Born on May 17, 1946 in Brookline, Massachusetts, Ralph Neas earned a BA degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1968 and JD from the University of Chicago Law School in 1971. In his young adulthood he was a Republican who served as a senior legislative assistant to two Republican U.S. Senators: Edward Brooke (1973-79) and Dave Durenberger (1979-80).
From 1981-95, Neas, a longtime supporter of affirmative action as a way to “ensure equality of opportunity … in education and employment,” was chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), a Washington-based coalition of leftwing lobbying groups. He first garnered public notice in 1987 when, though still a nominal Republican, he chaired the so-called Block Bork Coalition and spearheaded the famously malicious activist campaign to torpedo the Reagan administration’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork.
Neas’s decision to formally 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 which 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.”
In 1998 Neas ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for a US. House seat representing Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.
In 2000, when Neas became president of People For the American Way (PFAW) and the PFAW Foundation (posts he would hold for seven years), he began to assail the presidential bid of George W. Bush. He also led PFAW’s six-month review of the Supreme Court’s two most notable conservatives—Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—and charged that Bush, if elected, would deliver the Court into the clutches of conservative extremists, 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.” Specifically: “religious liberty would suffer”; “church-state separation” would be compromised; “the right to strike and bargain collectively” would be weakened; “laws that protect workers from sexual harassment” would be overturned; “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”; and “sensible gun-control legislation would be struck down.”
Neas devoted the next few years to publicly condemning the Bush administration. While denigrating such Bush appointees as Attorney General John Ashcroft, he waged an activist campaign against the President’s proposal to cut taxes, claiming that high taxes were necessary to underwrite “progressive” social legislation.
When the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2002 struck down the appointment of Charles Pickering, President Bush’s nominee for the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Neas tried to pillory Pickering in preparation for a possible second hearing. Indeed he produced a report that ran the gamut of spurious charges, from Pickering’s alleged dealings with a racist Mississippi organization called the Sovereignty Commission, to his putative opposition to equal voting rights, to his supposed refusal to uphold the separation between church and state, to suggestions that he was a closet segregationist with a “well-documented record of hostility toward civil rights” and a pattern of “insensitivity and hostility toward key legal principles protecting the civil and constitutional rights of minorities, women, and all Americans.”
No less fierce was Neas’s resistance to the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism legislation. In 2003, for instance, he partnered PFAW with activists like actor Alec Baldwin and groups like the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim American Society, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom, and the National Lawyer’s Guild, in an effort to roll back the Patriot Act. By Neas’s calculus, the Act was replete with provisions that “undermine our civil liberties” by promoting “ethnic and racial profiling” which “has created a culture of fear and suspicion within many immigrant communities, especially Muslim communities.”
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), Neas denounced the Bush administration as “the most right wing administration in modern American history.” He also depicted leading Republicans as “schoolyard bullies” against whom he himself would tirelessly “stand up … and fight.”
In a 2003 article for Alternet.org, titled “Jim Crow Is Alive and Well,” Neas warned that Republican politicians, determined to maintain their hold on political power, were gearing up to use “suppression,” “intimidation,” and “dirty tricks at the polls” as means of preventing nonwhite minorities from casting their ballots.
In October 2004 Neas revisited this theme by stating that: “In virtually every election, voters—particularly African Americans and other minorities—have faced calculated and determined efforts to keep them out. While poll taxes, literacy tests and the physical violence of the Jim Crow era have disappeared, more subtle, cynical and creative tactics have taken their place…. ‘Ballot security’ or ‘voter integrity’ initiatives targeting minority communities are just one often-used method of intimidating voters.”
In 2004, Neas sought to prevent the reelection of President Bush by launching “Election Protection,” a pro-Democrat get-out-the-vote initiative that recruited volunteers and posted special monitors to guard against “voter intimidation” at polling places. 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.
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.”
In September 2011 Neas was named the new chief executive of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, a Washington-based industry group representing generic drug makers and suppliers.
Over the years, Neas has often warned of the malevolence of “the radical right” which “doesn’t want us to have the money to … invest in public health care, public education, or make sure that Medicare and Social Security are solvent.”