President Donald Trump is reportedly leaning toward tapping an academic for the No. 2 position at the U.S. Census Bureau, a decision that has alarmed advocates who say the pick lacks adequate management experience for a massive operational role and has political views that would undermine the credibility of the agency.
Politico reported Tuesday that Trump is considering Thomas Brunell, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas with no management experience, to be the deputy director of the Census Bureau. If Trump does pick Brunell, Politico noted, it would break with longstanding tradition of having a nonpartisan career civil servant in the role.
Brunell faces increased scrutiny from civil rights and voting groups because as an academic, he has argued that redistricting for partisan gain can actually be a good thing and has served as an expert witness in support of redistricting plans. Those views are significant because the census, which the U.S. Constitution requires every 10 years, helps determine how electoral maps are drawn. The deputy director is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the bureau ― a position that has increased importance as the agency gears up for the 2020 census.
Robert Groves, who ran the Census Bureau from 2009-2012 and is now the provost at Georgetown University, said the deputy director position was traditionally filled by a civil servant who had been promoted through the bureau. Phil Sparks, a former Census official who is now co-director of The Census Project, a coalition that monitors the Census, likened the position to a train engineer who makes sure everything is running on time.
“You want to have a strong person in that position because that’s the day-to-day administrator for the Census Bureau,” Sparks told HuffPost. “The fact that they are considering someone with a highly partisan background just boggles the mind.”
African Americans and Hispanics, two groups Sparks said the Census has traditionally had trouble counting, could suffer significantly if there is not strong and clear organizational leadership at the Census.
Lawmakers are required to draw electoral districts in such a way that each district has roughly the same number of people in it. Federal law prohibits lawmakers from drawing those maps in such a way that intentionally dilutes the impact of minority votes. A good census is crucial to making sure that doesn’t happen by giving lawmakers an accurate sense of the minority populations in each area.
The Census is currently down on the number of partnership specialists, Sparks said, who help it reach minority populations, and the deputy director will need to make sure that effort is organized.
“There are 1,000 partnership specialists that are gonna be deployed across the country. That’s a major management task: To recruit, orient, and then deploy and then supervise these 1,000 people,” he said. “And again, the deputy director is right in the middle of all of that.”
Neither the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, nor Brunell responded to a request for comment.
The Census is already facing considerable hurdles as it gears up for 2020. John Thompson, the bureau’s director, resigned in May and the agency does not have a permanent director in place. In October, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared before Congress to ask for an additional $3.3 billion to fund Census upgrades and projects that are already behind schedule.
Earlier this year, the White House considered tapping Brunell to be the director, a job that requires Senate confirmation, but faced resistance from lawmakers, Politico reported. The deputy director does not need to be confirmed.
In his academic work, Brunell has argued that decreasing competition and packing like-minded voters into congressional districts is good because it increases the likelihood voters will cast a ballot for a winning candidate and consequently increase their trust in government. In 2008, he published a book called Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America.
Brunell waded into a controversy over whether the 2000 census should use a statistical adjustment to get a more accurate count of Americans. At the time, he wrote it was impossible to remove the census from political concerns.
“Removing the census from the arena of politics is impossible. Politics cannot be taken out of redistricting, out of making the federal budget, or, especially, out of elections,” he wrote in a 2000 paper. “If the Census Bureau is given complete control over how the census is conducted, including the use of statistical adjustment for the purposes of apportionment and redistricting, what happens when the Bureau officials are faced with competing statistical estimates for the nation’s population.”
He has also said the census shouldn’t be too insulated from Congress.
“While taking of the census may seem like undue meddling by self-interested politicians, the other alternative of an insulated bureaucracy without a measure of responsiveness is more problematic,” he wrote in 2001.
Justin Levitt and David Schleicher, professors at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and Yale Law School, respectively, both said they were familiar with Brunell’s academic work. While they often disagreed with his conclusions, they both said his scholarship was serious.
Civil rights groups seized on Brunell’s academic work and said his appointment would mark an effort by the Trump administration to politicize a bureau that has been traditionally dominated by civil servants. Both Sparks and Groves said there were only two political appointees in the bureau out of thousands of employees when they were there.
Karen Hobert Flynn, the president of the liberal watchdog group Common Cause, said in a statement the Trump administration was choosing to make the Census partisan.
“Politics have no business in the Census but the Trump Administration’s leading candidate for the deputy director slot at the Census Bureau, Thomas Brunell, would introduce blatant partisan politics into the national headcount,” Flynn said.
Vanita Gupta, who ran the civil rights division in the Department of Justice during the Obama administration and is now president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Brunell’s appointment would undermine the credibility of the Census.
“With regard to the deputy director, historically and traditionally, that person has had significant civil service experience, strong management credentials overseeing a large organization and operation, and considerable expertise in the federal statistical system,” she said in a statement. “Thomas Brunell is outside that mold. Coupled with the partisan nature of the body of his work, this appointment would undermine the credibility of the bureau’s role as a fundamentally nonpartisan statistical agency. Very little in Brunell’s background suggests that he is the right person for this job.”
Sparks said by picking Brunell, the Trump administration would be making a clear statement about how they see the Census.
“They’re making a statement if he is appointed. A real political statement that the White House wants to have their thumb on the Census Bureau,” he said.