The White Sox went on to win the second game. They had gotten themselves a new mascot, and Mr. Bennett, a new job. In time, his reputation as a jinx chaser made it to Miller Huggins, the Yankees’ manager. In 1921, he offered Mr. Bennett $25 a week to serve as a batboy, the equivalent of $335 today.
Mr. Bennett’s arrival came a year after Babe Ruth’s. Ruth’s thunderous homers would catapult the Yankees to seven pennants and four World Series, but the sportswriters always ensured that the batboy got some of the credit. “Both are doing much to bring the Yankees home first in the pennant race,” said the caption to a syndicated picture of Mr. Bennett and Ruth.
By the time Murderers’ Row trampled the Pirates in the 1927 World Series, the orphan’s domain had expanded to organizing transportation and handling baggage, duties normally assigned to the traveling secretary. He took to wearing well-tailored suits and brightly colored ties.
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On the road, Mr. Bennett roomed with Urban Shocker, a pitcher. Shocker’s heart disease forced him to sleep sitting up, and he was worried he would lose his job if the team found out. But he knew he could trust Mr. Bennett with his secret, said Steve Steinberg, a baseball historian who wrote a biography of Shocker.
Alas, the jinx the batboy chased off the field caught up to him. And then, it all ended, no less improbably. In May 1932, a taxicab pinned him against a pillar, breaking one of his legs and sending him to the hospital. Hobbling about on crutches, he tried to return to the dugout but was soon replaced by Jimmy Mars, an ambitious youngster who ran away from his Chicago home as soon as he heard about the mascot vacancy.
Three years later, Mr. Bennett was found dead in a furnished room on West 84th Street. Autographed photos from Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt, both pitchers for the Yankees, hung on the walls, The New York Times reported. Balls and bats signed by Ruth and Lou Gehrig decorated the room. An autopsy found that Mr. Bennett had died of alcoholism. He was 31.
A few staff members from the Yankees front office braved the January cold to attend his funeral. None of the players went, possibly because they were scattered about owing to the off-season. The team paid for the burial at St. John’s.
The team would go on to win 23 more World Series, but the batboys who came after Eddie Bennett would never be as famous.
As big a Yankees fan as Charles Papio was, he had never heard of Mr. Bennett. One day in the fall of 2019, he came across the mascot’s name on the St. John’s Cemetery website, listed among the famous buried there, like Carlo Gambino, the crime boss, and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mr. Papio, a 73-year-old retired police officer, has a family grave at St. John’s and is a regular visitor. He had little trouble locating Mr. Bennett’s plot the next day, right next to Cooper Avenue.
When he got there, all he found was a patch of grass littered with dead leaves and a small American flag staked in it. There was no stone. Mr. Papio said a silent prayer. “My feelings were that he was a child of God and a mother’s child who had fallen through the cracks,” he said.
He started reading up on Mr. Bennett’s life. A practicing Catholic and an equally devoted Yankees fan — he owns mementos signed by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle — he felt like something had to be done to honor the batboy’s memory.
Soon, he’d persuaded Ed Wilkinson, an editor at The Tablet, the Brooklyn diocese’s newspaper, to write a story about Mr. Bennett’s short, sad life.
The article soon made the rounds, and word that Mr. Bennett’s grave remained unmarked made it to the owner of a monument company on Long Island, who offered to donate a marker. The coronavirus pandemic delayed plans to hold a memorial service.
Finally, one sunny day last November, Mr. Papio put on a dark suit and drove to St. John’s. He stood by Mr. Bennett’s grave as the Rev. Michael Udoh, the cemetery’s chaplain, sprinkled holy water on a newly installed granite stone. It read: “Edward Bennett, 1903-1935. New York Yankees Mascot/Batboy, 1921-1932.”
Father Udoh, who was born in Nigeria, had learned of Mr. Bennett only the day of the service, but he said he was moved by his story. “Even in his condition,” he said, “he was dedicated to bringing joy to people.”
Synopsis: Systemic racism is alive and well in the South, the part of the country where I have lived my life. My educated opinion is that racism permeates our entire country, but everywhere may not be like Georgia where I saw it first-hand for seven years and which attempts to normalize racism with its voter suppression laws. Here’s the short version of Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s article: When Ronald Reagan talked about the “Welfare Queen (a Black woman who stole tax dollars through social services fraud), when tea partiers called our first Black president a “socialist,” when Trump voters claimed to be reacting to “economic anxiety,” they were calling on a long history. Today, Republicans talk about “election integrity,” but their end game is the same as that of the former Confederates after the war: to keep Black and Brown Americans away from the polls to make sure the government does not spend tax dollars on public services.
Since the Civil War, voter suppression in America has had a unique cast.
The Civil War brought two great innovations to the United States that would mix together to shape our politics from 1865 onward:
First, the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln created our first national system of taxation, including the income tax. For the first time in our history, having a say in society meant having a say in how other people’s money was spent.
Second, the Republicans gave Black Americans a say in society.
They added the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing human enslavement except as punishment for crime and, when white southerners refused to rebuild the southern states with their free Black neighbors, in March 1867 passed the Military Reconstruction Act. This landmark law permitted Black men in the South to vote for delegates to write new state constitutions. The new constitutions confirmed the right of Black men to vote.
Most former Confederates wanted no part of this new system. They tried to stop voters from ratifying the new constitutions by dressing up in white sheets as the ghosts of dead southern soldiers, terrorizing Black voters and the white men who were willing to rebuild the South on these new terms to keep them from the polls. They organized as the Ku Klux Klan, saying they were “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism” intended “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States… [and] to aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws.” But by this they meant the Constitution before the war and the Thirteenth Amendment: candidates for admission to the Ku Klux Klan had to oppose “Negro equality both social and political” and favor “a white man’s government.”
The bloody attempts of the Ku Klux Klan to suppress voting didn’t work. The new constitutions went into effect, and in 1868 the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union with Black male suffrage. In that year’s election, Georgia voters put 33 Black Georgians into the state’s general assembly, only to have the white legislators expel them on the grounds that the Georgia state constitution did not explicitly permit Black men to hold office.
The Republican Congress refused to seat Georgia’s representatives that year—that’s the “remanded to military occupation” you sometimes hear about– and wrote the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution protecting the right of formerly enslaved people to vote and, by extension, to hold office. The amendment prohibits a state from denying the right of citizens to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
So white southerners determined to prevent Black participation in society turned to a new tactic. Rather than opposing Black voting on racial grounds—although they certainly did oppose Black rights on these grounds– they complained that the new Black voters, fresh from their impoverished lives as slaves, were using their votes to redistribute wealth.
To illustrate their point, they turned to South Carolina, where between 1867 and 1876, a majority of South Carolina’s elected officials were African American. To rebuild the shattered state, the legislature levied new taxes on land, although before the war taxes had mostly fallen on the personal property owned by professionals, bankers, and merchants. The legislature then used state funds to build schools, hospitals, and other public services, and bought land for resale to settlers—usually freedpeople—at low prices.
White South Carolinians complained that members of the legislature, most of whom were professionals with property who had usually been free before the war, were lazy, ignorant field hands using public services to redistribute wealth.
Fears of workers destroying society grew potent in early 1871, when American newspaper headlines blasted the story of the Paris Commune. From March through May, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, French Communards took control of Paris. Americans read stories of a workers’ government that seemed to attack civilization itself: burning buildings, killing politicians, corrupting women, and confiscating property. Americans worried that workers at home might have similar ideas: in italics, Scribner’s Monthly warned readers that “the interference of ignorant labor with politics is dangerous to society.”
Building on this fear, in May 1871, a so-called taxpayers’ convention met in Columbia, South Carolina. A reporter claimed that South Carolina was “a typical Southern state” victimized by lazy “semi-barbarian” Black voters who were electing leaders to redistribute wealth. “Upon these people not only political rights have been conferred, but they have absolute political supremacy,” he said. The New York Daily Tribune, which had previously championed Black rights, wrote “the most intelligent, the influential, the educated, the really useful men of the South, deprived of all political power,… [are] taxed and swindled… by the ignorant class, which only yesterday hoed the fields and served in the kitchen.”
The South Carolina Taxpayers’ Convention uncovered no misuse of state funds and disbanded with only a call for frugality in government, but it had embedded into politics the idea that Black voters were using the government to redistribute wealth. The South was “prostrate” under “Black rule,” reporters claimed. In the election of 1876, southern Democrats set out to “redeem” the South from this economic misrule by keeping Black Americans from the polls.
Over the next decades, white southerners worked to silence the voices of Black Americans in politics, and in 1890, fourteen southern congressmen wrote a book to explain to their northern colleagues why Democrats had to control the South. Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and its Resultsinsisted that Black voters who had supported the Republicans after the Civil War had used their votes to pervert the government by using it to give themselves services paid for with white tax dollars.
Later that year, a new constitution in Mississippi started the process of making sure Black people could not vote by requiring educational tests, poll taxes, or a grandfather who had voted, effectively getting rid of Black voting.
Eight years later, there was still enough Black voting in North Carolina and enough class solidarity with poor whites that voters in Wilmington elected a coalition government of Black Republicans and white Populists. White Democrats agreed that the coalition had won fairly, but about 2000 of them nonetheless armed themselves to “reform” the city government. They issued a “White Declaration of Independence” and said they would “never again be ruled, by men of African origin.” It was time, they said, “for the intelligent citizens of this community owning 95% of the property and paying taxes in proportion, to end the rule by Negroes.”
As they forced the elected officials out of office and took their places, the new Democratic mayor claimed “there was no intimidation used,” but as many as 300 African Americans died in the Wilmington coup.
The Civil War began the process of linking the political power of people of color to a redistribution of wealth, and this rhetoric has haunted us ever since. When Ronald Reagan talked about the “Welfare Queen (a Black woman who stole tax dollars through social services fraud), when tea partiers called our first Black president a “socialist,” when Trump voters claimed to be reacting to “economic anxiety,” they were calling on a long history. Today, Republicans talk about “election integrity,” but their end game is the same as that of the former Confederates after the war: to keep Black and Brown Americans away from the polls to make sure the government does not spend tax dollars on public services.
Notes: I don’t link to my own books usually, but if anyone is interested, the argument and quotations here are from my second book, “The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North,” (Harvard University Press, 2001).
The Senate does not speak for you. Photo: Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images
As we wait for the Senate parliamentarian to let us know if 41 senators will be able to block a minimum-wage increase that a comfortable majority of Americans supports, it’s as good a time as any to be reminded of the non-representative nature of the Senate Republican Conference.
Daily Kos Elections has come up with a chart displaying the percentage of the population represented by senators from each party since 1990, along with the percentage of Senate votes each party captured (displayed in three-cycle averages, since only one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years):
Republican senators haven’t represented a majority of the U.S. population since 1996 and haven’t together won a majority of Senate votes since 1998. Yet the GOP controlled the Senate from 1995 through 2007 (with a brief interregnum in 2001–02 after a party switch by Jim Jeffords) and again from 2015 until 2021.
As Stephen Wolf observed in his write-up of the results, there have been consequences for this disconnect:
Five Supreme Court justices (and many more lower court judges) were confirmed by senates where the GOP majority was elected with less popular support than Democrats. Those right-wing hardliners are now poised to use their control over the court to attack voting rights and preserve Republican gerrymanders while striking down progressive policies. This same minority rule has also paved the way for massive tax cuts for the rich under George W. Bush and Donald Trump that have facilitated an explosion in economic inequality.
Thanks to the filibuster, of course, on many key measures, the 43.5 percent of voters represented by a Republican minority in the Senate have as much clout as the 44.7 percent represented by a Republican majority when the GOP won a trifecta four years ago. That’s why Democrats are trying to cram as much legislation as they can into a budget-reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered and why the parliamentarian’s ruling on the scope of that bill is such a big deal for Americans trying to survive on minimum wage.
Understanding the realities of our constitutional system means recognizing its injustices, too — along with injustices like the filibuster, which cannot be attributed to the Founders.
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(CNN) — It wasn’t until Yusuf Nur was inside the execution chamber, standing next to a condemned man strapped to a gurney, that he understood why he’d been asked to be present.
The inmate, Orlando Hall, had asked Nur to be his Muslim spiritual adviser in the weeks leading up to his execution by the United States government and to serve as the minister of record when he was put to death on Thursday, November 19, 2020.
“At the beginning, it was not clear to me that being a spiritual counselor would entail being there in the death chamber,” Nur told CNN, “and be there only a few feet from the gurney where they execute the person.”
“But the day of the execution, standing there right beside his gurney where he’s lying, in that death chamber, that’s when I realized why he needed me there,” Nur said. Even with the inmate’s family in an adjoining witness room, “I was the only person he knew there.” Between July 2020 and January 2021, 13 federal death row inmates were executed by the US government in the final months of the Trump administration — the first federal executions since 2003, when an informal moratorium halted the death penalty for 17 years. It was a historic series of executions. Prior to the hiatus, only three federal inmates had been executed since 1988, making this schedule of executions the most prolific in decades. The 10 executions that took place in 2020 alone were the most federal civilian executions in a calendar year since the 1800s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Many of the inmates had spiritual advisers like Nur, who ministered to them in the weeks before they were executed and stood next to them inside the execution chamber at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Four advisers who served as ministers of record for six of the 13 inmates recently spoke to CNN. They described their relationship with the inmates, however brief, and what it was like to watch them be put to death. Despite coming from different faiths and walks of life, they described similar experiences and a confluence of emotions — both a sense of duty to be there for the inmates and an undercurrent of anger or sadness at what they witnessed.
And while they were clear they did not condone the violent crimes of which the inmates were convicted, each of the spiritual advisers who spoke to CNN believe the death penalty is wrong.
For Father Mark O’Keefe, a Catholic priest and a professor of moral theology, being the minister of record for Dustin Honken’s execution only affirmed that belief.
“I witnessed them killing someone, and I knew him, and I had a connection with him,” O’Keefe said. “It made the death penalty very, very real to me, and the moral wrong of it clear to me at a deeply personal level.”
Could I stand there and watch somebody being killed and not want to stop it?
Sister Barbara Battista
“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement at the time.The death penalty remains legal in 28 states, though governors in California, Oregon and Pennsylvania have imposed moratoriums on executions in their states. But the federal government has the authority to pursue capital punishment in all 50. A series of legal challenges pushed the first executions back until last July, when Daniel Lewis Lee, who’d been convicted of three murders, was put to death. A dozen executions followed over the next six months, culminating with the execution of Dustin Higgs on January 16, just days before Donald Trump left office.
“I wasn’t surprised at all that Trump did it,” said Rev. Bill Breeden, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who’s been the spiritual adviser to death row inmate Chadrick Fulks for more than a decade. “I was surprised at the number of the ones he did and the persistence of it.”
Breeden has been working with prisoners since the 1990s. That work, he said, eventually led to a relationship with Fulks, who Breeden said was “like a son” to him. When the death penalty was set to resume, he feared Fulks would be executed.
Fulks was spared, but Breeden, a vocal opponent of the death penalty, knew he’d be at the prison gates, protesting as many executions as he could. And that was before he became the minister of record to Corey Johnson, who was executed in January for murdering seven people during a 1992 killing spree.
Sister Barbara Battista of the Sisters of Providence, a congregation in nearby Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, felt similarly. As her congregation’s justice promoter, capital punishment became a focus of her work soon after the executions were announced. She and others formed the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance and committed themselves to “making as much noise as we possibly could,” she said. As each execution was carried out, the group stood near the prison, carrying signs and protesting.
“There was a sadness in me, and an anger, too,” said Battista. “It was like, we have to make sure people know this is happening.”
Battista said protesters had tried to honor pain on all sides of the executions, including the families of the inmates’ victims. While they stood vigil outside the prison, they tried to recite the victims’ names to acknowledge their families’ suffering. Another group, she said, had signs printed that included the victims’ names.
‘I can’t pass this cup’
When Keith Nelson first asked Battista to be the minister of record at his execution, she prayed about it, she told CNN.
That afternoon, she’d learned her oldest brother was killed in a car accident, she said. Despite her grief, she wanted to say yes. Still, as a physician’s assistant, she wondered if standing by as someone was killed would be “unnatural.”
“Could I stand there,” she wondered, “and watch somebody being killed and not want to stop it?”
Nelson was sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 10-year-old Pamela Butler in 1999. Nelson abducted her while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home, according to the Justice Department, and Nelson confessed to strangling her with a wire.
Battista did not condone the inmate’s actions, she said. But she ultimately accepted Nelson’s request, because, she said, “As a Catholic Christian, I firmly believe that all persons deserve my compassion, deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter what.”
Nur, a business management professor, first received the request to be Orlando Hall’s spiritual adviser through Breeden, who’d reached out to Nur’s Bloomington mosque searching for one on Hall’s behalf.
The two met at Breeden’s home, in a stretch of forest in southern Indiana, and discussed what the role would involve.
“I said, as you take this on, he’s very likely going to ask you to be in the death chamber with him,” Breeden recalled. “And I said if you don’t feel like you can do that, I won’t respect you any less.”
Nur couldn’t understand. “I kept thinking, what will he get of me being there? In the back of my mind, I was hoping that he would not ask me to be there.”
Hall was sentenced to death for the 1994 kidnapping, rape and murder of 16-year-old Lisa Rene. Hall, along with several accomplices in a marijuana trafficking operation, kidnapped her from her Arlington, Texas, home while searching for her brother. After repeatedly raping her, they dug a grave in an Arkansas park, beat her with a shovel and buried her alive, according to the Justice Department.
Hall embraced Islam after his conviction, Nur said, and they spent a lot of time discussing the Quran. But it was “surreal” and “awkward,” Nur said, to talk to Hall about dying. At 49, he was in good shape and looked much younger, Nur said, and it was strange to discuss his impending death.
Just as Breeden predicted, Hall asked Nur to be with him during the execution. Nur still didn’t understand why, but he said yes.
The execution chamber
Father O’Keefe, the Catholic priest, regularly offered mass at the Terre Haute prison, but he generally did not do so on death row. It wasn’t until he filled in for another priest that he first met Dustin Honken.
Honken was sentenced to death for killing five people in 1993 — including Lori Duncan, a single mother, and her daughters, Kandi and Amber, ages 10 and 6 — in an effort to hide his multistate methamphetamine drug operation.
The two only met about four times, O’Keefe said, but he was struck by Honken’s “sincere faith,” and he thought Honken “wanted a deeper relationship with God.” But their own relationship was short lived, and when they said goodbye for what O’Keefe believed would be the last time, Honken had been scheduled to be executed.
About two weeks before Honken’s execution, Father O’Keefe received a request from the inmate through his lawyers that he be the minister of record at his execution. O’Keefe didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“It’s the ministry of priests to accompany the dying,” he said. He also recognized “spiritual depth” in Honken, and said the inmate believed a priest “would give him a sense that God was present to him in that final moment.”
“I couldn’t deny that to him,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe acknowledged the suffering of the families of Honken’s victims. He said he agreed to be Honken’s minister of record because the inmate was a human being who deserved to have someone with him at the end.
“It doesn’t change the crime he committed, and it doesn’t change the terrible suffering of that family,” he said. “Those families — what a horrible thing to live with all these years.”
“But killing Dustin didn’t change that…his death changed nothing,” he said.
The day of the execution, O’Keefe said he had expected to spend a significant amount of time with Honken, but in the end they only had a few minutes, with a piece of glass between them.
“We were both upset about that, but both of us knew, don’t fight this because there’s not enough time,” he said.
O’Keefe heard Honken’s confession, and they spoke briefly. Honken was mostly concerned about his family.
“He told me he was at peace,” O’Keefe said, “and that he was more concerned about his daughter,” who had come to visit her father but would not attend the execution.
From there, O’Keefe was escorted into a viewing room. He waited there until he was taken into the execution chamber itself, where Honken was already strapped to the gurney.
“It was sterile,” said O’Keefe, a statement echoed by all the ministers of record. “The color, the tile — it could have been an old hospital room. And all the accoutrements of trying to heal somebody were there — the oxygen monitor, what appeared to be the heart monitor, the IV.”
“But none of that was to save him,” the priest said. “It was all to kill him.”
All the spiritual advisers who spoke to CNN described largely the same experience, with slight deviations. Each was told to stand next to a piece of tape by the gurney. They were given an opportunity to speak with the inmate, pray, give last rites, read scripture or recite a declaration of faith. Prison officials, witnesses from the media, the inmates’ family and friends, and the victims’ family watched from adjacent viewing rooms.
Corey Johnson, who didn’t read well, according to Breeden, had asked Breeden to read his last words, the minister said. But Breeden said he was not allowed to and that an official said Johnson had to read the words.
Johnson’s lawyers released the inmate’s final words after the execution.
“I would have said I was sorry before, but I didn’t know how. I hope you will find peace,” he said. “To my family, I have always loved you, and your love has made me real. On the streets, I was looking for shortcuts, I had some good role models, I was side tracking, I was blind and stupid. I am not the same man that I was.”
And then the lethal injection began.
The ministers of record mostly described silence as the executions they each witnessed were carried out.
Breeden said Johnson turned to the witness room used by his family and said, “I love you.” Breeden said he heard Johnson’s brother yelling, “I love you, bro. I love you, bro!”
The inmate’s breathing slowed until someone came from an adjacent room and used a stethoscope to check Johnson’s pulse before he was declared dead.
In their statement, Johnson’s attorneys said they saw him as a “gentle soul” who had tried to earn his GED.
“We wish also to say that the fact Corey Johnson should never have been executed cannot diminish the pain and loss experienced by the families of the victims in this case,” they said. “We wish them peace and healing.” The executions gave some families the opportunity to close a painful chapter of their lives. After William LeCroy was executed for the 2001 murder of Joann Lee Tiesler in Georgia, her father said in a statement, “justice was finally served.”
“I regret that it took nineteen years to get to this point, but it has brought some needed closure to Joann’s family and friends,” Tom Tiesler said. Not all the victims’ families supported the executions. Despite then-Attorney General Barr’s statement the US was seeking justice for the victims and their families, Earlene Peterson, whose daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law were tortured and killed by Daniel Lewis Lee, told CNN prior to his execution that she didn’t want it done in her name.
“It would shame my daughter,” she said, “that someone has to die for her.”
Nur and Battista would both end up going back to the execution chamber to serve as the ministers of record for two other inmates: Dustin Higgs and LeCroy, respectively.
“To tell you the truth, I really didn’t want to go back there,” Nur said of receiving the request from Higgs, the last inmate to be executed. “But what can you do? That’s the least you can do for somebody in that position.”
Like the other spiritual advisers, Nur had always been opposed to capital punishment. After witnessing Hall’s execution, however, something shifted.
“From the moment I realized what was happening, that the death penalty issue is no longer on my periphery, that I am facing it, I became committed to the abolition of the death penalty,” he said. “This horror has to stop.”
Nur tested positive for Covid-19 about a week after Hall was put to death, and while he was asymptomatic, Nur believes he contracted the virus during the execution. He later lent his account to a complaint in which other inmates at Terre Haute argued for halting the remaining executions, citing the risk posed by Covid-19. The effort was unsuccessful.The executions drew additional scrutiny because of the fact they were carried out during the pandemic. Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, previously told CNN the executions were possible super spreader events because of the number of people involved.
“The decision to move forward with all these super spreader events in the midst of a pandemic…is historically unprecedented,” Dunham said.After Hall’s execution, at least six members of the execution team and more than a dozen Terre Haute prison staffers tested positive for Covid-19, according to a motion filed in court. Attorneys for Johnson also called on the Justice Department to withdraw his execution date after he tested positive for Covid-19 and said proceeding exhibited “reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners and attorneys alike.”
In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Biden’s pick for Attorney General, Judge Merrick Garland, said the death penalty had given him “great pause.”
As an associate deputy attorney general, Garland was involved in the decision to seek the death penalty in the case against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. During his February confirmation hearing, Garland said he supported capital punishment in that case and he did not regret pursuing it.
But he had developed concerns over the death penalty in the last two decades, he said. He pointed to the exonerations of wrongfully convicted people, the arbitrary nature with which the death penalty is applied and its “disparate impact on Black Americans and members of other communities of color.”Garland said he expected Biden would be “giving direction in this area” and indicated it was “not at all unlikely” the Department would return to the “previous policy.”
“We need to abolish capital punishment,” Battista said. “Yes, we need President Biden to affect a moratorium, but that’s just a stop gap measure.” She’s hopeful, pointing to states like Virginia, which is on the verge of outlawing capital punishment. “It gives me great hope,” she said. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, legislators in a number of states, including California and Kansas, among others, have recently introduced bills to abolish the death penalty in their states.
I was honored to be there. But I was also ashamed to be there, because this is done with my taxes.
Rev. Bill Breeden
O’Keefe has also experienced a shift after witnessing Honken’s execution. He’d always believed the death penalty was wrong. But as an academic, he said it was something he’d largely only thought about in theory.
“Intellectually, I know the Catholic Church’s arguments against the death penalty and I adhere to those. I am against the death penalty,” he said. “But I must admit, for me, it was always kind of abstract.”
But witnessing Honken’s execution changed something. The next day, his emotions caught up to him, and he realized what he had seen.
“It struck me that being present when another human being is killed just ought not to be,” he said. “That’s when my belief against the death penalty became real.”
Following Johnson’s death, Breeden said he turned to the execution team and told them, “I would be remiss in my role as a minister if I did not advise you to find another line of employment before you lose your souls.”
Outside, Breeden spoke to reporters and the group of protesters who’d held vigil nearby.
“I was honored to be there,” he told them, according to a video of his remarks that was streamed live on Facebook. “But I was also ashamed to be there, because this is done with my taxes.”
CNN’s Christina Carrega contributed to this report.
Democrats can’t kill the filibuster. But they can gut it.
Three reforms Manchin and Sinema might consider
Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats in January’s runoffs, giving them control of both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade. But their ability to advance legislation — from raising the federal minimum wage to democracy reforms in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — can be thwarted by the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority filibuster rule.
Progressives’ anger at Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his caucus, who use the filibuster to block every initiative they can, is nearly matched by their frustration with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), whose opposition to getting rid of the filibuster means Democrats are stuck with it, since they’d need all 50 votes in their caucus, plus Vice President Harris as a tiebreaker, to do it. Last month, the progressive No Excuses PAC, whose leaders helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) in 2018, said Manchin and Sinema “stand in the way of progress” by abetting Republican efforts “to shrink their own party’s pandemic relief, climate, and economic investment plans.” The political action committee has talked up primary challenges to both of them to show “‘how angry Democratic primary voters are going to be’ if they continue to support the filibuster.”
Manchin hasn’t budged, though. Monday, when asked if he’d reconsider his stance on eliminating the filibuster, he shot back: “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?”
Democrats are right to see the urgency: Republican state lawmakers around the country are moving to enact voter suppression measures that will, if passed, put the slender Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives in jeopardy in 2022 and beyond. Without democracy reform, and with the Supreme Court’s recent assaults on the Voting Rights Act, sticking with the filibuster could make it nearly impossible for the Biden administration to pursue its agenda.
But Democrats should proceed with caution: In 2001, I warned that if Republicans harangued Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) over his apostasy on their party’s policy priorities, they would regret it. He would switch parties and, in a 50-50 Senate, shift the Senate majority. The next month, it happened. The same concern now applies to Democrats with Manchin. Push too far, and the result could be Majority Leader McConnell, foreclosing Democrats’ avenue to pursue infrastructure, tax reform and health reform legislation.
So, what can Democrats do?Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) demurred when asked on March 2 if he would support ending the legislative filibuster. (The Washington Post)
For a West Virginia Democrat, heavy criticism from key members of his own party, up to and including President Biden, might wind up working to Manchin’s advantage. That was true of an earlier apostate, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), who’s been reelected several times after switching from Democrat to Republicanin 1994, after butting heads with President Bill Clinton.
Instead of naming and shaming them, Democrats might consider looking at what Manchin and Sinema like about the filibuster. Sinema recently said, “Retaining the legislative filibuster is not meant to impede the things we want to get done. Rather, it’s meant to protect what the Senate was designed to be. I believe the Senate has a responsibility to put politics aside and fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans.” Last year, Manchin said, “The minority should have input — that’s the whole purpose for the Senate. If you basically do away with the filibuster altogether for legislation, you won’t have the Senate. You’re a glorified House. And I will not do that.”
If you take their views at face value, the goal is to preserve some rights for the Senate minority, with the aim of fostering compromise. The key, then, is to find ways not to eliminate the filibuster on legislation but to reform it to fit that vision. Here are some options:
Make the minority do the work. Currently, it takes 60 senators to reach cloture — to end debate and move to a vote on final passage of a bill. The burden is on the majority, a consequence of filibuster reform in 1975, which moved the standard from two-thirds of senators present and voting to three-fifths of the entire Senate. Before that change, if the Senate went around-the-clock, filibustering senators would have to be present in force. If, for example, only 75 senators showed up for a cloture vote, 50 of them could invoke cloture and move to a final vote. After the reform, only a few senators in the minority needed to be present to a request for unanimous consent and to keep the majority from closing debate by forcing a quorum call. The around-the-clock approach riveted the public, putting a genuine spotlight on the issues. Without it, the minority’s delaying tactics go largely unnoticed, with little or no penalty for obstruction, and no requirement actually to debate the issue.
One way to restore the filibuster’s original intent would be requiring at least two-fifths of the full Senate, or 40 senators, to keep debating instead requiring 60 to end debate. The burden would fall to the minority, who’d have to be prepared for several votes, potentially over several days and nights, including weekends and all-night sessions, and if only once they couldn’t muster 40 — the equivalent of cloture — debate would end, making way for a vote on final passage of the bill in question.
Go back to the “present and voting” standard. A shift to three-fifths of the Senate “present and voting” would similarly require the minority to keep most of its members around the Senate when in session. If, for example, the issue in question were voting rights, a Senate deliberating on the floor, 24 hours a day for several days, would put a sharp spotlight on the issue, forcing Republicans to publicly justify opposition to legislation aimed at protecting the voting rights of minorities. Weekend Senate sessions would cause Republicans up for reelection in 2022 to remain in Washington instead of freeing them to go home to campaign. In a three-fifths present and voting scenario, if only 80 senators showed up, only 48 votes would be needed to get to cloture. Add to that a requirement that at all times, a member of the minority party would have to be on the floor, actually debating, and the burden would be even greater, while delivering what Manchin and Sinema say they want — more debate.
Narrow the supermajority requirement. Another option would be to follow in the direction of the 1975 reform, which reduced two-thirds (67 out of a full 100) to three-fifths (60 out of 100), and further reduce the threshold to 55 senators — still a supermajority requirement, but a slimmer one. Democrats might have some ability to get five Republicans to support their desired outcomes on issues such as voting rights, universal background checks for gun purchases or a path to citizenship for Dreamers. A reduction to 55, if coupled with a present-and-voting standard would establish even more balance between majority and minority.
In a 50-50 Senate, and with the GOP strategy clearly being united opposition to almost all Democratic priorities, Biden and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) need the support of Manchin and Sinema on a daily basis. They won’t be persuaded by pressure campaigns from progressive groups or from members of Congress. But they might consider reforms that weaken the power of filibusters and give Democrats more leverage to enact their policies, without pursuing the dead end of abolishing the rule altogether.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referenced 40 senators as “two-thirds” of the full Senate. Forty senators equal two-fifths.
Jenna Ryan seemed like an unlikely participant in the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. She was a real estate agent from Texas. She flew into Washington on a private jet. And she was dressed that day in clothes better suited for a winter tailgate than a war.
Yet Ryan, 50, is accused of rushing into the Capitol past broken glass and blaring security alarms and, according to federal prosecutors, shouting: “Fight for freedom! Fight for freedom!”
But in a different way, she fit right in.
Despite her outward signs of success, Ryan had struggled financially for years. She was still paying off a $37,000 lien for unpaid federal taxes when she was arrested. She’d nearly lost her home to foreclosure before that. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and faced another IRS tax lien in 2010.
Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.
The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.
The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.
While no single factor explains why someone decided to join in, experts say, Donald Trump and his brand of grievance politics tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.
“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”
The financial missteps by defendants in the attempted insurrection ranged from small debts of a few thousand dollars more than a decade ago to unpaid tax bills of $400,000 and homes facing foreclosure in recent years. Some of these people seemed to have regained their financial footing. But many of them once stood close to the edge.
Ryan had nearly lost everything. And the stakes seemed similarly high to her when she came to Washington in early January. She fully believed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen and that he was going to save the country, she said in an interview with The Post.
But now — facing federal charges and abandoned by people she considered “fellow patriots” — she said she feels betrayed.
“I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I regret everything.”
The FBI has said it found evidence of organized plots by extremist groups. But many of the people who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 — including Ryan — appeared to have adopted their radical outlooks more informally, consuming conspiracy theories about the election on television, social media and right-wing websites.
The poor and uneducated are not more likely to join extremist movements, according to experts. Two professors a couple of years ago found the opposite in one example: an unexpectedly high number of engineers who became Islamist radicals.
In the Capitol attack, business owners and white-collar workers made up 40 percent of the people accused of taking part, according to a study by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. Only 9 percent appeared to be unemployed.The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (TWP)
The participation of people with middle- and upper-middle-class positions fits with research suggesting that the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s was fueled by people in the middle of society who felt they were losing status and power, said Pippa Norris, a political science professor at Harvard University who has studied radical political movements.
Miller-Idriss said she was struck by a 2011 study that found household income was not a factor in whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.
“These are people who feel like they’ve lost something,” Miller-Idriss said.
Going through a bankruptcy or falling behind on taxes, even years earlier, could provoke a similar response.
“They know it can be lost. They have that history — and then someone comes along and tells you this election has been stolen,” Miller-Idriss said. “It taps into the same thing.”
Playing on personal pain
Trump’s false claims about election fraud — refuted by elections officials and rejected by judges — seemed tailored to exploit feelings about this precarious status, said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who studies political extremism.
“It’s hard to ignore with a Trump presidency that message that ‘the America you knew and loved is going away, and I’m going to protect it,’” Haider-Markel said. “They feel, at a minimum, that they’re under threat.”
While some of the financial problems were old, the pandemic’s economic toll appeared to inflict fresh pain for some of the people accused of participating in the attempted insurrection.
A California man filed for bankruptcy one week before allegedly joining the attack, according to public records. A Texas man was charged with entering the Capitol one month after his company was slapped with a nearly $2,000 state tax lien.
Several young people charged in the attack came from families with histories of financial duress.
The parents of Riley June Williams — a 22-year-old who allegedly helped to steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol office — filed for bankruptcy when she was a child, according to public records. A house owned by her mother faced foreclosure when she was a teenager, records show. Recently, a federal judge placed Williams on home confinement with her mother in Harrisburg, Pa. Her federal public defender did not respond to a request for comment.
People with professional careers such as respiratory therapist, nurse and lawyer were also accused of joining in.
One of them was William McCall Calhoun, 57, a well-known lawyer in Americus, Ga., 130 miles south of Atlanta, who was hit with a $26,000 federal tax lien in 2019, according to public records. A woman who knows Calhoun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said he started to show strong support for Trump only in the past year. An attorney for Calhoun declined to comment.
Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police when she tried to leap through a door’s broken window inside the Capitol, had struggled to run a pool-service company outside San Diego and was saddled with a $23,000 judgment from a lender in 2017, according to court records.
Financial problems were also apparent among people federal authorities said were connected to far-right nationalist groups, such as the Proud Boys.
Dominic Pezzola, who federal authorities said is a member of the Proud Boys, is accused of being among the first to lead the surge inside the Capitol and helping to overwhelm police. Up to 140 officers were injured in the storming of the Capitol and one officer, Brian Sicknick, was killed.
Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y., also has been named in state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000 over the past five years, according to public records. His attorney declined to comment.
The roots of extremism are complex, said Haider-Markel.
“Somehow they’ve been wronged, they’ve developed a grievance, and they tend to connect that to some broader ideology,” he said.
The price of insurrection
Ryan, who lives in Frisco, Texas, a Dallas suburb, said she was slow to become a big Trump supporter.
She’s been described as a conservative radio talk show host. But she wasn’t a budding Rush Limbaugh. Her AM radio show each Sunday focused on real estate, and she paid for the airtime. She stopped doing the show in March, when the pandemic hit.
But she continued to run a service that offers advice for people struggling with childhood trauma and bad relationships. Ryan said the work was based on the steps she took to overcome her own rough upbringing.
Twice divorced and struggling with financial problems, Ryan developed an outlook that she described as politically conservative, leaning toward libertarian.
But politics was not her focal point until recently. She recalled being upset when President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. And she preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton four years later. But she said she wasn’t strident in her support for Trump.
That changed as the 2020 election approached.
She said she started reading far-right websites such as Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit. She began streaming shows such as Alex Jones’s “Infowars” and former Trump campaign manager Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic.” She began following conspiracy theories related to QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology. She said she didn’t know if the posts were true, but she was enthralled.
“It was all like a football game. I was sucked into it. Consumed by it,” Ryan said.
She attended the first protest in her life in April, going to Austin to vent about the state’s pandemic lockdown orders. That was followed by a rally for Shelley Luther, who gained national attention for reopening her beauty salon in Dallas in defiance of the lockdown.
Ryan said she traveled to Trump’s “Save America” rally on a whim. A Facebook friend offered to fly her and three others on a private plane.
They arrived in Washington a day early and got rooms at a Westin hotel downtown, Ryan said.
It was her first trip to the nation’s capital.
The next morning, Jan. 6, the group of friends left the hotel at 6 a.m., Ryan said. She was cold, so she bought a $35 knit snow hat with a “45” emblem from a souvenir shop. They then followed the crowd streaming toward the National Mall.
“My main concern was there were no bathrooms. I kept asking, ‘Where are the bathrooms?’” she said. “I was just having fun.”
They listened to some of the speakers. But mostly they walked around and took photos. She felt like a tourist. They grabbed sandwiches at a Wawa convenience store for lunch. They hired a pedicab to take them back to the hotel.
She drank white wine while the group watched on television as Congress prepared to certify the electoral college votes. They listened to clips of Trump telling rallygoers to walk to the Capitol and saying, “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
They decided to leave the hotel and go to the Capitol.
Ryan said she was reluctant.
But she also posted a video to her Facebook account that showed her looking into a bathroom mirror and saying, according to an FBI account of her charges: “We’re gonna go down and storm the capitol. They’re down there right now and that’s why we came and so that’s what we are going to do. So wish me luck.”
She live-streamed on Facebook. She posted photos to Twitter. She got closer to the Capitol with each post. She stood on the Capitol’s steps. She flashed a peace symbol next to a smashed Capitol window. The FBI also found video of her walking through doors on the west side of the Capitol in the middle of a packed crowd, where she said into a camera, according to the bureau: “Y’all know who to hire for your realtor. Jenna Ryan for your realtor.”
The FBI document does not state how long Ryan spent inside the building. She said it was just a few minutes. She and her new friends eventually walked back to the hotel, she said.
“We just stormed the Capital,” Ryan tweeted that afternoon. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
She said she realized she was in trouble only after returning to Texas. Her phone was blowing up with messages. Her social media posts briefly made her the infamous face of the riots: the smiling real estate agent who flew in a private jet to an insurrection.
Nine days later, she turned herself in to the FBI. She was charged with two federal misdemeanors related to entering the Capitol building and disorderly conduct. Last week, federal authorities filed similar charges against two others on her flight: Jason L. Hyland, 37, of Frisco, who federal authorities said organized the trip, and Katherine S. Schwab, 32, of Colleyville, Texas.
Ryan remained defiant at first. She clashed with people who criticized her online. She told a Dallas TV station she deserved a presidential pardon.
Then Trump left for Florida. President Biden took office. And Ryan, at home in Texas, was left to wonder what to do with her two mini-goldendoodle dogs if she goes to prison.
“Not one patriot is standing up for me,” Ryan said recently. “I’m a complete villain. I was down there based on what my president said. ‘Stop the steal.’ Now I see that it was all over nothing. He was just having us down there for an ego boost. I was there for him.” A
How the election was SAVED and how the election could be STOLEN
The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh for TIME
A weird thing happened right after the Nov. 3 election: nothing.
The nation was braced for chaos. Liberal groups had vowed to take to the streets, planning hundreds of protests across the country. Right-wing militias were girding for battle. In a poll before Election Day, 75% of Americans voiced concern about violence.
Instead, an eerie quiet descended. As President Trump refused to concede, the response was not mass action but crickets. When media organizations called the race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, jubilation broke out instead, as people thronged cities across the U.S. to celebrate the democratic process that resulted in Trump’s ouster.
Reactions Throughout the U.S. After Biden Wins Presidential Race in Unprecedented Election
A second odd thing happened amid Trump’s attempts to reverse the result: corporate America turned on him. Hundreds of major business leaders, many of whom had backed Trump’s candidacy and supported his policies, called on him to concede. To the President, something felt amiss. “It was all very, very strange,” Trump said on Dec. 2. “Within days after the election, we witnessed an orchestrated effort to anoint the winner, even while many key states were still being counted.”
In a way, Trump was right.
There was a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes, one that both curtailed the protests and coordinated the resistance from CEOs. Both surprises were the result of an informal alliance between left-wing activists and business titans. The pact was formalized in a terse, little-noticed joint statement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO published on Election Day. Both sides would come to see it as a sort of implicit bargain–inspired by the summer’s massive, sometimes destructive racial-justice protests–in which the forces of labor came together with the forces of capital to keep the peace and oppose Trump’s assault on democracy.
The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted. For more than a year, a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President. Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed ideological lines, with crucial contributions by nonpartisan and conservative actors. The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was not a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous that no result could be discerned at all, a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance that has been a hallmark of America since its founding.
Their work touched every aspect of the election. They got states to change voting systems and laws and helped secure hundreds of millions in public and private funding. They fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time. They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears. They executed national public-awareness campaigns that helped Americans understand how the vote count would unfold over days or weeks, preventing Trump’s conspiracy theories and false claims of victory from getting more traction. After Election Day, they monitored every pressure point to ensure that Trump could not overturn the result. “The untold story of the election is the thousands of people of both parties who accomplished the triumph of American democracy at its very foundation,” says Norm Eisen, a prominent lawyer and former Obama Administration official who recruited Republicans and Democrats to the board of the Voter Protection Program.
For Trump and his allies were running their own campaign to spoil the election. The President spent months insisting that mail ballots were a Democratic plot and the election would be “rigged.” His henchmen at the state level sought to block their use, while his lawyers brought dozens of spurious suits to make it more difficult to vote–an intensification of the GOP’s legacy of suppressive tactics. Before the election, Trump plotted to block a legitimate vote count. And he spent the months following Nov. 3 trying to steal the election he’d lost–with lawsuits and conspiracy theories, pressure on state and local officials, and finally summoning his army of supporters to the Jan. 6 rally that ended in deadly violence at the Capitol.
The democracy campaigners watched with alarm. “Every week, we felt like we were in a struggle to try to pull off this election without the country going through a real dangerous moment of unraveling,” says former GOP Representative Zach Wamp, a Trump supporter who helped coordinate a bipartisan election-protection council. “We can look back and say this thing went pretty well, but it was not at all clear in September and October that that was going to be the case.”
Biden fans in Philadelphia after the race was called on Nov. 7
Michelle Gustafson for TIME
This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”
That’s why the participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it sounds like a paranoid fever dream–a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s fragility in order to ensure that democracy in America endures.
Sometime in the fall of 2019, Mike Podhorzer became convinced the election was headed for disaster–and determined to protect it.
This was not his usual purview. For nearly a quarter-century, Podhorzer, senior adviser to the president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, has marshaled the latest tactics and data to help its favored candidates win elections. Unassuming and professorial, he isn’t the sort of hair-gelled “political strategist” who shows up on cable news. Among Democratic insiders, he’s known as the wizard behind some of the biggest advances in political technology in recent decades. A group of liberal strategists he brought together in the early 2000s led to the creation of the Analyst Institute, a secretive firm that applies scientific methods to political campaigns. He was also involved in the founding of Catalist, the flagship progressive data company.
The endless chatter in Washington about “political strategy,” Podhorzer believes, has little to do with how change really gets made. “My basic take on politics is that it’s all pretty obvious if you don’t overthink it or swallow the prevailing frameworks whole,” he once wrote. “After that, just relentlessly identify your assumptions and challenge them.” Podhorzer applies that approach to everything: when he coached his now adult son’s Little League team in the D.C. suburbs, he trained the boys not to swing at most pitches–a tactic that infuriated both their and their opponents’ parents, but won the team a series of championships.
Trump’s election in 2016–credited in part to his unusual strength among the sort of blue collar white voters who once dominated the AFL-CIO–prompted Podhorzer to question his assumptions about voter behavior. He began circulating weekly number-crunching memos to a small circle of allies and hosting strategy sessions in D.C. But when he began to worry about the election itself, he didn’t want to seem paranoid. It was only after months of research that he introduced his concerns in his newsletter in October 2019. The usual tools of data, analytics and polling would not be sufficient in a situation where the President himself was trying to disrupt the election, he wrote. “Most of our planning takes us through Election Day,” he noted. “But, we are not prepared for the two most likely outcomes”–Trump losing and refusing to concede, and Trump winning the Electoral College (despite losing the popular vote) by corrupting the voting process in key states. “We desperately need to systematically ‘red-team’ this election so that we can anticipate and plan for the worst we know will be coming our way.”
It turned out Podhorzer wasn’t the only one thinking in these terms. He began to hear from others eager to join forces. The Fight Back Table, a coalition of “resistance” organizations, had begun scenario-planning around the potential for a contested election, gathering liberal activists at the local and national level into what they called the Democracy Defense Coalition. Voting-rights and civil rights organizations were raising alarms. A group of former elected officials was researching emergency powers they feared Trump might exploit. Protect Democracy was assembling a bipartisan election-crisis task force. “It turned out that once you said it out loud, people agreed,” Podhorzer says, “and it started building momentum.”
He spent months pondering scenarios and talking to experts. It wasn’t hard to find liberals who saw Trump as a dangerous dictator, but Podhorzer was careful to steer clear of hysteria. What he wanted to know was not how American democracy was dying but how it might be kept alive. The chief difference between the U.S. and countries that lost their grip on democracy, he concluded, was that America’s decentralized election system couldn’t be rigged in one fell swoop. That presented an opportunity to shore it up.
On March 3, Podhorzer drafted a three-page confidential memo titled “Threats to the 2020 Election.” “Trump has made it clear that this will not be a fair election, and that he will reject anything but his own re-election as ‘fake’ and rigged,” he wrote. “On Nov. 3, should the media report otherwise, he will use the right-wing information system to establish his narrative and incite his supporters to protest.” The memo laid out four categories of challenges: attacks on voters, attacks on election administration, attacks on Trump’s political opponents and “efforts to reverse the results of the election.”
Then COVID-19 erupted at the height of the primary-election season. Normal methods of voting were no longer safe for voters or the mostly elderly volunteers who normally staff polling places. But political disagreements, intensified by Trump’s crusade against mail voting, prevented some states from making it easier to vote absentee and for jurisdictions to count those votes in a timely manner. Chaos ensued. Ohio shut down in-person voting for its primary, leading to minuscule turnout. A poll-worker shortage in Milwaukee–where Wisconsin’s heavily Democratic Black population is concentrated–left just five open polling places, down from 182. In New York, vote counting took more than a month.
Suddenly, the potential for a November meltdown was obvious. In his apartment in the D.C. suburbs, Podhorzer began working from his laptop at his kitchen table, holding back-to-back Zoom meetings for hours a day with his network of contacts across the progressive universe: the labor movement; the institutional left, like Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace; resistance groups like Indivisible and MoveOn; progressive data geeks and strategists, representatives of donors and foundations, state-level grassroots organizers, racial-justice activists and others.
In April, Podhorzer began hosting a weekly 2½-hour Zoom. It was structured around a series of rapid-fire five-minute presentations on everything from which ads were working to messaging to legal strategy. The invitation-only gatherings soon attracted hundreds, creating a rare shared base of knowledge for the fractious progressive movement. “At the risk of talking trash about the left, there’s not a lot of good information sharing,” says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a close Podhorzer friend whose poll-tested messaging guidance shaped the group’s approach. “There’s a lot of not-invented-here syndrome, where people won’t consider a good idea if they didn’t come up with it.”
The meetings became the galactic center for a constellation of operatives across the left who shared overlapping goals but didn’t usually work in concert. The group had no name, no leaders and no hierarchy, but it kept the disparate actors in sync. “Pod played a critical behind-the-scenes role in keeping different pieces of the movement infrastructure in communication and aligned,” says Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. “You have the litigation space, the organizing space, the political people just focused on the W, and their strategies aren’t always aligned. He allowed this ecosystem to work together.”
Protecting the election would require an effort of unprecedented scale. As 2020 progressed, it stretched to Congress, Silicon Valley and the nation’s statehouses. It drew energy from the summer’s racial-justice protests, many of whose leaders were a key part of the liberal alliance. And eventually it reached across the aisle, into the world of Trump-skeptical Republicans appalled by his attacks on democracy.
SECURING THE VOTE
The first task was overhauling America’s balky election infrastructure–in the middle of a pandemic. For the thousands of local, mostly nonpartisan officials who administer elections, the most urgent need was money. They needed protective equipment like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. They needed to pay for postcards letting people know they could vote absentee–or, in some states, to mail ballots to every voter. They needed additional staff and scanners to process ballots.
In March, activists appealed to Congress to steer COVID relief money to election administration. Led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, more than 150 organizations signed a letter to every member of Congress seeking $2 billion in election funding. It was somewhat successful: the CARES Act, passed later that month, contained $400 million in grants to state election administrators. But the next tranche of relief funding didn’t add to that number. It wasn’t going to be enough.
Private philanthropy stepped into the breach. An assortment of foundations contributed tens of millions in election-administration funding. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative chipped in $300 million. “It was a failure at the federal level that 2,500 local election officials were forced to apply for philanthropic grants to fill their needs,” says Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election official who heads the nonpartisan National Vote at Home Institute.
McReynolds’ two-year-old organization became a clearinghouse for a nation struggling to adapt. The institute gave secretaries of state from both parties technical advice on everything from which vendors to use to how to locate drop boxes. Local officials are the most trusted sources of election information, but few can afford a press secretary, so the institute distributed communications tool kits. In a presentation to Podhorzer’s group, McReynolds detailed the importance of absentee ballots for shortening lines at polling places and preventing an election crisis.
The institute’s work helped 37 states and D.C. bolster mail voting. But it wouldn’t be worth much if people didn’t take advantage. Part of the challenge was logistical: each state has different rules for when and how ballots should be requested and returned. The Voter Participation Center, which in a normal year would have deployed canvassers door-to-door to get out the vote, instead conducted focus groups in April and May to find out what would get people to vote by mail. In August and September, it sent ballot applications to 15 million people in key states, 4.6 million of whom returned them. In mailings and digital ads, the group urged people not to wait for Election Day. “All the work we have done for 17 years was built for this moment of bringing democracy to people’s doorsteps,” says Tom Lopach, the center’s CEO.
The effort had to overcome heightened skepticism in some communities. Many Black voters preferred to exercise their franchise in person or didn’t trust the mail. National civil rights groups worked with local organizations to get the word out that this was the best way to ensure one’s vote was counted. In Philadelphia, for example, advocates distributed “voting safety kits” containing masks, hand sanitizer and informational brochures. “We had to get the message out that this is safe, reliable, and you can trust it,” says Hannah Fried of All Voting Is Local.
At the same time, Democratic lawyers battled a historic tide of pre-election litigation. The pandemic intensified the parties’ usual tangling in the courts. But the lawyers noticed something else as well. “The litigation brought by the Trump campaign, of a piece with the broader campaign to sow doubt about mail voting, was making novel claims and using theories no court has ever accepted,” says Wendy Weiser, a voting-rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. “They read more like lawsuits designed to send a message rather than achieve a legal outcome.”
In the end, nearly half the electorate cast ballots by mail in 2020, practically a revolution in how people vote. About a quarter voted early in person. Only a quarter of voters cast their ballots the traditional way: in person on Election Day.
THE DISINFORMATION DEFENSE
Bad actors spreading false information is nothing new. For decades, campaigns have grappled with everything from anonymous calls claiming the election has been rescheduled to fliers spreading nasty smears about candidates’ families. But Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories, the viral force of social media and the involvement of foreign meddlers made disinformation a broader, deeper threat to the 2020 vote.
Laura Quinn, a veteran progressive operative who co-founded Catalist, began studying this problem a few years ago. She piloted a nameless, secret project, which she has never before publicly discussed, that tracked disinformation online and tried to figure out how to combat it. One component was tracking dangerous lies that might otherwise spread unnoticed. Researchers then provided information to campaigners or the media to track down the sources and expose them.
The most important takeaway from Quinn’s research, however, was that engaging with toxic content only made it worse. “When you get attacked, the instinct is to push back, call it out, say, ‘This isn’t true,’” Quinn says. “But the more engagement something gets, the more the platforms boost it. The algorithm reads that as, ‘Oh, this is popular; people want more of it.’”
The solution, she concluded, was to pressure platforms to enforce their rules, both by removing content or accounts that spread disinformation and by more aggressively policing it in the first place. “The platforms have policies against certain types of malign behavior, but they haven’t been enforcing them,” she says.
Quinn’s research gave ammunition to advocates pushing social media platforms to take a harder line. In November 2019, Mark Zuckerberg invited nine civil rights leaders to dinner at his home, where they warned him about the danger of the election-related falsehoods that were already spreading unchecked. “It took pushing, urging, conversations, brainstorming, all of that to get to a place where we ended up with more rigorous rules and enforcement,” says Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who attended the dinner and also met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and others. (Gupta has been nominated for Associate Attorney General by President Biden.) “It was a struggle, but we got to the point where they understood the problem. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it later than we wanted? Yes. But it was really important, given the level of official disinformation, that they had those rules in place and were tagging things and taking them down.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Beyond battling bad information, there was a need to explain a rapidly changing election process. It was crucial for voters to understand that despite what Trump was saying, mail-in votes weren’t susceptible to fraud and that it would be normal if some states weren’t finished counting votes on election night.
Dick Gephardt, the Democratic former House leader turned high-powered lobbyist, spearheaded one coalition. “We wanted to get a really bipartisan group of former elected officials, Cabinet secretaries, military leaders and so on, aimed mainly at messaging to the public but also speaking to local officials–the secretaries of state, attorneys general, governors who would be in the eye of the storm–to let them know we wanted to help,” says Gephardt, who worked his contacts in the private sector to put $20 million behind the effort.
Wamp, the former GOP Congressman, worked through the nonpartisan reform group Issue One to rally Republicans. “We thought we should bring some bipartisan element of unity around what constitutes a free and fair election,” Wamp says. The 22 Democrats and 22 Republicans on the National Council on Election Integrity met on Zoom at least once a week. They ran ads in six states, made statements, wrote articles and alerted local officials to potential problems. “We had rabid Trump supporters who agreed to serve on the council based on the idea that this is honest,” Wamp says. This is going to be just as important, he told them, to convince the liberals when Trump wins. “Whichever way it cuts, we’re going to stick together.”
The Voting Rights Lab and IntoAction created state-specific memes and graphics, spread by email, text, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, urging that every vote be counted. Together, they were viewed more than 1 billion times. Protect Democracy’s election task force issued reports and held media briefings with high-profile experts across the political spectrum, resulting in widespread coverage of potential election issues and fact-checking of Trump’s false claims. The organization’s tracking polls found the message was being heard: the percentage of the public that didn’t expect to know the winner on election night gradually rose until by late October, it was over 70%. A majority also believed that a prolonged count wasn’t a sign of problems. “We knew exactly what Trump was going to do: he was going to try to use the fact that Democrats voted by mail and Republicans voted in person to make it look like he was ahead, claim victory, say the mail-in votes were fraudulent and try to get them thrown out,” says Protect Democracy’s Bassin. Setting public expectations ahead of time helped undercut those lies.
Amber McReynolds, Zach Wamp and Maurice Mitchell
Rachel Woolf for TIME; Erik Schelzig—AP/Shutterstock; Holly Pickett—The New York Times/Redux
The alliance took a common set of themes from the research Shenker-Osorio presented at Podhorzer’s Zooms. Studies have shown that when people don’t think their vote will count or fear casting it will be a hassle, they’re far less likely to participate. Throughout election season, members of Podhorzer’s group minimized incidents of voter intimidation and tamped down rising liberal hysteria about Trump’s expected refusal to concede. They didn’t want to amplify false claims by engaging them, or put people off voting by suggesting a rigged game. “When you say, ‘These claims of fraud are spurious,’ what people hear is ‘fraud,’” Shenker-Osorio says. “What we saw in our pre-election research was that anything that reaffirmed Trump’s power or cast him as an authoritarian diminished people’s desire to vote.”
Podhorzer, meanwhile, was warning everyone he knew that polls were underestimating Trump’s support. The data he shared with media organizations who would be calling the election was “tremendously useful” to understand what was happening as the votes rolled in, according to a member of a major network’s political unit who spoke with Podhorzer before Election Day. Most analysts had recognized there would be a “blue shift” in key battlegrounds– the surge of votes breaking toward Democrats, driven by tallies of mail-in ballots– but they hadn’t comprehended how much better Trump was likely to do on Election Day. “Being able to document how big the absentee wave would be and the variance by state was essential,” the analyst says.
The racial-justice uprising sparked by George Floyd’s killing in May was not primarily a political movement. The organizers who helped lead it wanted to harness its momentum for the election without allowing it to be co-opted by politicians. Many of those organizers were part of Podhorzer’s network, from the activists in battleground states who partnered with the Democracy Defense Coalition to organizations with leading roles in the Movement for Black Lives.
The best way to ensure people’s voices were heard, they decided, was to protect their ability to vote. “We started thinking about a program that would complement the traditional election-protection area but also didn’t rely on calling the police,” says Nelini Stamp, the Working Families Party’s national organizing director. They created a force of “election defenders” who, unlike traditional poll watchers, were trained in de-escalation techniques. During early voting and on Election Day, they surrounded lines of voters in urban areas with a “joy to the polls” effort that turned the act of casting a ballot into a street party. Black organizers also recruited thousands of poll workers to ensure polling places would stay open in their communities.
The summer uprising had shown that people power could have a massive impact. Activists began preparing to reprise the demonstrations if Trump tried to steal the election. “Americans plan widespread protests if Trump interferes with election,” Reuters reported in October, one of many such stories. More than 150 liberal groups, from the Women’s March to the Sierra Club to Color of Change, from Democrats.com to the Democratic Socialists of America, joined the “Protect the Results” coalition. The group’s now defunct website had a map listing 400 planned postelection demonstrations, to be activated via text message as soon as Nov. 4. To stop the coup they feared, the left was ready to flood the streets.
About a week before Election Day, Podhorzer received an unexpected message: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wanted to talk.
The AFL-CIO and the Chamber have a long history of antagonism. Though neither organization is explicitly partisan, the influential business lobby has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Republican campaigns, just as the nation’s unions funnel hundreds of millions to Democrats. On one side is labor, on the other management, locked in an eternal struggle for power and resources.
But behind the scenes, the business community was engaged in its own anxious discussions about how the election and its aftermath might unfold. The summer’s racial-justice protests had sent a signal to business owners too: the potential for economy-disrupting civil disorder. “With tensions running high, there was a lot of concern about unrest around the election, or a breakdown in our normal way we handle contentious elections,” says Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer. These worries had led the Chamber to release a pre-election statement with the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based CEOs’ group, as well as associations of manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, calling for patience and confidence as votes were counted.
But Bradley wanted to send a broader, more bipartisan message. He reached out to Podhorzer, through an intermediary both men declined to name. Agreeing that their unlikely alliance would be powerful, they began to discuss a joint statement pledging their organizations’ shared commitment to a fair and peaceful election. They chose their words carefully and scheduled the statement’s release for maximum impact. As it was being finalized, Christian leaders signaled their interest in joining, further broadening its reach.
The statement was released on Election Day, under the names of Chamber CEO Thomas Donohue, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals and the National African American Clergy Network. “It is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws,” it stated. “We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.” The groups added, “Although we may not always agree on desired outcomes up and down the ballot, we are united in our call for the American democratic process to proceed without violence, intimidation or any other tactic that makes us weaker as a nation.”
SHOWING UP, STANDING DOWN
Election night began with many Democrats despairing. Trump was running ahead of pre-election polling, winning Florida, Ohio and Texas easily and keeping Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania too close to call. But Podhorzer was unperturbed when I spoke to him that night: the returns were exactly in line with his modeling. He had been warning for weeks that Trump voters’ turnout was surging. As the numbers dribbled out, he could tell that as long as all the votes were counted, Trump would lose.
The liberal alliance gathered for an 11 p.m. Zoom call. Hundreds joined; many were freaking out. “It was really important for me and the team in that moment to help ground people in what we had already known was true,” says Angela Peoples, director for the Democracy Defense Coalition. Podhorzer presented data to show the group that victory was in hand.
While he was talking, Fox News surprised everyone by calling Arizona for Biden. The public-awareness campaign had worked: TV anchors were bending over backward to counsel caution and frame the vote count accurately. The question then became what to do next.
The conversation that followed was a difficult one, led by the activists charged with the protest strategy. “We wanted to be mindful of when was the right time to call for moving masses of people into the street,” Peoples says. As much as they were eager to mount a show of strength, mobilizing immediately could backfire and put people at risk. Protests that devolved into violent clashes would give Trump a pretext to send in federal agents or troops as he had over the summer. And rather than elevate Trump’s complaints by continuing to fight him, the alliance wanted to send the message that the people had spoken.
So the word went out: stand down. Protect the Results announced that it would “not be activating the entire national mobilization network today, but remains ready to activate if necessary.” On Twitter, outraged progressives wondered what was going on. Why wasn’t anyone trying to stop Trump’s coup? Where were all the protests?
Podhorzer credits the activists for their restraint. “They had spent so much time getting ready to hit the streets on Wednesday. But they did it,” he says. “Wednesday through Friday, there was not a single Antifa vs. Proud Boys incident like everyone was expecting. And when that didn’t materialize, I don’t think the Trump campaign had a backup plan.”
Activists reoriented the Protect the Results protests toward a weekend of celebration. “Counter their disinfo with our confidence & get ready to celebrate,” read the messaging guidance Shenker-Osorio presented to the liberal alliance on Friday, Nov. 6. “Declare and fortify our win. Vibe: confident, forward-looking, unified–NOT passive, anxious.” The voters, not the candidates, would be the protagonists of the story.
The planned day of celebration happened to coincide with the election being called on Nov. 7. Activists dancing in the streets of Philadelphia blasted Beyoncé over an attempted Trump campaign press conference; the Trumpers’ next confab was scheduled for Four Seasons Total Landscaping outside the city center, which activists believe was not a coincidence. “The people of Philadelphia owned the streets of Philadelphia,” crows the Working Families Party’s Mitchell. “We made them look ridiculous by contrasting our joyous celebration of democracy with their clown show.”
The votes had been counted. Trump had lost. But the battle wasn’t over.
THE FIVE STEPS TO VICTORY
In Podhorzer’s presentations, winning the vote was only the first step to winning the election. After that came winning the count, winning the certification, winning the Electoral College and winning the transition–steps that are normally formalities but that he knew Trump would see as opportunities for disruption. Nowhere would that be more evident than in Michigan, where Trump’s pressure on local Republicans came perilously close to working–and where liberal and conservative pro-democracy forces joined to counter it.
It was around 10 p.m. on election night in Detroit when a flurry of texts lit up the phone of Art Reyes III. A busload of Republican election observers had arrived at the TCF Center, where votes were being tallied. They were crowding the vote-counting tables, refusing to wear masks, heckling the mostly Black workers. Reyes, a Flint native who leads We the People Michigan, was expecting this. For months, conservative groups had been sowing suspicion about urban vote fraud. “The language was, ‘They’re going to steal the election; there will be fraud in Detroit,’ long before any vote was cast,” Reyes says.
Trump supporters seek to disrupt the vote count at Detroit’s TCF Center on Nov. 4
Elaine Cromie—Getty Images
He made his way to the arena and sent word to his network. Within 45 minutes, dozens of reinforcements had arrived. As they entered the arena to provide a counterweight to the GOP observers inside, Reyes took down their cell-phone numbers and added them to a massive text chain. Racial-justice activists from Detroit Will Breathe worked alongside suburban women from Fems for Dems and local elected officials. Reyes left at 3 a.m., handing the text chain over to a disability activist.
As they mapped out the steps in the election-certification process, activists settled on a strategy of foregrounding the people’s right to decide, demanding their voices be heard and calling attention to the racial implications of disenfranchising Black Detroiters. They flooded the Wayne County canvassing board’s Nov. 17 certification meeting with on-message testimony; despite a Trump tweet, the Republican board members certified Detroit’s votes.
Election boards were one pressure point; another was GOP-controlled legislatures, who Trump believed could declare the election void and appoint their own electors. And so the President invited the GOP leaders of the Michigan legislature, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, to Washington on Nov. 20.
It was a perilous moment. If Chatfield and Shirkey agreed to do Trump’s bidding, Republicans in other states might be similarly bullied. “I was concerned things were going to get weird,” says Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive director turned anti-Trump activist. Norm Eisen describes it as “the scariest moment” of the entire election.
The democracy defenders launched a full-court press. Protect Democracy’s local contacts researched the lawmakers’ personal and political motives. Issue One ran television ads in Lansing. The Chamber’s Bradley kept close tabs on the process. Wamp, the former Republican Congressman, called his former colleague Mike Rogers, who wrote an op-ed for the Detroit newspapers urging officials to honor the will of the voters. Three former Michigan governors–Republicans John Engler and Rick Snyder and Democrat Jennifer Granholm–jointly called for Michigan’s electoral votes to be cast free of pressure from the White House. Engler, a former head of the Business Roundtable, made phone calls to influential donors and fellow GOP elder statesmen who could press the lawmakers privately.
The pro-democracy forces were up against a Trumpified Michigan GOP controlled by allies of Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chair, and Betsy DeVos, the former Education Secretary and a member of a billionaire family of GOP donors. On a call with his team on Nov. 18, Bassin vented that his side’s pressure was no match for what Trump could offer. “Of course he’s going to try to offer them something,” Bassin recalls thinking. “Head of the Space Force! Ambassador to wherever! We can’t compete with that by offering carrots. We need a stick.”
If Trump were to offer something in exchange for a personal favor, that would likely constitute bribery, Bassin reasoned. He phoned Richard Primus, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to see if Primus agreed and would make the argument publicly. Primus said he thought the meeting itself was inappropriate, and got to work on an op-ed for Politico warning that the state attorney general–a Democrat–would have no choice but to investigate. When the piece posted on Nov. 19, the attorney general’s communications director tweeted it. Protect Democracy soon got word that the lawmakers planned to bring lawyers to the meeting with Trump the next day.
Reyes’ activists scanned flight schedules and flocked to the airports on both ends of Shirkey’s journey to D.C., to underscore that the lawmakers were being scrutinized. After the meeting, the pair announced they’d pressed the President to deliver COVID relief for their constituents and informed him they saw no role in the election process. Then they went for a drink at the Trump hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A street artist projected their images onto the outside of the building along with the words THE WORLD IS WATCHING.
That left one last step: the state canvassing board, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. One Republican, a Trumper employed by the DeVos family’s political nonprofit, was not expected to vote for certification. The other Republican on the board was a little-known lawyer named Aaron Van Langevelde. He sent no signals about what he planned to do, leaving everyone on edge.
When the meeting began, Reyes’s activists flooded the livestream and filled Twitter with their hashtag, #alleyesonmi. A board accustomed to attendance in the single digits suddenly faced an audience of thousands. In hours of testimony, the activists emphasized their message of respecting voters’ wishes and affirming democracy rather than scolding the officials. Van Langevelde quickly signaled he would follow precedent. The vote was 3-0 to certify; the other Republican abstained.
After that, the dominoes fell. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the rest of the states certified their electors. Republican officials in Arizona and Georgia stood up to Trump’s bullying. And the Electoral College voted on schedule on Dec. 14.
HOW CLOSE WE CAME
There was one last milestone on Podhorzer’s mind: Jan. 6. On the day Congress would meet to tally the electoral count, Trump summoned his supporters to D.C. for a rally.
Much to their surprise, the thousands who answered his call were met by virtually no counterdemonstrators. To preserve safety and ensure they couldn’t be blamed for any mayhem, the activist left was “strenuously discouraging counter activity,” Podhorzer texted me the morning of Jan. 6, with a crossed-fingers emoji.
Incited by the President, Trump Supporters Violently Storm the Capitol
Trump addressed the crowd that afternoon, peddling the lie that lawmakers or Vice President Mike Pence could reject states’ electoral votes. He told them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Then he returned to the White House as they sacked the building. As lawmakers fled for their lives and his own supporters were shot and trampled, Trump praised the rioters as “very special.”
It was his final attack on democracy, and once again, it failed. By standing down, the democracy campaigners outfoxed their foes. “We won by the skin of our teeth, honestly, and that’s an important point for folks to sit with,” says the Democracy Defense Coalition’s Peoples. “There’s an impulse for some to say voters decided and democracy won. But it’s a mistake to think that this election cycle was a show of strength for democracy. It shows how vulnerable democracy is.”
The members of the alliance to protect the election have gone their separate ways. The Democracy Defense Coalition has been disbanded, though the Fight Back Table lives on. Protect Democracy and the good-government advocates have turned their attention to pressing reforms in Congress. Left-wing activists are pressuring the newly empowered Democrats to remember the voters who put them there, while civil rights groups are on guard against further attacks on voting. Business leaders denounced the Jan. 6 attack, and some say they will no longer donate to lawmakers who refused to certify Biden’s victory. Podhorzer and his allies are still holding their Zoom strategy sessions, gauging voters’ views and developing new messages. And Trump is in Florida, facing his second impeachment, deprived of the Twitter and Facebook accounts he used to push the nation to its breaking point.
As I was reporting this article in November and December, I heard different claims about who should get the credit for thwarting Trump’s plot. Liberals argued the role of bottom-up people power shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly the contributions of people of color and local grassroots activists. Others stressed the heroism of GOP officials like Van Langevelde and Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, who stood up to Trump at considerable cost. The truth is that neither likely could have succeeded without the other. “It’s astounding how close we came, how fragile all this really is,” says Timmer, the former Michigan GOP executive director. “It’s like when Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff–if you don’t look down, you don’t fall. Our democracy only survives if we all believe and don’t look down.”
Democracy won in the end. The will of the people prevailed. But it’s crazy, in retrospect, that this is what it took to put on an election in the United States of America.
–With reporting by LESLIE DICKSTEIN, MARIAH ESPADA and SIMMONE SHAH
Correction appended, Feb. 5: The original version of this story misstated the name of Norm Eisen’s organization. It is the Voter Protection Program, not the Voter Protection Project. The original version of this story also misstated Jeff Timmer’s former position with the Michigan Republican Party. He was the executive director, not the chairman.