Ralph Neas

Ralph Neas

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* Former president of People for the American Way
* Former chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
* Former Republican
* Played a key role in the smear campaign against Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork

Born on May 17, 1946 in Brookline, Massachusetts, Ralph Neas earned a BA degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1968 and a 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).

Though nominally a member of the Catholic Church – an institution unequivocally opposed to the practice of abortion — Neas performed legal work on behalf of Planned Parenthood, America’s leading abortion provider, as early as the 1980s.

From 1981-1995, Neas — a longtime supporter of affirmative action as a way to “ensure equality of opportunity … in education and employment” — was executive director 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 nominally a Republican, he chaired the so-called “Block Bork Coalition” and spearheaded the famously malicious activist campaign to torpedo President Ronald Reagan’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork. Neas referred to Bork as a “serious threat” to leftwing causes like affirmative action and abortion. He even suggested that if Bork were to be confirmed, his presence on the Court would “turn back” many of the crucial gains that liberals had made since the 1960s.

In an interview which was conducted years after he had helped scuttle the Bork nomination, Neas doubled down on his original assessment of Bork. The interviewer asked: “What do you say to those folks, both then and now, who say that Bork was ‘borked,’ that there was somehow something unfair, the process became politicized, there were advertising campaigns conducted against him?” Neas replied: “If ‘borked’ means taking seriously the most important vote a Senator will ever take on a Supreme Court nomination that could determine what the law of the land will be for 20 or 30 years, he was borked. But I thought it was the Senate’s finest hour. I think it was the civil rights community’s finest hour.”

Neas’ decision to formally renounce the GOP in the mid-1990s dovetailed with the 1994 ascendance of a Republican congressional majority led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Neas accounted for his 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.” “[I]f the Reagan election had not happened,” Neas would later assert, “and there had been Democratic majorities in the House and Senate — I believe we could have addressed in the 1980s and 1990s the unfinished agenda of the civil rights movement, which [Martin Luther] King articulated in the mid ’60s and up until ’68, and that was economic opportunity for all Americans.”

As Neas in 1995 prepared to step down from his leadership post with LCCR, Senator Ted Kennedy went to the Senate floor and delivered a speech in which he lauded Neas as the “101st Senator for Civil Rights.” Kennedy also touted the role Neas had played in preventing Robert Bork’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1987: “Ralph Neas assembled and led an extraordinary nationwide coalition which successfully opposed the nomination because of Judge Bork’s hostility to protecting the constitutional rights and liberties of all Americans.”

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 — positions he continues to hold — 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,” as a 2002 PFAW report phrased it.

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, Neas 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 pledge to tirelessly “stand up … and fight.”

In January 2003, Neas celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the court declared that sodomy was constitutionally protected under the 14th Amendment: “This is a great day in the history of the American people’s struggle to make liberty and justice for all a reality. This decision has not eliminated all the barriers to full equality for gay Americans, but it takes a major step towards dismantling those barriers.”

After the death of former President Ronald Reagan in June 2004, Neas stated: “[T]o be fair to the historical record, it should be pointed out how absolutely awful Ronald Reagan’s record was in respect to civil rights, the environment, reproductive rights, and I could go on and on.”

In an August 2004 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 the upcoming presidential and congressional elections.

In an October 2004 article in People’s World, a publication of the Communist Party USA, 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 as well, Neas sought to prevent the re-election of President Bush by launching “Election Protection,” a pro-Democrat, get-out-the-vote initiative that recruited volunteers and deployed 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 that alleged 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.

Just days after President Bush’s re-election and Republican Congressional gains in November 2004, Neas lamented that “the radical right can accomplish in a four-year period what they’ve tried to accomplish for the last 40 years.” “With the change of a [Supreme Court] justice or two,” he warned, “Lawrence would be overturned and states would be allowed to criminalize sodomy.” Neas further expressed concern that because of the “radical” Bush administration, “clean water,” “clean air,” “privacy,” and “fair housing and voting” were all in jeopardy.

In December 2004, Neas remarked to columnist Arianna Huffington that President Bush was “committed to advancing an ideological agenda that would roll back many of the social and legal gains of the last century.”

Neas praised Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor following her retirement announcement on July 1, 2005, characterizing the outgoing jurist as “the most important figure on the court in recent years.” He later condemned President Bush’s nomination of O’Connor’s successor, Samuel Alito — a reputed “originalist” — and blamed Bush for surrendering to a conservative “ideological litmus test.”

In 2009, Neas became the chief executive of the National Coalition on Health Care, an alliance of organizations favoring many aspects of Obamacare and calling for greater “public investment” in health care.

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.

As of May 2015, Neas served on the board of Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), a project of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. According to InfluenceWarch.org: “[AFR] is a left-of-center political alliance of 200 left-leaning organizations seeking stricter regulations on the … financial and banking industries through greater regulatory oversight and other goals. It played a key role in developing and pushing passage of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 in partnership with … Elizabeth Warren.”

At an August 2017 event commemorating the 1966 election of former Senator Edward Brooke — the first black U.S. Senator to have been voted into office since the 1912 passage of the 17th Amendment — Neas, alluding to the recently installed Trump administration, said: “We’re in some daunting times. Our democracy right now is threatened.”

After the death of former Republican President George H.W. Bush in December 2018, Neas told the far-left publication In These Times: “The rhetoric may be gentler and kinder, but the policies of George Bush are no less dangerous and regressive than those of Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese.”

In March 2019, Neas defended former Senator Joe Biden’s record on civil rights, stating: “We disagreed on busing … but I always looked to Biden as a leader in the field of civil rights in other critical areas.”

Since at least 2021, Neas has served as senior counsel on voting rights at the left-wing Century Foundation.

In December 2021, Neas co-authored an article titled, “The First Anniversary of Donald Trump’s Big Lie: Still a Lie, but Not Going Away.” In this piece, he characterized Trump’s claims of 2020 election fraud as the types of falsehoods typically “associated with dictatorial regimes.”  Some key excerpts:

“At 11:25 on the morning of Saturday, November 7, 2020, the bellwether Associated Press called the 2020 Presidential election for Joe Biden, after determining that he had won Pennsylvania. But already the contention that Donald Trump had been denied re-election due to massive voter fraud had emerged. This false narrative, which has become aptly characterized as the Big Lie, had been preordained by Trump’s insistence prior to the election that the only way he could possibly lose would be due to fraud. And once his loss appeared imminent, he and some of his supporters initiated what became a relentless effort over the past twelve months to fan the flames of this insidious allegation.

“In recent history, the use of a ‘big lie’ as a propaganda technique is associated with dictatorial regimes—such as the former Soviet Union in the past, and Russia, China, and North Korea today—which make use of their government-controlled media and other means to project false narratives on a repetitive basis. But now, Donald Trump and his surrogates have introduced this phenomenon into our democratic system, and it has already wreaked havoc: stimulating the January 6 attack on our Capitol; forming the basis for enactment of the multitude of state laws making voting more difficult or increasing state legislative control of elections; and generally undermining public faith in our electoral system.

“Yet … Donald Trump and his supporters have utterly failed to produce evidence of the fraud that they so loudly continue to proclaim.”

In a January 2022 opinion piece that he co-authored with Republican-turned-Independent David F. Durenberger, Neas implored “moderate” Democrat Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema to join their 48 fellow Senate Democrats in supporting the elimination of the Senate filibuster rule and thereby empower their party to pass election-reform/voting-rights legislation – like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act — without a single Republican vote. The passage of such bills, said Neas, would help “save our democracy.” Wrote Neas and his co-author:

“Currently, the John Lewis bill and the Freedom to Vote Act appear to have the support of the entire Democratic Caucus. But for the bills to become law, Senators Manchin and Sinema need to do more than just side with the majority on voting rights. By coming out in support of limited filibuster reform that would allow for a 50-vote threshold to pass voting rights legislation, Manchin and Sinema can preserve the Senate’s bipartisan civil rights legacy—a defining achievement of American democracy….”

In the Spring of 2022, Neas was a Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center for the Political Future. There, he designed a course titled “Democracy at Risk: What Happened in 2021 and Where Do We Go from Here?” A course description read, in part, as follows: “Starting with the January 6th [2021] violent insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, the course examined key events, issues, and leading participants at the national and state levels, during the past year’s tumultuous debates over election fraud claims, disinformation campaigns, voter suppression initiatives, and voting rights legislation. And [it] addressed how seriously American democracy has been undermined.”

In March 2023, Neas indicated his support for the increased use of mail-in voting. “Two-thirds of polling places have impediments that make it more difficult for people with disabilities to vote,” he said. “Mail-in ballots could [make it easier] for them. “

At various times in the course of his professional career, Neas has taught courses on the legislative process at institutions like the Georgetown University Law Center, Harvard‘s Kennedy School of Government, the University of Chicago Law School, and the University of Southern California.

In recognition of his efforts on behalf of leftist agendas over the years, Neas has received awards from such organizations as Common Cause, LCCR, the NAACP, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

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