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How Dark Money Is Redrawing the Political Map

Corporations and other big donors are spending huge sums to influence the redistricting process. Is your state next?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Florida, railroads and friends

As old hands at redistricting like to say, it's personal. Working at the state level, you can give lasting help, or demonstrate your loyalty, to not just one party or the other but to specific candidates, who may one day return the favor.

Congresswoman Corrine Brown, an African American Democrat from Florida, appears to be a case in point. Brown represents one of the most irregularly shaped districts in the nation. It is 150 miles long but only the width of a highway bridge at its narrowest point and scoops heavily African American neighborhoods out of Orlando, Gainesville, and Jacksonville. (See our interactive map of Brown's district and our analysis.)

The result of a deal between Republicans and minority representatives in the state Legislature, the district and ones like it helped elect a more diverse congressional delegation but also ensured that the remaining districts would be whiter—and more Republican—because minority voters, who tend to vote for Democrats, had been carved out. Redistricting professionals call that "bleaching."

Republicans gained control of the state Legislature in 1996 after decades of Democratic control and have held it ever since.

Brown, then a state assemblywoman, had worked with Republicans to create the district. She subsequently ran for Congress in it and won. She has been unbeatable ever since. (Even though 2010 was a tough year for Democrats in Florida, she still won by a landslide.)

Her seat finally was threatened last year when a coalition of unions, civic groups, and Democrats got a pair of anti-gerrymandering amendments on Florida's ballot. The amendments banned legislative districts drawn to help or hurt particular incumbents or parties. To make it clear that the amendments were not an attempt to preempt the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they also explicitly ban the drawing of districts to deny representation to minority groups.

Florida's black legislative caucus and the state chapter of the NAACP endorsed the amendments, as did Democracia, a Latino political group.

But Brown opposed the effort, becoming the "African American Chairwoman" of a group called Protect Your Vote. The group, Brown said at news conferences and in public statements, would be a bulwark against the harm the amendments would do to minority voting rights.

The NAACP strongly condemned Brown's position and issued a statement criticizing "the blatant use of scare tactics with African Americans and Hispanics to justify the continued gerrymandering of districts that benefit only politicians."

Though Protect Your Vote had little support from representatives of the minority groups whose rights it was supposedly trying to protect, it had a lot of support from corporate donors, who gave nearly $800,000. (The contributions were reported because they related to a ballot measure. Normally, donations to Florida redistricting efforts don't have to be disclosed.)

Among Protect Your Vote's supporters were two of Brown's own corporate donors.

Last year, Honeywell International PAC gave Protect Your Vote $25,000. The same year, the PAC gave Brown's campaign $10,000. Also in 2010, Honeywell hired a former Brown aide as a lobbyist, according to federal lobbying disclosures. And many of the company's government contracts fall under the purview of Brown's membership on the Transportation and Infrastructure and Veterans' Affairs committees.

In a statement, Honeywell said its PAC contributed money to defeat the anti-gerrymandering amendments because it supports "redistricting that is consistent with the historical practices that have served the State's many diverse constituents well for decades."

Another $25,000 donation to Protect Your Vote came from CSX Transportation Corp., a Jacksonville-based railroad and trucking company.

CSX has a long, friendly history with Brown, the ranking Democratic member of the House subcommittee on railroads.

Brown championed the controversial SunRail commuter rail project, using her position on the subcommittee to help secure federal funding that made the $1.2 billion project possible. The SunRail deal is worth more than $600 million to CSX. (Here's a video of Brown on the House floor extolling the virtues of the plan.)  

Federal officials raised questions about just how many commuters the project would serve, and the Federal Transit Administration ranked the SunRail project last in terms of cost effectiveness on a recent list of national projects in the "final design" phase.

"The Protect Your Vote campaign had strong, bipartisan support, and was intended to maintain the integrity of reapportionment," said CSX spokesman Gary Sease. "As a Florida-based corporation, we supported this bipartisan initiative."

In November 2010, the Florida amendments passed despite Protect Your Vote's efforts. The group filed an appeal in federal court shortly thereafter, alleging, among other things, that the new redistricting methodology outlined in the amendments did not do enough to protect incumbents. The suit was thrown out September 9.

Brown and Protect Your Vote filed an appeal, vowing to take the case as far as the Supreme Court.

Brown declined to comment, saying it was a legal matter.

Unions and others play the game in California

Corporations, of course, are not the only special interests that have intervened in the redistricting process in less-than-transparent ways.

Last year, unions and others spent millions in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to kill a proposition making redistricting fairer and more transparent in California. The proposition put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission, a move opposed by Democratic politicians in the state Legislature and Congress who stood to lose comfortable districts that in many cases were drawn personally for them.

The group called itself Yes on Fair, Yes on 27, No on 20—A Coalition of Entrepreneurs, Working People, Businesses, Community Leaders Such as Karen Bass, & Other Concerned Citizens Devoted to Eliminating Bureaucratic Waste. But most of the more than $7 million the group raised came from unions, large individual donations from prominent Democratic donors like George Soros—and no fewer than 35 Democratic politicians. (Disclosure: A Soros foundation has also provided a small portion of ProPublica's funding.)

Among the group's donors were Nancy Pelosi; above-mentioned "community leader" Karen Bass, who was speaker of the State Assembly at the time and has since been elected to Congress; and Congresswoman Lois Capps, whose coast-hugging district was so long and narrow it was nicknamed the "ribbon of shame."

Bass now says she supported the idea of an independent redistricting commission. However, based on how the commission was designed, "I was concerned about the impact on representation from communities of color."

Capps did not respond to requests for comment.

The group immediately spent its cash to deploy some of the most questionable tactics endemic to California's ballot-measure system. Nearly $3 million was spent on professional signature gatherers and another $1.8 million on California's notoriously misleading voter guides. The mailers come from legitimate-sounding groups that are actually fictions cooked up by political consultants to mislead voters.

Though Yes on Fair was funded exclusively by Democratic interests, it spent $64,000 on the "Continuing the Republican Revolution" voter guide, which featured a bald eagle and a quote honoring Ronald Reagan at the top but urged voters to reject the citizens' redistricting commission on the grounds that it represented bureaucratic waste. Similar voter guides were sent out representing fictitious religious, feminist, environmentalist, and law-enforcement groups. Perhaps the most insidious was the "Our Voice Latino Voter Guide," which urged a vote against establishing the citizens' commission even though Latinos stood to greatly benefit from it.

Despite Yes on Fair's efforts, the measure for the commission passed anyway.

Once the commission was created, it offered another, limited glimpse into business interests' attempts to influence redistricting.

An early participant in the state's redistricting process was the California Institute for Jobs, Economy, and Education, which submitted proposed district maps and testified before the redistricting commission.

But there is little evidence of the institute's existence. It has no website and has published no scholarly research. The institute first shows up in public records, registered as a corporation in California in May 2011, just after the redistricting process had begun. It is registered with the same street address and suite number as Bell, McAndrews, & Hiltachk, a law firm that specializes in campaign finance and lobbying law.

The entity's true purpose, according to someone close to it, was to represent "business interests" across California. Top-level individuals involved with the so-called institute also have ties to JOBS PAC, a pro-business committee in California that lists Philip Morris, AT&T, and Chevron as donors.

Tom Hiltachk, managing partner at the firm that shares its address with the institute, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Intern Ariel Wittenberg also contributed reporting to this story. Azavea provided geographic services.

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