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Booker and Schatz Urge Ross to Reconsider Unqualified Pick for Critical Census Bureau Job

Letter Urges Ross to Reconsider Choice of Thomas Brunell to Serve as Deputy Director of the Census Bureau Brunell lacks management experience, has spent career trying to dilute civic participation

January 30, 2018
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WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) sent a letter today to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross urging him to reconsider reported plans to appoint Dr. Thomas Brunell to serve as Deputy Director of the Census Bureau. Brunell’s stunning lack of management and government experience, fiercely partisan background and history of support for racial and partisan gerrymandering make him deeply unqualified to serve as the Census Bureau’s chief operational officer.

The Deputy Director is the chief operational officer of the Census Bureau with oversight over a number of important decisions critical to the outcome of the 2020 Census, including the agency’s advertising budget and the communications plan for the decennial census.


“As you know, the 2020 Census will introduce an unprecedented level of logistical innovations to the census process, including a watershed effort to obtain the majority of self-responses online. It is imperative that the Deputy Director, the chief operational officer at the Census Bureau, have the leadership ability, management skills, and non-partisan vision required to help ensure a fair and accurate count of all those residing within our borders. We write today to express alarm regarding reports of a plan to appoint Dr. Thomas Brunell, PhD, to be Deputy Director of the Census Bureau. Dr. Brunell’s well-established partisanship, indifference toward civic engagement, and lack of managerial experience make him ill-qualified for the responsibility of carrying out a decennial census already in peril,” the Senators wrote.  


“Dr. Brunell feels that expending resources and reducing deterrents to participation is not only a waste of time, but actually counterproductive.  This deeply cynical worldview is disqualifying for someone charged with oversight of the Bureau’s outreach partnerships and communications efforts.  Civic participation cannot simply be assumed, but must be planned for.  Any argument to the contrary is wishful thinking or willful ignorance—either option would be dangerous at the Census Bureau.  After the 2010 Census failed to count 2.1 percent of African Americans, 1.5 percent of Hispanics, and 4.9 percent of Native Americans living on reservations, while overcounting whites by nearly 1 percent, we cannot afford to leave full participation to chance,” the Senators continued.


“The constitutionally-mandated decennial census is important for so many critical government functions including apportionment in the House of Representatives, government funding, and more. Operational oversight of the census is an incredible responsibility which would be a challenge for even the most-capable of leaders. As you decide who should serve as the Deputy Director of the Census Bureau, we hope that you would give thought to the concerns outlined in this letter and seek another candidate,” the Senators concluded.


The full text of the letter is available here and below:

January 30, 2018

The Honorable Wilbur L. Ross, Jr.

Secretary

U.S. Department of Commerce

1401 Constitution Ave, NW

Washington, DC 20230

Dear Secretary Ross:

As you know, the 2020 Census will introduce an unprecedented level of logistical innovations to the census process, including a watershed effort to obtain the majority of self-responses online. It is imperative that the Deputy Director, the chief operational officer at the Census Bureau, have the leadership ability, management skills, and non-partisan vision required to help ensure a fair and accurate count of all those residing within our borders. We write today to express alarm regarding reports of a plan to appoint Dr. Thomas Brunell, PhD, to be Deputy Director of the Census Bureau. Dr. Brunell’s well-established partisanship, indifference toward civic engagement, and lack of managerial experience make him ill-qualified for the responsibility of carrying out a decennial census already in peril.

As the chief operational officer of the Census Bureau, the Deputy Director will oversee the Bureau’s Integrated Partnership and Communications (IPC) program. IPC is an incredibly important tool which enables the Census Bureau to use digital and other platforms and work with local organizations to ensure that everyone living in this country, especially hard to count and hard to reach populations, understands the importance of participating in the 2020 Census. The Deputy Director will make difficult decisions about where to focus advertising funds for the most impact. He or she must have the experience necessary to run productive and efficient advertising and partnership programs.

Having the requisite experience will be especially important for the 2020 Census.  For example, over the past year, experts at the Census Bureau have already reported a rise in pre-test respondent concerns about confidentiality.[1] There is also increasing concern of depressed participation among immigrants and their families due to the current rhetoric surrounding immigration reform and requests for citizenship questions on the census questionnaire.[2] These issues could lead to increased costs in non-response follow up and/or substantial undercounts of residents. A qualified and experienced Deputy Director is absolutely necessary to ensure that the IPC program can truly fulfill its purpose as a way to help the decennial census reach every person living in the United States.  Dr. Brunell is unqualified for several reasons.

First, Dr. Brunell would be a fiercely partisan choice for a non-partisan position. He has served as a witness for Republican defendants in gerrymandering cases across the country.[3]  In Ohio, he worked as consultant on the state’s efforts to cut back early voting.[4] He is responsible for helping defend and promulgate redistricting maps in North Carolina that federal judges in the Middle District of North Carolina termed “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court.”  He wrote a book in 2008 entitled Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America, arguing that the country needs more hyperpartisan districts in which the same party always wins. The person charged with operational oversight of the governmental undertaking responsible for apportionment in our government’s highest legislative body should be committed to fair and accurate representation for all Americans. Dr. Thomas Brunell is not that person.

Second, the goal of the IPC program—fostering outreach, engagement, and partnerships—requires a Deputy Director with an abiding belief that people can and should be encouraged into civic participation. Dr. Brunell does not have this belief.  Rather, his history with redistricting and voting rights indicates he does not believe in lowering barriers for engagement in civic events.  It is also not evident he believes in making processes as easy and simple as possible to maximize participation.  “People who want to vote will vote,” Brunell wrote in a July 2014 report for the Ohio Legislature defending the repeal of early voting. He continued, “A marginal reduction in the cost of voting does not inspire thousands of would-be non-voters to cast a ballot. Moreover, early voting diminishes the effect of Election Day as a civil event, which causes some folks who intend on voting to procrastinate so long that they forget to vote altogether.”

Dr. Brunell feels that expending resources and reducing deterrents to participation is not only a waste of time, but actually counterproductive.  This deeply cynical worldview is disqualifying for someone charged with oversight of the Bureau’s outreach partnerships and communications efforts.  Civic participation cannot simply be assumed, but must be planned for.  Any argument to the contrary is wishful thinking or willful ignorance—either option would be dangerous at the Census Bureau.  After the 2010 Census failed to count 2.1 percent of African Americans, 1.5 percent of Hispanics, and 4.9 percent of Native Americans living on reservations, while overcounting whites by nearly 1 percent, we cannot afford to leave full participation to chance.

Finally, the Deputy Director position has traditionally been filled by a career civil servant promoted from within the Bureau. For example, the most recent permanent Deputy Director, Dr. Nancy Potok, spent the majority of her career in the Census Bureau.  The current interim Deputy Director, Enrique Lamas, has been at the Census Bureau for almost four decades.  Dr. Brunell does not have experience in the Census Bureau or any other federal agency. He is a political science professor who does not have the managerial background necessary to administer the agency’s estimated $15.6 billion budget and oversee the “largest civic action undertaken by the entire country.”[5]

The constitutionally-mandated decennial census is important for so many critical government functions including apportionment in the House of Representatives, government funding, and more. Operational oversight of the census is an incredible responsibility which would be a challenge for even the most-capable of leaders. As you decide who should serve as the Deputy Director of the Census Bureau, we hope that you would give thought to the concerns outlined in this letter and seek another candidate.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

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[1] Meyers, Mikelyn (2017 November 2) Respondent Confidentiality Concerns and Possible Effects on Response Rates and Data Quality for the 2020 Census. Retrieved from: https://www2.census.gov/cac/nac/meetings/2017-11/Meyers-NAC-Confidentiality-Presentation.pdf

[2] Elliott, Justin (2017 December 29) Trump Justice Department Pushes for Citizenship Question on Census, Alarming Experts. Retrieved from: https://www.propublica.org/article/trump-justice-department-pushes-for-citizenship-question-on-census-alarming-experts

[3] Capps, Kriston (2017 November 22) Counting Down to a Census Doomsday. Retrieved from: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/11/census-deputy-director-nomination-thomas-brunell/546605/

[4] Berman, Ari (2018 January 2) Trump’s Pick to Run 2020 Census Has Defended Racial Gerrymandering and Voter Suppression Laws. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/01/trumps-pick-to-run-2020-census-has-defended-racial-gerrymandering-and-voter-suppression-laws/

[5] Vinik, Danny (2017 April 9) Trump’s Threat to the 2020 Census. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/04/trumps-threat-to-the-2020-census-000404