Pioneer of modern redistricting dies at 75

Pioneer of modern redistricting dies at 75
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For more than four decades, when Republicans needed strategic advice drawing political boundaries, the party turned to a small cadre of expert cartographers, trained in the rare art of redistricting. At the heart of that group was Tom Hofeller.

A mild-mannered California native who rarely allowed himself to be quoted in the media, Hofeller may be more responsible for the Republican majority in Congress than any other single person in modern politics. 

He is one of only a handful of people who helped create the modern redistricting process, first by crafting district lines meant to overcome decades of Democratic advantages and then by tilting the field in favor of Republicans in later years. 

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As both parties became more aware of the importance of drawing district lines, and more litigious when the lines were not drawn in their favor, Hofeller began consulting Republicans in charge of drawing maps in their states, urging caution and pragmatism in preparation for an inevitable court challenge.

If former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry gave gerrymandering its name, Hofeller is the architect who brought the process into the modern era.

"Tom was the father of Republican map-drawing, and also its grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather," said Ben Ginsberg, the veteran Republican lawyer who worked with Hofeller at the Republican National Committee (RNC). "He understood both the art and science of redistributing like no one else."

Hofeller died Thursday at his adopted home in Raleigh, N.C., after a long battle with cancer, said Dale Oldham, a longtime friend and business partner. Hofeller was 75.

Born in San Diego in 1943, Hofeller served four years in the United States Navy before earning both a bachelor's degree and a doctorate from Claremont McKenna College. He co-founded the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna, where he studied the redistricting process and wrote an early software program to draw district boundaries.

In 1980, Hofeller moved to Washington to work for the RNC. In a sign of just how little the two major political parties paid attention to the redistricting process, Hofeller both ran the RNC's redistricting program and served as its information technology director.

"He started out in the days when we were doing redistricting with pencils and paper and very large erasers," said John Ryder, the general counsel at the RNC and a longtime friend of Hofeller's.

Ginsberg said Hofeller's first maps were drawn "on wall-sized pieces of paper with colored magic markers."

Ten years later, Hofeller moved to the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he advised legal challenges to Democratic-drawn district maps. 

When the 1990 Census took place, Democrats had controlled Congress for 35 years. Over the course of those decades, Democrats had maintained control of most state legislatures, the elected officials who actually draw both legislative and congressional district lines in most states. 

In 1990, Democrats controlled both legislative chambers in 29 states, including the entire Solid South and most of the Midwest. Republicans held control in only six states, five of them in the Mountain West. 

But in the mid-1980s, Republicans won back a significant number of governorships; a tumultuous election in 1990 handed Democrats control of several governorships in the Great Plains, while Republicans nabbed control in states like Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Arizona. That gave Republicans a seat at the redistricting table, from which they had been shut out for generations.

Hofeller worked with two young lawyers at the RNC, Ginsberg and Oldham, to lead Republican efforts to draw new maps — and to challenge maps drawn by Democratic legislatures in court. The resulting district lines, used for the first time in the 1992 elections, helped shake loose dozens of members of Congress who had not faced a real challenge for years.

While Republicans netted nine seats that year, the relatively small shift belies a much more widespread tumult. Forty Democrats and 24 Republicans retired or sought other office rather than running under the new district lines. Another 24 members — 19 Democrats and five Republicans — lost their seats.

Two years later, dissatisfaction with then-President Clinton, especially among southerners, whites and rural voters, combined to give Republicans their first major political wave since former President Reagan's election in 1980. 

While Reagan's GOP had won control of the Senate, they never controlled the House; the new district lines in effect after 1992 gave the party its first majority since 1954. Republicans gained 54 seats, including seats held by House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and committee chairmen like Jack Brooks (D-Texas), Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) and Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).

With Republicans in control of Congress, Hofeller moved to the House subcommittee on the census, where he served as staff director. He returned to the RNC in 2000 to oversee Republican redistricting efforts, then left to take several senior positions at the Farm Service Agency in former President George W. Bush's Agriculture Department.

After the Bush administration, Hofeller again oversaw the RNC's redistricting operations, though as a paid consultant rather than as a staffer. 

But unlike in 1990, when Republicans controlled few state legislatures, the 2010 wave swept out Democratic majorities in a huge number of legislative chambers. When the Census Bureau reapportioned congressional districts this time around, Republicans held total control of state legislatures in 25 states. Democrats held control in just 16 states. 

Republicans controlled all levers of government in big states like Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin, states where Republican-drawn district maps helped the party win House seats that had been safely in Democratic hands for generations.

"I'm the one saying 'Okay, so we won Congress. The question is, are we going to keep it?'" Hofeller told journalist Robert Draper, recalling election night in 2010 for a profile in The Atlantic. "And then what I see is that we gained 700 state legislative seats. The night just kept getting better and better. Things happened in some states that we never expected. Alabama! North Carolina!"

In between redistricting cycles, Hofeller would travel the country, giving PowerPoint presentations to prepare Republican legislators for the next round of redistricting. Friends said he was known for the one-liners — or Hofellerisms — that hinted at privacy and discretion, at a time when the results of redistricting processes often ended up being challenged in court.

"Never travel without counsel" was one piece of advice. Another warning: "The 'e' in email stands for 'eternal.' " He advised legislators to speak in person, whenever possible, rather than by written communication that might be discoverable down the road.

"His imprint is very lasting on the shape of both state legislative and congressional politics, by virtue of the districts that he drew," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who found himself opposing Hofeller in court several times. "He was somebody I respected very deeply."

With the exception of a brief hiatus to Washington state to work in a senior position at a software company, Hofeller lived most of his adult life in Alexandria, Va., with his wife Kathleen Hofeller. He sang tenor in the choir at the National Cathedral, and he continued singing into retirement until chemotherapy hurt his voice.

The Hofellers retired to Raleigh, N.C., where Hofeller remained active in redistricting circles.

North Carolina Republicans brought him on to advise legislative leaders on a mid-decade redistricting in 2017, after a federal court ruled against legislative district maps that Hofeller had drawn in 2011. The court in that case ruled that the districts had been drawn with too much focus on racial demographics, a violation of the Voting Rights Act, the same law Hofeller had used to try to break the Democratic maps in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hofeller was diagnosed with cancer more than two years ago. He still traveled to San Diego in December for a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), where he got a standing ovation from the self-declared redistricting nerds — Democrats and Republicans alike — who came to hear him speak.

Tim Storey, NCSL's director of state services, said Hofeller had no trouble getting along with the other side: "Fight with Dems during work hours, but then clock out and go enjoy telling war stories together over drinks," Storey said of Hofeller in an email.

Hofeller is survived by his wife, a brother, a daughter and several nieces and nephews. Services will be held Aug. 24 at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Raleigh.

-- Updated 7:53 p.m.