If political lines are drawn fairly, former Attorney General Eric Holder argued Monday (April 30), then everything else will follow. Holder was at Harvard Kennedy School to deliver the Godkin Lecture. The lecture, named after Edwin Godkin, the founder of The Nation, is dedicated to public service. Holder, a partner at Covington & Burling law firm, is also chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and is dedicated to helping Democrats have more say in the redrawing of political maps following the 2020 census – a process Republicans dominated after 2010 by dint of a hugely successful state and local political strategy. But Holder said he was not interested in fighting fire with fire and that gerrymandering for one side would be as bad as gerrymandering for the other. In a wide-ranging conversation with Archon Fung, academic dean and the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government, Holder also addressed the value of wider voter participation, the importance of the Justice Department’s independence, his political ambitions, and other subjects.

Holder on why he chose to focus on redistricting:

“I picked redistricting, because it really is kind of the foundation for all the other things. ... I think if the lines are drawn fairly that Democrats and progressives will do just fine. That necessarily means, therefore, that you have an impact on the other issues ... racial issues, voting issues, issues around LGBT choice, gang laws. All of these I think are a function of who actually sits in our state legislatures and who sits in congress.”

Holder on gerrymandering:

“I'm not here to gerrymander for Democrats. ... We have to come up with a system that is more neutral, because the reality now is that we have politicians picking their voters as opposed to citizens choosing who their representatives are going to be. You've seen Democrats cut deals with Republicans, so that incumbents are simply protected without any regard for what the wishes are of a particular constituency.”

Holder on improving voter participation by making changes to when elections are held:

“We are kind of married to a system that might have been necessary back in the 1800s, but is not one that we need now. If you are going to pick a day, it would seem you do it on a Saturday, when people did not have work obligations. I think the better answer, let's even want to keep that Tuesday in November, just expand the amount of days, the number of days that people can actually cast a ballot.”

Holder on differences between the parties on voter participation:

“I'm going to get real partisan now. One of the things, I think the Democrats stand for is that we want to have increased numbers of people voting. Republicans given what they have done, especially over the last decade, with these voter ID laws based on this notion of voter fraud, are trying to keep numbers of people away from the polls. One party is for mass participation, the other party is saying, let's keep certain groups of people out of the voting process.”

Full Participation: Making Every Voice Count
Holder on the independence of the U.S. Attorney General, and the example set by Richardson when he resigned rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate:

“There is a difference between the AG and any other cabinet member. [Attorney General Elliot] Richardson's portrait was there to remind me that if I ever got an order that I didn't think was appropriate I had to remember that my obligation to the system was more important than my retention of the job.

Holder on his potential 2020 presidential aspirations:

“What I've said is that, I'm thinking about this and I'll decide, I think, sometime next year. At this point ... I'm thinking about it. Just thinking about it.”

Holder on what he would hope people will one day say of his legacy as Attorney General.

“I'm still optimistic that if you have leaders who appeal to people in appropriate ways, and focus on that which binds us, as opposed to that which divides us, that you can, even in these fractured times, bring about greater unity than we see now. This is a loud country. We are loud when it comes to politics, we are loud when it comes to sports. That's the beauty of this country. We are loud about the things that we care most about, politics among them. That doesn't mean that because we are yelling at one another that we can't reach common ground, and that we can't at the end of the day be more unified than we are now.”

“I'd like to think that maybe people would say, ‘He didn't lose the common touch, he stayed the person that he was growing up, born in The Bronx, growing up in Queens in New York City. That he wasn't afraid to ask difficult questions, make hard decisions, face hard truths, and that maybe left the country a little more fair, a little more just, infused with a little more equity. The nation was a little more equitable after he left.’”

Holder answering a question on encouraging people of color to participate in democracy:

“People say to me, ‘You had a tough time Eric, it was such a tumultuous time as attorney general.’ I say, ‘Really? You think about Dr. [Martin Luther] King, Ralph Abernathy. Those three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, who were there to register people to vote. Viola Liuzzo. These are heroes and heroines of mine. There is a direct line between my time as the first African American attorney general, Barack Obama's tenure as first African American president and their efforts. You can't change anything if you don't participate in the process. And the way citizens participate in the process at the most basic of levels is to vote.”

Holder, whose family immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean, answering a question from a DACA recipient on fairness toward immigrants:

“The reality is that the best people from other countries are the ones who come here. Who would uproot themselves, go cross-oceans whatever, or come through substantial amounts of land to take jobs that are probably relatively low on the socioeconomic scale, deal with ethnic, racial, economic discrimination? Those are the people, that's my father. This is my grandparents. These are the people who revitalize this nation.”

Holder on how the country can confront the issue and the legacy of racism:

“Unless we ultimately confront our racial past, deal with the continuing problems of racial injustice and equality in our present, we are never going to have a future that I think this nation can have, but that will mean some difficult conversations. ... I think people on both sides of the divide have to give the other side space. If you are a person of color you have got to be open minded enough to allow white folks to raise issues, raise concerns, to be sincere in raising things ... We need a dialogue, we don't need arguments about this.”

Holder urging audience members to commit to public service and leadership:

“Dr. King said that arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice. It really only bends towards justice when people put their hands on that arc and pull it towards justice.”

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