Eric Holder

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder holds a roundtable discussion on redistricting on Saturday in Denver. The conversation focused on the importance of voting rights in communities of color, the need for an accurate census in 2020 and fair redistricting in 2021. To his left: Olivia Mendoza, Colorado state director of All On The Line. 

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sat down with local elected officials and activists Saturday in Denver to deliver a clear message: “We can’t wait for the cavalry. We are the cavalry.”

The 82nd attorney general under former Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama strategized a redistricting plan with a group of roughly 50 leaders from across the state who are actively involved in the issue.

His campaign, All On The Line, is backed by Obama and aims to not only shed light on the “harmful” impact gerrymandering has on federal and state policymaking, but also ignite civic engagement in the democratic process.

As chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, Holder leads the charge for the Democratic Party on gerrymandering lawsuits, redistricting reform and battles in state legislatures heading into the 2020 elections.

At stake will be who controls state legislatures and, therefore, which party will draw the next decade’s worth of election maps for congressional and legislative districts across the United States.

Holder – the country’s first African American attorney general – has felt “a lot of heat” from Republicans, who view his efforts as partisan and intended to benefit liberals.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker accused Holder and Obama of trying to “gerrymander Democrats into permanent control,” in an August episode of his podcast “You Can’t Recall Courage.”

The NRDC is not an attempt to gerrymander for Democrats, Holder clarified. “What we want to do is just make sure that the process is a fair one.”

If redistricting is carried out fairly come 2021, he said, “Democrats and progressives will do just fine.”

The roundtable discussion was held at Servicios de la Raza, a Colorado nonprofit that provides and advocates for comprehensive, “culturally relevant” human services, according the organization’s website.

Event attendees included local leaders such as state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez (D-Adams); Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; Barbara Jones, interim president of the Aurora chapter of the NAACP; Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Amanda Gonzalez; Cristóbal Garcia, community engagement specialist for the City of Greeley; Colorado activist Nita Gonzales; and Rosemary Rodriguez, executive director of Together We Count Colorado, whose work aims to increase 2020 Census participation in hard-to-count communities.

The need for an accurate census in 2020 and the importance of voting rights, particularly in communities of color, also were pillars in Saturday afternoon’s conversation.

“I can tell you right now, the Trump administration is not going to try to conduct a fair census,” Holder said. “We will find, undoubtedly, that in communities of color – in immigrant communities, in poor communities – there will be an undercount.”

Servicios de la Raza’s executive director, Rudy Gonzalez, said he feels “angry” because he’s watching “systems of oppression being rebuilt and reinforced” right in front of his eyes.

The NAACP Aurora chapter’s interim president, Barbara Jones, worried that the “brown and black vote” may still not be heard even with redistricting changes.

Holder said that’s why left-leaning leaders need to be prepared to fight, to work together and not let this meeting be the last time they see each other.

But the former attorney general told Colorado Politics he feels “optimistic” that Colorado can get this right, pointing to the new redistricting laws Colorado voters passed earlier this year that could be a model for the nation.

Amendments Y and Z – passed in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars federal courts from blocking states drawing district lines in a partisan way – will create two independent commissions that will approve maps for members of Congress and the Colorado legislature.

Each commission will have 12 members: four from the GOP, four Democrats and four unaffiliated voters. For a map to be approved, at least eight commission members – two of whom must be unaffiliated – would need to give the green light.

Although Democratic state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez voted for Amendment Y and Amendment Z, she nevertheless felt concerned about the citizen commissions because it “fundamentally changes” the way the state historically has done redistricting.

Commission members will be “drawn out of a hat once they are pre-qualified to be in that hat,” she said, and she wondered how other states who recently passed similar measures, such as California, Arizona, Missouri, Utah and Michigan, have handled the additions of unaffiliated voters.

Benavidez also wanted to know how the new laws, which she said removes partisanship completely, might affect a district like hers, which is 57% Latino.

Olivia Mendoza, Colorado state director of All On The Line, said that every commission is essentially a snowflake; each one is unique. But Colorado, she said, can set an example for all of them.

“I challenge all of us to think about Colorado as being the pacesetter to get the independent commission correct” for states having trouble separating redistricting and gerrymandering, she said. “How do we set the standard for those states to look to us a model?”

Holder closed the discussion with one request of the group: To check in with themselves at 7 p.m. every Sunday and ask, “What did I do this week to make this country better to advance this cause? And what am I going to next week?”

“If we do that, we can change this country,” Holder said. “So, let’s get out there and do it.”

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