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Steven Dillingham (right) at a 2016 event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Ron Aira/Creative Services/George Mason University

Census Bureau nominee becomes lightning rod for debate over 2020 census

If there’s going to be a fight over President Donald Trump’s choice for the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau, it won’t be over whether Steven Dillingham has sufficient government experience: He’s led two smaller federal statistical agencies and spent several more years at other agencies. Nor will it be over his academic qualifications: He holds a Ph.D. in political science, as well as a law degree, an MBA, and a master’s degree in public administration.

Instead, the fight will be over whether Dillingham, a 66-year-old native of South Carolina and rock-ribbed Republican, is capable of steering the agency through a sea of controversy as it prepares for the 2020 census. Democrats and civil rights groups worry he will do the bidding of his political bosses and undermine the integrity of the decennial head count. But those who know him, including liberal academics, say he’s a straight shooter with good management skills and someone who doesn’t let his conservative political views interfere with day-to-day operations.

“He’s a tip-top scholar, a progressive administrator, and a very ethical guy,” says Geoff Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia, who worked under Dillingham at the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in the early 1990s but no longer stays in touch with the nominee. “I think it’s a wonderful appointment.”

A thorough vetting

The census is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as the method to allocate congressional seats among the states. The data it generates about the country’s residents are also used to determine how three-quarters of a trillion dollars in federal funds are distributed. The job of director has been vacant for more than a year, and given the official census start date of 1 April 2020, there’s universal agreement that the position needs to be filled quickly.

Even so, Dillingham, if confirmed, will be at the center of a fierce partisan debate over the future of an agency that is part of the Department of Commerce. More than two dozen cities, states, and civil rights groups have sued Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross over his March decision to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census, seeing it as a deliberate attempt to suppress the count. In addition, a funding pinch has prevented the Census Bureau from fully testing all its procedures, which include a first-ever internet response and the digital management of its half-million fieldworkers. That online emphasis also has triggered fears of privacy violations and cyber attacks that could cripple the $15 billion operation.

Some census advocates fear that Dillingham, who is not well-known in the demography community, will not have the autonomy to do his job. “It is now incumbent upon the Senate to fully and thoroughly vet Dr. Dillingham to ensure that he is committed to overseeing a fair and accurate census,” says Vanita Gupta of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, D.C. “He must not be a partisan operative or beholden to this president's political staff.”

Others, including Representative Carolyn Maloney (D–NY), fear Dillingham may share the views of his bosses on the citizenship question and other issues, and could lead the bureau down the wrong path. “Dr. Dillingham needs to reject the Administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question and if he does not, I believe the Senate should reject his nomination,” she said in a statement shortly after the nomination was announced on Wednesday.

Dillingham recruited Alpert as senior scholar soon after becoming director of BJS in 1990. The two worked to update a major BJS survey on crime victims and another on law enforcement practices, consulting widely with academics, practitioners, and other stakeholders. They made the surveys much more useful to researchers, Alpert says.

Dillingham “brought together not just those already using the surveys, but people who should be using them,” says Alpert, who studies high-risk police activities and academic partnerships with civil authorities. “He basically rebranded them, by realizing the key is to look at what’s going to happen [in criminology] in the years to come” and making sure researchers have the data to answer those questions.

Katherine Wallman was chief statistician at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) when Dillingham led the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) at the Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2011 and was impressed by his performance there. “I think he respects technical expertise, and he knows how to present technical information to a lay audience,” says Wallman, a retired career civil servant. “He has also led a statistical agency that reports to a political appointee, and that’s valuable experience.”

Making it in Washington, D.C.

Dillingham isn’t talking to the media, which is the norm for those facing Senate confirmation. And his professional career, which has taken him back and forth between the public and private sectors, makes him hard to pigeonhole.

He joined the Trump administration last summer as associate general counsel in the Office of Personnel Management and is now working in the office of Josephine “Jody” Olsen, the director of the U.S. Peace Corps. Before that, he spent 3 years as associate registrar at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he also taught a course on the economics of the sports industry.

His political roots are planted in South Carolina. He earned his law and political science degrees from USC before coming to Washington, D.C., in 1985 to be an aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was led at the time by the state’s legendary senator Strom Thurmond. Soon he had moved into the executive branch, and in 1990, under then-President George H. W. Bush, he was confirmed by the Senate as director of BJS. He left the government to practice law when former President Bill Clinton took office, but returned when President George W. Bush appointed him BTS director.

Harry Barrineau, a lawyer and retired professor of criminology at USC, co-authored a 1984 paper with Dillingham on civil liability of police officers when Dillingham was working on his doctoral degree. “A lot of people were writing about how to sue the police, but there was very little talk of how police could avoid lawsuits,” says Barrineau, who is now living in Florida. “So, we wanted to give them some advice.”

Dillingham “had political ambitions” even as a student, recalls Barrineau, who says he has not been in touch with Dillingham since he moved to Washington, D.C. “He was a real go-getter. So, I’m not surprised that he has worked his way up in government.”

Standing on principle

By law, the census director serves a 5-year term, starting in years ending in 2 and 7. The idea is to have the director see the decennial census through its aftermath and to prevent disruption during final preparations for the next census.

Dillingham’s term would run until the end of 2021. But researchers say continuity isn’t everything. It’s just as important, they add, for the head of a statistical agency to know when political forces are threatening its integrity—and to put its principles ahead of political considerations.

Larry Greenfeld, a career civil servant who worked under Dillingham at BJS and in 2001 became its director, felt that pressure after a BJS survey on racial profiling found that police were much more likely to treat minorities harshly after a stop, even though the probability of being stopped was the same for whites and people of color. “The people above me removed the second finding from my press release,” recalls Greenfeld, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. But he went ahead and posted the full study on the agency’s website—and was summarily dismissed.

“It’s really important to have a clear idea of the principles that statistical agencies must adhere to,” says Greenfeld, whose conduct was later upheld by OMB and by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s committee on federal statistics. He now consults for the Department of State on data management. “I can’t imagine the magnitude of the challenges that the census director faces. But I’m sure they are enormous.”

Alpert, who calls himself  a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, says he has no doubt that Dillingham would follow statistical best practices. But he admits that he does not know what Dillingham, who he still considers a good friend, would consider unacceptable. It’s likely Democratic senators will also want to know.

“Steve is not going to cower to the whims of this administration,” Alpert asserts. “My experience tells me he would be his own person. But he may believe it’s OK to do something that I don’t agree with. That’s the real question I would ask.”