Thomas Brunell, President Trump’s pick for deputy director of the Census Bureau, has withdrawn his name from consideration for the position, Mother Jones reported on Monday. Brunell would have been charged with overseeing the 2020 Census survey, which has faced mounting challenges over the years.
According to sources who spoke to the outlet, Brunell, who has vigorously defended Republican redistricting efforts in several states, was initially floated for the top job at the Census Bureau, but was later moved to the deputy director slot, a position which does not require congressional approval. Brunell was slated to start at the end of November, according to internal documents obtained during a Freedom of Information Act request by Protect Democracy. A spokesperson from the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, confirmed that Brunell was “not under consideration” on Monday.
As Mother Jones noted, Brunell was opposed by civil rights advocates and Democratic legislators who worried that his views on redistricting would carry over into his work for the bureau, or that he might severely undercount minority communities to ensure more Republican districts received more funding later on. Former officials from the Commerce Department also claimed that his role as second in command was perhaps more detrimental to the organization as a whole than if he had been nominated as director: as Politico reported in November, “Subtle bureaucratic choices in the wording and administration of the census can have huge consequences for who is counted, and how it shifts American voting districts,” making Trump’s choice of a partisan appointee all the more concerning.
“This is worse than making him director,” a former high-level Commerce official told Politico at the time. “…[If he takes over the deputy director position], there are tons of little things he could be doing to influence what the final count looks like. The ripple effect on reapportionment would be astounding.”
The deputy director role has typically been filled by a nonpartisan career civil servant with an extensive background in statistics. Brunell, by contrast, is a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and previously received several grants to research redistricting efforts.
“It’s quite a difference going from an academic setting to the Census Bureau,” an anonymous former associate of Brunell told Politico last fall. “I don’t think he’s done the administrative work that would be needed to be at a high level in a large organization like [that].”
Brunell’s departure is the latest setback for the Census Bureau, which has been plagued by myriad issues in its efforts to prepare for the 2020 decennial survey.
The census, conducted every 10 years since 1790, serves several important purposes, including ensuring that citizens are granted the appropriate number of representatives at the state, local, and federal level, allowing lawmakers and researchers to fairly lobby for them on Capitol Hill. It’s also the most official measure of diversity in the United States and gives analysts the data they need to prioritize people’s needs.
According to a Sunlight Foundation survey published in October last year, 74 percent of city officials nationwide trust and rely on the results of each decennial census to serve their citizens, with those officials saying that it was “important” or “very important” for planning, development, innovation, and analytics purposes. When the census is threatened — whether by funding cuts or partisan leadership, which advocates claim Brunell’s appointment would have provided — minority populations, who rely on the survey to give them a voice in Washington, are often the first to feel the consequences.
The 2020 Census has faced myriad issues stemming from an audacious tech overhaul that has stalled due to financial woes and congressional gridlock. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized the Census Bureau for “poor planning…and poor management,” with IT director David Powner telling ThinkProgress last November that “leadership” was to blame for the survey’s many missed deadlines and 2017 field tests. GAO officials have also flagged the 2020 Census as a “high-risk” program and worry that it could face even more hurdles in the months to come.
Compounding the problem is recent debate over a highly controversial survey question which would ask respondents to list their current citizenship status. Undocumented immigrants fear that divulging such information could result in deportation; civil rights groups, by extension, are concerned that lack of response from those communities could result in underrepresentation in Congress and, as Mother Jones noted, less funding.
The one silver lining in all of this, some argue, is that an extremely partisan 2020 survey is less likely than before, now that Brunell is no longer on the Trump administration’s list.
“It’s breathtaking to think they’re going to make that person responsible for the census,” former Attorney General Eric Holder told Mother Jones’ Ari Berman in January, prior to news of Brunell’s departure. “It’s a sign of what the Trump administration intends to do with the census, which is not to take a constitutional responsibility with the degree of seriousness that they should. It would raise great fears that you would have a very partisan census run in 2020.”
Officials have not yet said who will take over as deputy director in Brunell’s place.