- President of People for the American Way
- Former Republican aide
- Played key role in smear campaign against Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork
- Pushes agenda that opposes tax cuts, school vouchers, and conservative judicial nominees
- Orchestrated massive legal campaign to swing the 2004 election to Democratic Party
Formerly a registered Republican who served as an aide to several moderate Republican office holders -- including Senators Edward Brooke (R-MA) and Dave Durenberger (R-MN) -- Ralph Neas is currently President of the lobbying group People for the American Way (PFAW). He holds a law degree from the University of Chicago and has taught law at several elite colleges.
Neas' decision to renounce the GOP in the mid-1990s dovetailed with the 1994 ascendance of a Republican congressional majority. He accounted for his professed political conversion by contending that the Republican Party that he once supported had been overtaken by an extremist leadership. "I left the Republican Party because it became the party of Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Reed," Neas said, trading his previously preferred label, "progressive Republican," for "progressive Democrat."
The historical record gives reason to believe, however, that Neas had rejected Republican ideals long before 1994.
Neas first garnered public notice in the late 1980s. Though a nominal Republican at the time, he spearheaded the famously malicious 1987 activist campaign to torpedo the Reagan administration's nominee for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork.
From 1981 to 1995, Neas served as Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), a Washington, DC-based coalition of leftwing lobbying groups that played a role in derailing the Bork nomination. (In a 1995 speech from the Senate floor, Senator Ted Kennedy, a leading Bork opponent, lauded Neas as the "101st Senator for Civil Rights.")
In 2000, when Neas became President of PFAW, he quickly set about the task of assailing the presidential bid of George W. Bush. He led PFAW's six-month review of the Supreme Court's two most notable conservatives—Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—to make the case that the election of Bush would have the effect of delivering the Court into the clutches of the extreme Right, leaving America in a position where it "would literally be courting disaster."
In a September 2000 article for The Nation magazine, Neas said that if the views of Scalia and Thomas were to become the majority on the Court, "the result on issue after issue would be a radical, reactionary shift in U.S. law." He elaborated: "Religious liberty would suffer under a Scalia-Thomas majority hostile to the principle of church-state separation. Such a Court would overturn a series of precedents protecting the rights of students to be free from religious coercion in public school settings. The floodgates would be opened to direct government funding for religious schools. The federal government would be barred from stopping the destruction of endangered species on private land. Local governments' power to protect the environment would be restricted."
Neas devoted the next few years to publicly condemning the Bush administration at every turn. In parallel with denigrating such Bush appointees as Attorney General John Ashcroft, Neas waged an activist campaign against the President's proposal to cut taxes. In Neas' calculus, high taxes are necessary to underwrite the "progressive" social legislation that he supports.
No less fierce was Neas' resistance to the Bush administration's counter-terrorism legislation. In 2003, for instance, Neas partnered PFAW with activists like actor Alec Baldwin and groups like the National Lawyer's Guild, the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Muslim American Society, in an effort to roll back the Patriot Act.
In 2004, Neas sought to prevent the reelection of President Bush. To this end, he launched an initiative called "Election Protection," a get-out-the-vote drive on behalf of the Democratic Party, recruiting volunteers and posting special monitors to guard against "voter intimidation." In addition, Neas marshaled an army of lawyers to contest the election results, dispatching 10,000 Democratic attorneys to battleground states in order to level charges of voter fraud and suppression against the Republican Party. Some 2,000 lawyers were sent to Florida alone. Filing nine lawsuits alleging everything from the disenfranchisement of minorities to inadequate ballot-counting procedures, the lawyers proceeded to challenge the election before it had even begun. Joining with the American Civil Liberties Union, Neas also sued the state of Florida to install backup systems on touch-screen voting terminals.
Neas had previously set the tone for the Election Protection campaign in his 2003 article for Alternet.org, titled "Jim Crow is Alive and Well." In that piece, he warned that Republican politicians, determined to maintain their hold on power, were gearing up to suppress voters: "With widespread predictions of a close national election ... unscrupulous political operatives will look for any advantage, including suppression and intimidation. As in the past, minority voters will be the most likely targets of dirty tricks at the polls."
Similarly, in a June 2003 speech at a "Take Back America" conference (organized by Robert Borosage, Roger Hickey, and others from Campaign for America's Future) that brought together a host of leftwing groups and activists (including George Soros)—Neas denounced the Bush administration as "the most right wing administration in modern American history." "We're going to fight back," Neas pledged, referring to leading Republicans as "schoolyard bullies."
A month after Bush's 2004 election victory, Neas remarked to columnist Arianna Huffington that the President was "committed to advancing an ideological agenda that would roll back many of the social and legal gains of the last century."
Since taking over as PFAW's President in 2000, Neas reportedly has boosted the organization's membership from 300,000 to 675,000. He also has attracted a steady flow of contributions to the PFAW sister nonprofit group, the People for the American Way Foundation.