Eric Holder Remarks to DNC Fall Convention in Las Vegas, NV
As prepared for delivery
It is both a pleasure and an honor to be with you. I’m happy to be with so many people who are dedicated to the work of the Democratic Party and committed to restoring fairness and sanity to our politics.
I’m proud to be here today with so many of my friends, including Tom Perez. I’ve known Tom for a long time and I’ve seen up close his commitment to civil rights, to voting rights, to a more just America.
It’s great to see my friend, a champion for Democrats and the state of Nevada, former Senator Harry Reid.
I’m happy to see his worthy successor, Senator Catherine Cortez-Mastro.
We have some great members of the House of Representatives here as well- Keith Ellison, Barbara Lee, Grace Meng, and Jacky Rosen.
I think it’s about time we gave you some more colleagues in the House.
In the next 13 months, all of us in this room have the opportunity to send a message to the present occupant of the White House, the extreme right-wingers who surround him and his supporters in Congress and state houses around the country. That message must be sent loudly and clearly: we will not allow for the dismantling of the social compact between the people of this Nation – and the governments that serve them. That compact encompasses affordable health care for all, a quality education, living wages and decent jobs for everyone, the right to vote, a fair criminal justice system, and dignity and security in our senior years.
Throughout our history there have been periods during which our core institutions have been tested, been justifiably questioned. The Supreme Court for example sanctioned slavery, Jim Crow and the internment of Japanese American citizens. Our institutions failed to prevent a civil war by ending human bondage and were not nearly expeditious enough to end the scourge of gender and sexual orientation discrimination. But today, in a truly historically unique way, many of the pillars thought central to the American experiment – the press and the courts in particular – have been needlessly challenged by those at the highest levels of our government. Judges have had their integrity and competence questioned. The reliability of the media is put into issue by the use of specious assertions and “alternative facts”.
The reliance on real facts to generate policy has been diminished and demeaned. Non-evidence based, visceral, and oftentimes ugly, emotion has too often replaced reason as the driver for a dangerous political agenda. The social progress we have made as a nation – long sought and long fought for – is at risk. It’s hard to watch as my successor at the Department of Justice rolls back progress we made and the justice we generated with regard to criminal justice reform and civil rights for our LGBT brothers and sisters. People of a variety of ethnicities used to both the protection of the law and long accepted societal norms now question their safety and the continuity of their lives.
Decades old – and effective – alliances have been questioned. New agreements like the Paris Climate Accords and Iran Nuclear deal, have been cast aside or questioned based on ignorance and crass political considerations with no basis in scientific reality.
The other party and its leader have tried to sow fear and divide us based on our race and ethnicity. Take note: Unless you are descended from the indigenous people, native Americans, you are of voluntary or forced immigrant stock. We must never forget that we are truly a nation of immigrants. That is fact.
It’s also a fact that we are comprised of the best, not the worst, of other nations – we are made up of, or descended from, people who braved difficult journeys, harsh treatment, social and racial discrimination and economic deprivation in order to be called Americans. They came here to give themselves and their families a better life and they have always been willing to work hard and play by the rules to do it.
You know these people: they are your parents, your grandparents, perhaps generations further removed. Today – as always – it is this flow of people that replenishes the nation, distinguishes us from our competitors and brings our country a creativity that has never been matched – all of which have indeed made America great and all of which promise to keep America great.
And do not think for a second that this kind of behavior is only coming from the White House. In Virginia, we’ve watched the Republican candidate for Governor run racially tinged ads that play on our basest instincts and unneeded fears.
And in a way that tells you who the Republicans really are, the party that Lincoln could not possibly recognize as his own has attacked the foundation of our nation: the right to vote. As Lyndon Johnson said, “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.”
Whether through unnecessary voter ID laws, voter suppression or gerrymandering, Republicans are doing all they can to make it more difficult for the will of the people to be truly expressed. The Congressional districts and state legislative districts have been shamefully drawn in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas, and so many other states so that Republican politicians can pick their voters by not allowing the citizens to choose their representatives. This must end.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee that I head, and which President Obama is very involved, has been created to ensure that after the next census in 2020 lines are drawn in a fair way – not a partisan way – to ensure that the people’s wishes are reflected in the candidates who are elected.
In 1788, John Adams wrote that legislatures should, “be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.”
Do our current legislatures represent the compassion and diversity of the American people? Clearly not .
I’m here today because, this fight against gerrymandering is going to take all of us.
You know how badly the system is broken. You’ve seen it firsthand in your states.
Following the Census and elections in 2010, Republican legislatures and governors expanded the practice of gerrymandering in an unprecedented way. A report from Princeton noted that “Thanks to technology and political polarization, the effects of partisan gerrymandering since 2012 have been more pronounced than at any point in the previous 50 years.” And the consequences have been profound.
The Republican drawn maps are impressive in their geographic creativity – but destructive to the representative democracy that our founders envisioned. Republicans created a House seat in Ohio that is only contiguous at low-tide; a House seat in Virginia that can only be connected by a boat ride on the James River; and a House seat in Michigan that is shaped like a snake and designed to pack as many minority voters into one district as possible.
Throughout our country’s history, the primary goal of redistricting was to provide fair representation to citizens. But since 2011, some Republicans’ sole goal in redistricting has been to provide themselves the greatest possible partisan advantage.
The results of their efforts were immediate and enduring. In 2012, Democrats won 1.5 million more votes than Republicans in races for the United States House of Representatives, yet Republicans gained a 234 to 201 seat advantage. In 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for the House, Republicans still held an advantage of 241 to 194 House seats.
A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that partisan gerrymandering has created a “durable majority” of 16-17 seats for Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Just seven states, where the maps were drawn and approved solely by Republicans, account for almost all of this bias.
There have been similar results at the state level. In 2012, Republican candidates for the Wisconsin State Assembly won less than half the vote but received 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats.
You don’t need me to tell you these numbers – you know how badly the system is rigged. In recent elections, you’ve turned out the vote only to see Republicans gain a disproportionate control state house and Congressional seats because they’ve tilted the playing field.
Democrats have talked for years about focusing on state level races, but the effort has too often been fractured or not followed up with real action.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is the first, and only, strategic hub for all things redistricting.
We will support and bring legal action in states where maps have been unlawfully drawn. We are currently supporting litigation in Virginia, Georgia, and Texas and we are exploring our options in other states.
We will support ballot initiatives in states where they can be an effective way to enact a fairer system.
We are building the data and political infrastructure needed to impact the redistricting process – each state shouldn’t need to search for their own experts and learn from scratch how the process works.
We are going to invest, and I’m personally going to campaign for, candidates in targeted races that will be key for redistricting success. This starts in Virginia and New Jersey this November. We are also supporting a campaign to block a recall attempt of three state Senators right here in Nevada. This is a shameless attempt by Republicans to overturn the will of the voters and flip the majority in the state senate. We can’t allow that to happen, which is why I’m proud to support local efforts to block this recall attempt.
In 2018, in addition to 36 more gubernatorial races, there are 322 state senate races in which people win four year terms. These officials will have a seat at the table during the next redistricting in 2021.
We can’t do this work alone, which is one reason why I’m so excited to have a revitalized, united and focused DNC as a partner in this effort. For us to be successful in the states, we are going to need a strong national party.
I’m asking all of you to join us in this effort. We need to build a movement so that people are engaged and informed when redistricting occurs in 2021. There’s just too much at stake for us not to focus on this democracy defining issue.
What we have all been witness to since January goes beyond, I believe, that which is civically healthy and good for the American experience.
But the roots for what has taken place since January were planted years ago when Republicans took control of state legislatures and governor’s mansions and drew maps that gave them an iron grip on the House of Representatives and state legislatures.
We all watched as time and again, Republicans in the House of Representatives thwarted common sense proposals supported by President Obama and the majority of Americans. And we also saw unresponsive, Republican controlled state legislatures disregard the wishes of their constituents.
In states where gerrymandering is the worst, Republicans are more concerned about a primary challenge than a Democratic opponent in the general election. This perverts the system so that politicians must cater to the extremist fringe of the party – or decide not to run at all – while compromise is to be avoided at all cost.
Just look at the record.
Gerrymandering has had massive policy impacts for every issue American citizens care about. Voting rights. Workers’ rights. Civil rights. LGBT rights. Women’s rights. You name it – Republican legislatures have attacked it. Republicans support policies that threaten the climate, would destroy health care, would take us back to failed criminal justice theories, and that threaten the core of our democracy – the right to vote. And it all goes back to how the maps are drawn.
We cannot let that stand. This fight is about more than partisan politics. This fight is about fundamentally saving our democracy.
Our work in the next few years is to grow the Democratic Party from the state level and define what our Congress will look like for the next decade. There is not a moment to waste.
We must recognize and remember that the power of the American people has been too often underestimated. Once roused we are a mighty force. In my youth an energized people stopped a war. I urge you all to rid yourselves of ideological blindness, unnecessary fear, destructive stereotypes and dangerous complacency, to make this new era upon which we are about to embark, a time not only of change but also an era of progress that stays true to our founding ideals.
I’m here and ready to lock arms with all of you as we embark on this fight to restore fairness and sanity to our politics.
Republicans say they want to make America great again. I wonder exactly when that was? What century? What decade? What year?
Certainly it was not when people were enslaved. Certainly it was not when segregation was the law of the land. Certainly it was not when women did not have the franchise. Certainly it was not when the LGBT community was routinely stigmatized. Certainly it was not when America was on the verge of another Great Depression in 2009 and jobs were lost by the millions.
If one looks at the history of my beloved nation one must conclude that America – with all its problems – but in its totality – is actually at its best right now. If one looks back at the story of America and ignores past deficiencies or forgets the people denied rights to which all Americans are entitled, then the past can be – for some, for a minority – a comforting place. But it also betrays a lack of courage. It speaks to a fear of the future which by its nature is always uncertain. And this is antithetical to who we are as a people.
We have always embraced the possibility of the future and not the comfort of the past. It is that attitude that has made the American nation truly exceptional. We are not beholden to, held down by a fictional past. We look to the future, with its possibility of positive change and new challenges, and have always dared to make it ours. So it must be again.
Our party must be clear on the issues of the day. And our present positions must be rooted in the achievements of the great Democratic past. It is Democrats who gave this nation Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the Affordable Care Act and so much more. It is the Democratic Party that has used government power to make better the lives of average Americans irrespective of their status but with an emphasis on those most at risk.
Now is not a time for this party to be beholden to ideological litmus tests. The stakes are too high for us to be divided when there is, in fact, so little that does divide us. Our party is made up of disparate parts but held together by common interests.
The white working class – as history has always shown us – has more in common with black and Hispanic workers than it does with those who consistently side with the rich and powerful. Ours is the party of the common man. This is still the party of the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society. The era of big government may be over but the need for good, caring government endures.
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote that “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Written at a different time in our history but as relevant today as the words were during our nation’s birth. These are trying times. But we must always remember the bond that still exists between us and those brave revolutionaries of two centuries ago. They endured —– so that we might flourish.
Good citizens understand the debt that we all owe to the nation. Now is the time for a new American engagement. Every citizen of this great nation must ask of himself or herself two questions: “What have you done today to make better the country we all love?” And – “Have you done something, not only to oppose a policy, but to advance the nation?” The answer to these questions will define this country for years to come.
This generation must not fail when others before us have risen to the challenges of their time. It is time for every American to participate, to be engaged and to care. We must never forget that we – the people – have the power, and the responsibility, to shape the fate of our nation. This is our birthright as Americans, whatever part of the world to which we can trace our heritage, and it is our duty as twenty first century patriots.
I am by nature an optimistic person because I believe in the concept of this nation. I am the son and grandson of immigrants. I know, therefore, how this nation can be both good and unfair. I also know that if we truly remain faithful to our founding documents we need not focus on a fictional past but on a future still to be defined by American greatness. I hope that I will have the chance to work with many of you in this room today – truly the best and the brightest – to help make our country live in harmony with its founding ideals and be the force for good in the world that it has so often been. This is the nation that Tom Paine encouraged his compatriots to give life to and the country that we, as heirs to that revolution, must ensure survives.