How to Change a Conservative State

President Donald Trump and Sheriff Joe Arpaio have a lot in common. They’ve both built political careers out of attacking immigrants: They were elected on populist platforms that appealed to white nationalists, and they were two of the most vocal supporters of the racist “birther” movement. They’ve both starred in reality TV shows. They even share the same birthday. But there’s one important difference: While Trump was voted into office in November, Maricopa County, Arizona voted Arpaio out.

Arizona has traditionally been a conservative stronghold. It’s where Barry Goldwater launched his career; where, more than 60 years later, John McCain was officially censured for being too liberal. It’s the birthplace of one of the most anti-immigrant bills in the nation, and it’s home to a legislature that recently passed a law that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gay people.

But in November, amid Trump’s victory and a conservative sweep in Congress, Arizona boasted several progressive wins. It was one of four states to pass minimum wage legislation via ballot initiative: Prop 206, which gained 58% of the vote, will raise the state minimum wage to $12 by 2020 and give workers the right to paid sick time. Arizonans also elected several progressive Latino candidates, including Adrian Fontes, the new Maricopa County recorder, and Juan Mendez, an openly atheist state senator. And of course, Maricopa voters ousted Arpaio—ending his 24-year authoritarian reign.

These wins were not isolated events. They were part of a larger progressive movement in Arizona—one that’s been building for several years.


For many Arizonans, Arpaio is the embodiment of anti-immigrant hate. While in office, he persecuted immigrants—and the entire Latino community—with a singular focus. When the U.S. Department of Justice sued him in 2012 for racial profiling, the formal legal complaint was full of frightening anecdotes of police misconduct: Latino drivers were “nearly nine times” more likely to be pulled over than non-Latino drivers; Latino people were regularly detained solely due to their race; and Latino detainees were often punished as a group.

Liedy Robledo, one of the lead organizers of the Bazta Arpaio campaign credited with Arapaio’s defeat in November, was raised by undocumented parents in Maricopa County under Sheriff Arpaio’s rule. Robledo says she didn’t realize how discriminatory Arpaio’s policing was until she moved to Colorado in 2008. She was a senior in high school at the time, and she remembers noticing that the police there wouldn’t pull people over just to check their immigration status. “When the sheriff would drive down the street, they had a purpose—they weren’t just patrolling.”

The anti-immigrant law was a catalyst.

Robledo became involved with youth organizing in Denver as legislators in her home state were crafting S.B. 1070, Arizona’s extreme anti-immigrant bill. She recalls it as a defining moment in her political development. She began thinking less about Arpaio as an individual actor and more about “the entire culture he’s built.” After she graduated, Robledo returned to Maricopa County, determined to organize against hate and injustice.

S.B. 1070 was also a catalyst for Tomas Robles, the executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), the group that led the statewide campaign for Prop 206. “It called a lot of us into action,” he says.

But according to Robles, when S.B. 1070 passed in 2010, there was no organizing infrastructure yet for immigrant justice and economic justice in Arizona. They had to build it themselves. “We were the first group of leaders and organizers that came out of that 2010 struggle.”

In response to S.B. 1070, ten community organizations came together to form One Arizona, a coalition designed to combat against anti-immigrant legislation and get Latino voters to the polls. One of the founding groups, Puente, also partnered with LUCHA to create People United for Justice, which oversaw Bazta Arpaio and helped train leaders in both campaigns.

This emerging infrastructure created a new generation of organizers. “It’s kind of strange saying ‘generation’ when it’s only seven years,” Robles muses. But that’s exactly what it is—both Robles and Robledo began as volunteers, grew into leadership roles, then trained the next crop of leaders.


If there are parallels between Bazta Arpaio and LUCHA’s campaign for Prop 206, it’s likely because many of the organizers trained together and share a theory of change—one that focuses on training leaders from the most directly affected communities.

LUCHA had community members lead every aspect of the campaign, and most of its leaders were women of color. “Leadership development was ingrained in us from the very beginning,” Robles says. Bazta shared this same commitment: One of their organizers was a mother from the community who had never used a computer before. Robledo says she had to learn how to use a phone and a computer, but “by the end, she was cutting her own turf”—drafting lists and sending mass texts.

This leadership development pipeline allowed Bazta to leverage the strengths of different community members. “Our moms are really good at going into the churches and getting volunteers,” Robeldo said, while the younger organizers use their access to school to recruit student volunteers.

Robledo’s own experience as a community leader brought her back to the neighborhood where she grew up. When she was younger, her parents wouldn’t want her to walk down certain streets after school. But as an organizer with Bazta, those were the streets she had to walk, the doors she had to knock on. “It was really empowering, taking back Phoenix.”


Both Bazta Arpaio and the Prop 206 campaign relied heavily on door-to-door canvassing to gather votes, but not until after they’d built momentum in other ways. Bazta had a wide-ranging direct action and communications strategy that involved an enormous inflatable of Arpaio, a roving bus, murals, internet memes, and an online game. “By the time we knocked on doors,” says Robledo, “people already knew who we were.”

Similarly, LUCHA started creating momentum for the minimum wage fight in 2013. They staged actions with Fight for 15 and led community forums and workshops to get people fired up about economic justice. After two years of this, they funded a statewide poll and found that their work had paid off—most voters would support paid sick time and a higher minimum wage. Now they just had to get the votes.

Once it was time for both campaigns to knock on doors, they did so with extreme ardor, hitting thousands of doors per week for several months. “Tomas Robles and the Prop 206 campaign—they just outworked the opponents,” says Greg Stanton, Phoenix’s mayor. Stanton lauded Bazta’s volunteer canvassers for hitting “hundreds of doors per person per night”—especially since campaigns in Arizona take place during the hottest part of the year, when it often reaches 110 degrees or more. “They won this the right way,” he says.

The same tactics helped get Stanton elected in 2012. In West Phoenix, which had a large Latino population but low voter turnout, a group of young canvassers—some of whom Stanton says were the same people that worked on Bazta and Prop 206—knocked on 72,000 doors, increasing Latino voter turnout by more than 400% in one election cycle.

Organizers didn’t have to convince people there was a problem—they had to convince them that there was a solution.

Bazta’s door-to-door canvassing was a winning combination of grim determination and clinical efficiency. Robledo says that before counting a vote in their favor, volunteers would have to walk people through every step of the ballot application process: “Fill it out. Sign it. Put it in the mail.” And if the canvassers found a good story at the door, they’d hand it over to the communications team, so the canvassers could “keep on hitting more doors.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle the canvassers faced was a feeling of powerlessness among voters. Robles said that most people supported raising the minimum wage, but they’d say, “There’s no way that can happen here in Arizona.” And the Bazta canvassers heard hundreds of iterations of “my vote doesn’t count” or “he’s going to win again” or “he’s invincible.” They didn’t have to convince people there was a problem—they had to convince them that there was a solution, that they had the power to change the status quo.

On election day, Bazta’s young volunteers felt this power. They had been scrambling that week because of last-minute court decisions to revoke, and then reinstate, a ban on collecting ballots, which caused many voters to miss the deadline to mail their absentee ballots. Bazta went to two high schools to try to get 50 students from each school to spend their afternoon canvassing. But people were so energized that 100 students walked out of each school to volunteer—so many that the organizers ran out of doors to give to people.


Bazta’s victory in defeating an anti-immigrant authoritarian leader has obvious national parallels. As Progress Now’s executive director Josselyn Berry says, “In Arizona, we’ve seen Trumps before, and we’ve been able to defeat them.”

But the beauty of the Bazta Arpaio campaign—and LUCHA’s victorious Prop 206 campaign—is that they’ve created a movement that will outlast one election cycle. By rallying voters for their respective causes, these two campaigns helped the One Arizona coalition register 150,000 new Latino voters in Arizona—more than Trump’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan combined. And they raised a new generation of leaders in the Latino community, including hundreds of 17- and 18-year-old students who are now realizing their political power.

It’s tempting to think that the progressive uprising in Arizona is a direct result of S.B. 1070 and Arpaio’s culture of hate; that those oppressive conditions, via some social analog of Newton’s third law, triggered an opposite reaction. The pendulum of history swung to the right, and it was only a matter of time before it inevitably corrected itself.

But progressive change is not inevitable, nor is it easy. It takes strategic organizing and collective resilience. And sometimes, it takes a swarm of volunteers knocking on door after door after door beneath Arizona’s punishing midsummer sun.



Rural Americans Have Less Access to Books. There’s a Way to Fix That.

When I lived in rural Arizona, we were tucked away on sloping acreage, surrounded by mountains and scrubby desert. Twenty miles from the nearest town, we lacked basic services that many of my city-dwelling friends took for granted: trash pick-up, cell phone service, reliable internet. Sometimes during summer storms or winter freezes, our landline would temporarily turn to static, and we would lose all communication with the rest of the world.

As a young mother, this meant no play groups or coffee meet-ups with other moms. My children rarely experienced playgrounds or library story time. Instead, they caught chickens and climbed tractors. They played with sticks and covered themselves in mud down in the river.

But once a month, the library bookmobile would park at the end of our property, on the shoulder of the road where the pavement turned to dirt. On those days, I would strap the baby to my chest and take my stepson’s hand, and we would walk down the road to the bookmobile. The converted bus was filled with books, DVDs, magazines, even a pillow in the children’s section for kids to prop on their elbows and read. It felt like a secret special world, curated just for us.


In the article “The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor,” MSU Philosophy writer Joshua Finnell notes that, while public libraries were created in the mid-1800s to offer equal access to information, they were primarily operated by the white, educated middle class. “Whether intentionally or not, library holdings, furnishings, programs, and even hours of operation all sent a powerful message about who controlled access to information in our society and provided the basis for defining the information rich and the information poor,” writes Finnell.

The non-white and the working poor were left out of the public library structure.

The non-white and the working poor were systemically left out of the public library structure, and due to the location of most libraries, rural residents also had limited access. In an effort to reach those communities, librarian Mary Titcomb created a horse-drawn wagon to haul books to post offices and stores at the beginning of the 20th century—the first bookmobile.

By 1912, the horse-drawn library wagon was replaced by a motorized bookmobile. Bookmobiles became part of the larger literacy effort, transporting reading materials to rural communities, schools, and senior centers. In the 1950s and ’60s, bookmobiles reached over 30 million Americans living in rural communities, before fuel shortages in the 1970s and ’80s triggered a decline.

A little over a decade ago, the number of bookmobiles started growing again—according to the American Library Association, they increased by more than 10 percent between 2003 and 2005. Today there are approximately 660 bookmobiles in operation, according to the latest data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services survey.

Ann Plazek, president of the Association for Bookmobile and Outreach Services, says bookmobile numbers fell slightly in 2014 (with a loss of ten nationwide), but she expects that 2015 statistics, which have not yet been released, will reflect an increase.

“There were numerous library systems adding bookmobiles for the first time,” she says. “I think we’re going to see a turnaround —especially as they’re becoming greener and more economical. Some bookmobiles are installing solar panels, which cuts down on the need for generators, and that’s been a huge change.”


Judy Calhoun grew up 18 miles from town in rural Arkansas. Once a month, the bookmobile visited her community. “Everyone would come over,” she remembers. “I was a huge reader, and even though they had a rule that you could only check out five books at a time, the librarian would let me check out 30 books. In the summer, I could read one book a day.”

Calhoun grew up to become a librarian herself, managing a branch for 14 years, and currently serves as the president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. As the Director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Library System, she oversees nine libraries in five counties in southeast Arkansas. “Eighty percent of libraries in the United States are small or rural,” she says. “So we’re actually the majority.”

Arkansas is one of the poorest states in the country—ranked 48th in 2016—with an overall poverty rate of 19.1%.  Most of the counties served by Calhoun’s library system have poverty rates more than double the state average, and she says libraries in these areas are especially linked to the well-being of their patrons.

“People are leaving these little communities,” she says. “They’re moving away to seek jobs. Once they lose their school, we see a decline in population. As a result, small and rural libraries are continually battling declining revenues. But there are still people here who can’t afford to move, or who won’t move away, because this is their home. So we keep working to serve those people.”

Recently, three of the smaller branch libraries in southeast Arkansas were forced to close. One was shut down completely because the building was in disrepair, and the other two were donated to the towns and are now being run by volunteers. “We even left the computers for them,” says Calhoun.

“For a lot of these little towns, they can’t afford the permanent site. You’ve got to pay the building fees, electricity, internet, phone. In a lot of these places, the buildings are getting unusable, and there aren’t resources to keep them safe. So we’re seeing a resurgence of bookmobiles,” says Calhoun. “As we should.”


Even though bookmobiles are regaining popularity, Plazek says she encounters people shocked that they still exist. “Some people think bookmobiles are these antiquated things,” she says, “But we still exist, and we’re still relevant.”

The bookmobile was a place of gathering.

That’s because mobile and rural library services have adapted to serve as community hubs. My neighbors and I used to lean against our bookmobile’s counter to talk about all strides of our lives—pecan harvests and rainfall predictions, mountain lion sightings, an elderly neighbor in search of large-print mystery novels. We discussed lost dogs, the price of alfalfa, and the latest in the opposition to the high-voltage power lines slated to be built through our valley. The bookmobile was a place of gathering, of communion over the complexities and the intricacies of our lives, for passing time with one another in a tiny air-conditioned bus on the side of a dusty road.

Calhoun acknowledged this personal connection, too. “People love to tell us about their troubles, what’s going on in their lives, what they need. We’re kind of like a bartender. We get to know the people we’re serving in a different way.”

Part of that bond is because bookmobiles, and rural libraries more broadly, meet very real needs. Calhoun’s system doubles as a voter registration site, provides tax form assistance, maintains copy and computer centers, and even has an initiative to help combat hunger in the community. And Plazek notes that bookmobiles are often adjusted so they can cater to day cares, Amish populations, or seniors.

Even so, Calhoun admits: “We’re kind of modest. We don’t toot our own horns, and we’ve got to change that.” She says her job is to advocate for small and rural libraries, so she visits legislators at the state capitol, attends conferences, and talks to donors. “People will ask, ‘Are rural libraries really needed?’ And I just keep saying, ‘Come and see what we’re doing. We’re needed. We’re still so needed.’”



A Cruel New Bill Is About to Become Law in Mississippi

Had the Ryan-Trump health care bill been signed into law, 24 million people could have lost their health care—and Donald Trump would have received a $2.18 million annual tax cut. Fortunately, the Republican congressional leaders’ latest attempt to create a windfall for the wealthy at the expense of the poor and working class was defeated. But last week in Mississippi, residents weren’t so lucky.

The conspicuously named HOPE Act (Act to Restore Hope Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone), introduced by Mississippi State Representative Chris Brown, passed the House and Senate and is now expected to be signed into law. The legislation reads like a compilation of all-time favorites from a conservative wish list: It would enrich a private contractor by outsourcing the work of verifying people’s eligibility for social-support programs, including Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps); throw people who likely qualify for assistance off of these programs; and make it more difficult for people to get food and income assistance in the future.

It does all of this under the guise of helping people—Rep. Brown described the bill as “an incredible opportunity” to help people “move out of welfare dependency and poverty to a better life.” It’s also about eliminating fraud, supposedly, though legislators offered no proof that this is a problem in the state.

The HOPE Act applies to all Mississippians who receive Medicaid, TANF (income assistance), or SNAP. Anyone enrolled in those programs will have 10 days to reply to a written request for information proving eligibility, as deemed necessary by a private contractor hired by the state. That deadline would be tough for anyone to meet, but the fact that many program beneficiaries are disabled, unemployed, lack stable housing, or are simply living under the everyday pressures of poverty makes the deadline all but impossible for many people.

“Just getting that notice to program participants can be a real challenge,” said Matt Williams, the director of research at the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative. “Then you’re talking about making sense of a lot of highly technical information, and putting that in written form too.”

Currently, a Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) caseworker determines eligibility by sitting down with an applicant and sorting through liquid assets, utility bills, loans, child-support payments, child-care costs, employee pay stubs, and other sources of income and expenses. It’s a time-consuming process, but the agency has been rewarded for doing it well. Between FY2012 and FY2014, the department received $8.75 million in bonus federal funds for its SNAP-payment accuracy rates.

Under the HOPE Act, however, that kind of reciprocal relationship and guidance will be gone. “People will have to figure out on their own how to acquire the requested information and then explain it—in writing—within 10 days,” said Williams. “If they don’t, they’re going to be kicked off.”

Rep. Brown and other proponents claim that the state will save money through this privatized system. But the assertion is belied by the state’s own analysis, which was conducted by a private firm that supports the legislation. It estimated a cost of $10 million to $12 million, with about $2.5 million covered by state taxpayers. Williams said even that would be hard to come up with given the state’s tax and budget cuts over the past two years. But the actual cost will likely be much higher, and the study wrongly assumed that the federal government will pick up most of the tab for the privatized system. Tennessee considered nearly identical legislation and found that it would run $81 million with the state covering 95 percent of the cost. The legislators killed that bill.

“We will be out millions of more dollars that could have benefited children, the elderly, and disabled people who are already neglected due to budget cuts,” said Williams.

If any household is found to be out of compliance, the children lose benefits.

The HOPE Act will also make it more likely that childless adults between the ages of 18 and 49 will be limited to three months of SNAP benefits in any three-year period, unless they’re working. Under current law, the governor can apply for a waiver to this time limit during periods of high unemployment—during recessions, or for particular regions with high unemployment rates, like the Mississippi Delta. Now it will be up to a hostile state legislature to ask for the waiver. Moreover, if any household is found to be out of compliance with any requirement of SNAP or TANF, the children lose benefits, too.

Mississippians can thank the Foundation for Government Accountability—an ally of the American Legislative Exchange Council and an affiliate of the Koch-funded State Policy Network—for providing Rep. Brown with the model for this legislation. The right-wing group’s past efforts include mandatory drug-testing for TANF recipients in Florida. Studies showed that there was no greater incident of drug use for people who receive benefits than the general public—and a lower rate compared to all Floridians—so the court struck it down as an illegal search and seizure. The drug-testing also cost the state far more to implement than it saved in benefits denied to the handful of people who tested positive.

Whatever the costs of Mississippi’s new system, proponents claim that they will be more than offset by savings as the private contractor discovers “fraud” and kicks people off of assistance, particularly Medicaid. However, Illinois used a similar system and found that more than 80 percent of cancelled Medicaid cases were simply due to a lack of response from the recipient, and nearly all of them ended up qualifying and reenrolling. The number of cases referred for fraud investigation was, in fact, “negligible.”

Mississippi’s move comes as conservatives across the country are kicking people off of needed assistance, under the pretense of freeing them from “dependency,” or giving states “flexibility” to better meet a community’s needs. Next up? More governors will likely seek waivers from protections for Medicaid recipients so that they can impose new work requirements, higher premiums, and time limits—and offer more largesse to the wealthy.

This post first appeared on The Nation. It has been modified slightly from the original. 



What the Washington Post Missed on Disability

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a story titled “Disabled or just desperate?” that painted a bleak picture of rural America. But rather than digging into what’s driving widespread unemployment and poor health in struggling rural counties, the article cherry-picks one of the counties with the highest rates of disability benefit receipt, to create a dystopian portrait where Social Security disability benefits represent out-of-control government spending riddled with rampant abuse.

Reality looks quite a bit different. As Shawn Fremstad and I have pointed out time and again, Social Security disability benefits are incredibly hard to get—fewer than 4 in 10 applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. To qualify for benefits, you must have one or more medically determinable physical or mental impairments expected to last at least 12 months, or to result in death. And many recipients do, in fact, die: 1 in 5 male and 1 in 6 female Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits.

But having a disability alone is not enough to qualify for benefits. You also have to prove that your impairment, or combination of impairments, leave you unable to do any job that exists in significant numbers in the national economy at a level where you could earn even $11,070 per year.

According to the Organisation for Economic Development, the United States has the most restrictive—and least generous—disability benefit system of all OECD member countries, apart from Korea. While some unemployed workers—like Desmond Spencer, whom the article profiles—may apply for disability benefits out of desperation as the article’s headline suggests, they’ll be left empty-handed if they don’t meet Social Security’s strict eligibility criteria. Consider the recent economic downturn. Application rates increased as unemployment rose, but approval rates dropped significantly as people who didn’t qualify were denied benefits. It’s also worth noting that the Post focuses on Spencer’s decision to apply for disability benefits—but ends there. What we’re not shown is him being denied, if and when he’s found not disabled enough to qualify.

The Post sidesteps the eligibility requirements for SSDI, and focuses on the recent increase in the number of people receiving benefits. But as the agency’s chief actuary has explained—and in fact predicted decades ago—the growth is mostly due to baby boomers aging into their high-disability years, women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s (so now we are insured under Social Security in case of disability at nearly the same rates as men), and population growth. In fact, these three factors alone explain more than 90 percent of the increase in beneficiaries between 1970 and 2008.

Notably, the program’s growth has leveled off, slowing to its lowest rate in a quarter-century. It is projected to decline further in the coming years, as the baby boomers retire (a fact left out entirely by the Post).

Because of misleading media coverage, people are more familiar with myths than they are with the facts.

Make no mistake, the Post’s article highlights a very real set of problems that call out for policymakers’ attention. For starters, the high rates of unemployment and pervasive economic hardship that plague rural communities, many of whose residents voted for Donald Trump in hopes that he would save or bring back their jobs. Then there is widespread lack of health insurance in rural areas. Spencer reports seeing his health decline following an injury he suffered on the job because “he’d never had health insurance.” It’s not a coincidence that he lives in Beaverton, Alabama—one of the states still refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

And third, there are the employment barriers many people with disabilities continue to face more than 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. They range from outright discrimination; to lack of affordable, accessible housing and transportation; to policies that allow disabled workers to be paid less than minimum wage. These inequities scream out for policies that would give workers with disabilities a fair shot, rather than blaming the lifeboat for the flood.

Unfortunately, the Washington Post’s storyline—long pushed by conservative critics of Social Security—has been a favorite of many in the media going back several years. Notably, NPR ran similar reporting back in 2012, which was widely debunked—including by a bipartisan group of eight former Social Security commissioners who teamed up to write an open letter correcting the record.  But in large part because of misleading media coverage, many people are more familiar with myths about Social Security disability benefits—and beneficiaries—than they are with the facts.

This puts the people who rely on SSDI’s modest benefits at serious risk. While Trump has pledged not to cut Social Security, his budget director Mick Mulvaney has hardly been quiet about his intention to target Social Security Disability Insurance for cuts, portraying disability beneficiaries as less deserving than retirees.

Misleading media accounts that have made the disability beneficiary into the modern day “welfare queen” risk giving him cover to do just that.

Correction: The article originally stated that Lamar county is tied for the highest rate of disability benefit receipt. It is in the top 5% of the rural counties that the Washington Post analyzed. 



The Labor Secretary Nominee Promised to Defer to Trump. That’s a Problem for Workers.

Last week’s political news was dominated by the stunning failure of congressional Republicans’ health care bill. The resulting chaos will ultimately preserve health insurance for 24 million Americans, but it allowed the March 22 confirmation hearing for Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s second choice to lead the Labor Department, to slide by unnoticed.

In a party-line vote, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions advanced Acosta’s nomination today, putting 160 million American workers one step closer to having a protector-in-chief whose views are largely unknown. During his hearing, Acosta fought to keep his opinions concealed. He repeatedly dodged questions about the department’s most significant recent activities, including updating overtime rules, reducing exposure to deadly silica dust, and requiring retirement advisers to act in their clients’ best interest.

But, despite his relative silence on labor issues, Acosta’s past has a giant red flag.

From 2003 to 2005, when Acosta was leading the Civil Rights Division of George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, the division became intensely politicized. An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General found the division violated federal law and DOJ policy by conducting hiring based on candidates’ political and ideological affiliations. Although the report did not find Acosta directly responsible for illegal behavior, former DOJ employee Kristen Clark wrote, “This egregious conduct played out under Acosta’s watch and the Inspector General found that, despite the special litigation section chief informing Acosta of the wrongdoing, Acosta failed to take sufficient action to address the illegal and unprofessional actions.”

Acosta used his authority to push the administration’s agenda.

Acosta’s worrisome record doesn’t end with turning a blind eye to illegal activity. During his tenure at DOJ, Acosta himself was accused of partisan meddling. Just days before the 2004 presidential election, Ohio Republicans challenged and purged the voter registration of thousands of mostly African-American voters through a practice known as “voter caging.” When the case was challenged in federal court, Acosta took the unusual step of sending a letter to the court claiming that the purge was allowed under the Voting Rights Act. Typically, federal agency chiefs go out of their way not to influence elections—but if this behavior sounds like déjà vu, you can thank FBI Director James Comey.

In other words, when the interests of the Bush administration—which favored restrictions on voting rights—conflicted with his responsibility as a civil rights chief, it appears Acosta chose to use his authority to push the administration’s agenda.

And if he is confirmed as labor secretary, Acosta will once again be tasked with protecting a marginalized group of Americans—workers. One of his first tasks will be deciding whether he will enforce a spate of new rules that are designed to protect workers, passed during the end of the Obama administration. The rules themselves are straightforward: companies would have to disclose worker exposure to a cancer-causing dust often found in construction, federal contractors would have to disclose labor law violations, and employers would have to pay overtime to additional eligible workers.  But in some cases, Trump has already criticized them.

If his previous actions are any guide, Acosta will likely place partisan loyalty above enforcement of his agency’s mission. And when he repeated during last week’s hearing that he’d defer to Trump as the “boss,” he gave little assurance that he won’t place ideology above the labor rights and civil rights of working Americans.