A Father, a Daughter, and the Attempt to Change the Census - 2019-07-12
At around half past nine on the last day of September, Stephanie Hofeller was parked at a Speedway in Kentucky, where she lives, when she got a strange sense that she should Google her father, whom she hadn't seen in more than four years. One of the first results that popped up was an obituary in the Times, which had been published six weeks before. "Holy shit," Hofeller said to a friend who was in the car with her. "My father's dead." She did some more Googling, to make sure it wasn't a hoax—given her father's notoriety, she figured it might be. "I remember feeling a lot of things," Hofeller told me recently. "It's hard to decide how you feel when you find out a parent you had that kind of deeply fraught history with is dead." She added, "I'd spent so long considering him a dangerous enemy to me and the country."
Thomas Hofeller, who died in August, at the age of seventy-five, was raised in San Diego and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. In the early eighties, after completing a doctorate in political science at Claremont Graduate University, he became the R.N.C.'s data-operations manager. In that position, he began to grasp how the redrawing of political maps could usher in a sweeping tide of Republican power in state legislatures. Congressional redistricting became his specialty; the Times obituary referred to him as "the Michelangelo of the modern gerrymander." The former congressman Lynn Westmoreland worked closely with Hofeller on Republican redistricting efforts in Georgia between 2000 and 2010. "Redistricting is the science of politics," Westmoreland told me. "It's also a blood sport for adults, because it controls ten years and it controls peoples' lives. It's the purest form of brass-knuckle politics that there is. And, of the people I worked with over many years, Mr. Hofeller was the go-to guy, the best." He added, "When you do this for forty years, as Tom did, you're not just doing it for the moment. You're trying to prepare for legal challenges, to anticipate what changes could be made, population growth and decline, the winds of the political environment in states and districts. Tom, he understood it all."
Hofeller preferred to keep the details of his work private and to avoid paper trails. "E-mails are the tool of the devil," he explained to fellow-operatives. Still, he did leave some documentation behind. About a week and a half after Stephanie learned of her father's death, she made a trip to her parents' retirement home, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her mother, Kathleen, still lives, looking for keepsakes. She later described the visit in a deposition for a lawsuit concerning legislative redistricting in North Carolina. In her father's bedroom, she found a jewelry box, which had been hers as a child. She also found four external hard drives and eighteen thumb drives that had belonged to her father. One of the drives was labelled "NC Data." Hofeller took the drives to the hotel where she was staying and began to scan the contents of the devices, which contained some seventy-five thousand files. She found early photographs of her two children—buried treasure, she called them in the deposition—and a music recording that she'd made, as well as letters she'd written. She also found a number of files related to her father's work.