Raleigh, N.C. — Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder was in town Saturday for the North Carolina Democratic Party's annual fundraising dinner.
He's heading up a national effort to win state house races ahead of the 2020 U.S. census, which precedes the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional maps. With the rise of software that can target voters by their partisan tendencies, this process is a big key to political power in the United States.
"This is the first time the Democratic Party has come together this early in anticipation of the census and the lines drawn after," Holder said. "You can't wait until 2020 to focus on this."
Holder sat down with WRAL News after his speech Saturday night, and what follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: Do you think Democrats were caught flat-footed in 2010?
A: No, I don't think so. I think there is, history in the 20th century tells us that, in the first election after a president is elected, the party in power loses seats. But the power that Republicans garnered in 2010 was, I think, inappropriately used in 2011 in the way in which they drew these district lines.
Q: Why didn't your Department of Justice take a harder line on pre-clearance then, particularly in North Carolina? (Note: Holder's DOJ was responsible for reviewing maps for compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and it signed off on North Carolina maps later found unconstitutional by the courts.)
A: We looked at the Voting Rights Act. We looked at lines that were proposed, and where we thought that there was not a legal basis to challenge them we did not. A part of this, there are legal boundaries that kind of exist on the outskirts of what is appropriate, but there are also, I think, kind of norms that political parties typically don't cross and should not cross. And the Republicans crossed those lines, those norms, in 2011. If we are successful in this quest in 2021, we are not going to use the power that I think we are going to obtain in the same way that Republicans did.
Q: I notice that, when you issue statements about various court cases, the reference is not just to gerrymandering but to racial gerrymandering. Do you believe partisan gerrymandering should be, or is even now, illegal?
A: I think it should be. We have this case that the court said it's going to take up ...
Q: In Wisconsin, I think.
A: It comes out of Wisconsin. And I think that we have one set of guard rails on one side, the Voting Rights Act, that deals with how far you can go when it comes to use of race in drawing lines. I think that you've got another set of guard rails on the other side that says, even if you say it is a partisan exercise, you can go too far. And if you look what has happened here in North Carolina, it's basically a 50-50 state. And yet you've got super majorities in both houses. You've got a congressional delegation where 10 out of 13 are Republicans. And you see that replicated in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania. There needs to be some line of demarcation where you say, "partisan line drawing goes too far."
Q: Switching gears a little bit. How much of the resistance you and President Obama and the rest of the administration faced do you believe was really more about racism than anything else?
A: It's hard to judge that. I think the vast majority of it was partisan in nature. I think that Republicans were really threatened by President Obama and the Obama coalition. They saw him for what I think he proved to be: a transformative, consequential president. And they were determined to thwart him. Now, some opposition to him was racial in nature. But I think the vast majority of that opposition was ideological and partisan.
Q: Looking at this past election, we had this populist uprising. Do you think things would have been at all different if, coming out of the mortgage crisis – I know you've gotten criticism because you guys did not bring criminal cases against executives – had those cases been brought, had people seen people be punished criminally for their role in that, do you think that would have stemmed any of the populist uprising we saw?
A: No, I don't think so. I think people, I think the criticism, first off, is unfair. The reality is that those are career cases, cases that define careers for prosecutors within the Justice Department. If [former U.S. attorney in New York] Preet Bharara, if Loretta Lynch when she was a U.S. attorney, if these great U.S. attorneys we had, if they could have brought those cases, they would have. The other component is, that I think people tend to forget, is the civil cases that we brought and which extracted billions of dollars from these financial institutions. I've certainly heard that criticism. I don't think it is fair, and I think it ignores what we did do.