Meet Trump’s controversial pick for a top Census job

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The arrival of two political appointees last month has sent tremors through the U.S. Census Bureau.

Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA via AP Images

Last month, the U.S. statistical science community was shocked to learn that Nathaniel Cogley had assumed the new position of deputy director for policy at the Census Bureau.

Most researchers had never heard of Cogley, a political scientist who earned a Ph.D. from Yale University in 2013 and is now on unpaid leave from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. He is one of a handful of political appointees at Census. And his newly created job title seemed out-of-place for an agency dedicated to the accurate, impartial, and timely collection and dissemination of data on U.S. demographic trends.

In a terse statement on 23 June, Census Director Steven Dillingham said Cogley would “help the Census Bureau achieve a complete and accurate 2020 Census and study future improvements.” But researchers note that nothing in Cogley’s resume—including 2 years at a fledgling English-speaking university in West Africa—suggests he has any expertise on the policy issues facing the agency.

His background has left researchers and members of Congress asking pointed questions about what role Cogley will play as the bureau completes the 2020 census. The Trump administration has taken several controversial steps to reshape the decennial exercise, including a failed attempt to add a question on citizenship. Some Democrats in Congress have even asked the administration to withdraw Cogley’s appointment.

“I think [Dillingham] owes us an explanation,” says V. Joseph Hotz, an economist at Duke University and chair of the population statistics committee of the Population Association of America. “If he feels he needs more policy insights, it raises questions about the independence of the Census Bureau as a statistical agency. What are those policy issues, and what are [Cogley’s] credentials for this position?”

The Census Bureau declined to make Cogley available to ScienceInsider to discuss his new responsibilities and how he came to work at the agency. But observers note his background includes frequent media appearances in the past year in which he voiced support for President Donald Trump and criticized Democrats for trying to remove him from office. And former colleagues say they aren’t surprised Cogley jumped at the chance to work for the Trump administration.

“He definitely comes from the right-wing of the [Republican] party. … I could see why he was attracted to a job in Washington,” says Jean Gondo Tompihe, who teaches political science at the International University of Grand Bassam (IUGB) in the Ivory Coast, where Cogley was a faculty member in 2014–15. “He’s unbelievably brilliant, and he has a big passion for politics.”

Malcolm Cross, who has taught political science at Tarleton for 30 years, says he can see why someone in the Trump administration found a spot for his colleague. “He’s friendly, courteous, and easy to deal with, and he has an attractive personality,” Cross says. “As for his politics, I’m a Christian and I also consider myself a conservative, and we found ourselves in agreement on most issues.”

Some pointed questions

This week, Cogley’s appointment got renewed public attention as a group of Democratic committee chairs in the U.S. House of Representatives asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau, to withdraw the appointments of Cogley and his deputy, Adam Korzeniewski. (Sources say that Dillingham had no advance knowledge that the two men, who had been working at Commerce headquarters since April, would be joining Census.)

Barring such a move, the legislators would like Ross to explain why he created the two positions and chose the appointees. The 13 July letter, initiated by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D–NY), the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, asks for answers by 24 July.

On 7 July, the Republican chair and ranking Democrat on the Senate spending panel that funds the Commerce Department wrote to Ross to remind him of what’s at stake: the agency’s constitutional obligation to deliver a complete and accurate count of everyone in the United States. The numbers are used to apportion the 435 members of the House across the 50 states, and to carve the nation into districts with similar populations. Census Day was 1 April, but the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the collection and analysis of those data.

“With the 4-month delay in submission of the apportionment and redistricting counts due to the pandemic, post-enumeration data processing is going to be more important than ever before,” wrote Senators Jerry Moran (R–KS) and Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH). “We expect that data processing will be free from political interference and that the highest standards of integrity and fairness will be upheld.”

This week, the House Appropriations Committee approved language in next year’s spending bill for the Census Bureau aimed at reducing any political interference. The bill would cap the number of political appointees at the agency at five; with the arrival of Cogley and Korzeniewski, Census now has six people in that category. Its previous high was four, according to Maloney’s letter, and some of those slots were filled by career civil servants.

Since coming to the Census Bureau, the two appointees have reportedly participated in numerous meetings on the agency’s operational plans, including how to track down residents who have not responded to repeated reminders to fill out the decennial census and its media strategy for reaching those hard-to-count populations. “What’s so disturbing about these appointees is that they reportedly have been spending their time in senior strategy meetings questioning the need for Census operations that focus on the hardest to reach communities,” says a senior Democratic committee aide. “Anecdotes like these cast doubt on whether they truly want to count everyone, and they represent a fundamental misunderstanding, or a complete disregard, for the Census Bureau’s mandate.  Either way, it’s disqualifying.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant on census matters and a one-time congressional staffer, says she’s also concerned about the cumulative effect on senior Census officials of such comments.

“We hear that [Census staff] are being pestered day and night, with questions that indicate a complete lack of understanding of
the agency’s methods for conducting the census,” Lowenthal says. “There’s no smoking gun yet, but many of us are worried that these top [civil servants] will get fed up and decide to leave. And that would be a disaster.”

A student of African politics

Cogley’s personal website provides only bare biographical and professional information. But academics who have worked with him paint a picture of someone who has used networking to help climb the academic ladder in a tough job market.

“The first time I met Nathaniel was after I gave a talk at Yale in 2011,” recalls Beth Whitaker, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who studies migration politics in Africa. “He was one of the graduate students who joined us for dinner.” Four years later, she says, Cogley reached out to her for help with a paper he was writing with another political scientist he had met while working at IUGB.

His co-author, John Doces, is a political economist at Bucknell University who was spending a sabbatical year at IUGB. The two had designed a survey to measure public attitudes toward immigrants, who make up 11% of the Ivory Coast’s population. The study asked about the importance of various factors—including religion, economic status, and cultural affinity—in determining whether a hypothetical immigrant should be allowed to remain in the country, become a citizen, or face deportation.

“Migration politics is a big issue there, because the country’s strong economy had attracted so many workers” from other French-speaking countries in Africa, Whitaker says. “But it wasn’t their area of expertise. I helped with the literature review and with presenting their data in a way that would be easier to understand. They invited me to be a co-author, which was very generous of them. And we got it published [in 2019] in a good journal.”

Nathaniel Cogley is the new deputy director for policy at the Census Bureau. 

Tarleton State University

It’s the only peer-reviewed publication Cogley lists on his website. Tompihe says IUGB faculty have a heavy teaching load, leaving them little time to do research. Even so, Tompihe says, he and Cogley came up with an idea for another field experiment, this one involving African electoral politics.

Cogley’s dissertation at Yale took a bite at that subject by examining why some African leaders—he interviewed 10 current and former presidents—chose to step down from office when they could have extended their tenure, while others clung to power despite laws setting term limits. Tompihe’s plan to run for mayor of a small Ivory Coast town seemed like a chance to test another hypothesis, whether voters “prefer a candidate who’s running on patronage or one who campaigns on policies and programs.”

The project was dropped when Cogley left IUGB for Tarleton in January 2016, Tompihe says. But in 2018 Tompihe collected anecdotal evidence when he ran for mayor. “I lost,” he says. “Unfortunately, policy was not attractive to voters.”

Doces says he has revived another research project, on voter attitudes toward candidates from the country’s elite class, that he and Cogley launched during their time at IUGB. Doces says Cogley told him his new job wouldn’t leave him much time to work on the paper. So they have enlisted one of Cogley’s former IUGB students, Donatien Adou, who’s now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri.

Adou, a native of Ghana, says Cogley was a superb mentor. “I was the top student in political science, and I knew I wanted a Ph.D on the way to becoming a professor. But I had no idea how to do that,” Adou says. “Professor Cogley told me to read as much as possible about a subject, and then to take an empirical path, which is the U.S. standard of research, rather than the normative approach taught by most African universities.”

Cogley, who grew up in California and earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations in 2002 from San Francisco State University, had absorbed that approach at Yale. Tompihe says Cogley’s Ivy League pedigree made him quite a catch for IUGB, which awarded its first bachelor’s degrees in 2015. But Tompihe, who was born the Ivory Coast and returned in 2014 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, and working in the United States for several years, wasn’t surprised when Cogley announced he had accepted a position at Tarleton.

“His wife is African, and he understands the culture,” Tompihe says. “But I think there were some things that it was hard for him to accept. I remember him coming back from the [Department of Motor Vehicles] one day and he couldn’t believe that the technician expected to be paid a bribe before his car could pass inspection. I told him that he had to pay, and he said, ‘Well, I’m not going to.’

“He really wanted to go back to the United States, and this was an opportunity to do that,” Tompihe adds.

From academia to Washington

Tarleton officials also loved Cogley’s Yale degree and the fact that he had worked at IUGB. “We were looking for someone in African and comparative studies, and also American government,” says Cross, a former department chair and a member of the search committee. “He was by far the best candidate for the position.”

Two years later, Cogley was named chair of the department, which spans government, legal studies, and philosophy. And while he’s not known to have published any peer-reviewed papers based on his work at Tarleton, he was starting to burnish his reputation as a political commentator. He signed up with a Dallas public relations firm, and his expertise appealed to WOWO, a talk radio station in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that airs many conservative, nationally syndicated shows. 

“He took an analytical approach to the impeachment process,” says Caleb Hatch, a producer and news anchor at WOWO. “We had someone from the local university who would talk about Indiana politics, but Cogley could talk about the constitutional issues.”

Those appearances made an impression on Marcie Reynolds, who began teaching at Tarleton after receiving her Ph.D. in 2017 and now holds a tenure-track position. “My field is American politics, and his is international politics, so we don’t overlap in terms of courses,” Reynolds says. “But he has gained a national reputation on issues like immigration and impeachment through his work on the radio and in newspaper columns.”

Cogley is on unpaid leave for the fall semester, according to Cecilia Jacobs, Tarleton’s assistant vice president for marketing and communications. And his colleagues say his departure in April for Washington, D.C., was sudden and unexpected.

“It was quite a rush,” Reynolds recalls. “He was hired on a Thursday, and he said he had to report [to the Commerce Department] on Monday.”

Cross wasn’t aware that Cogley
“was in the running” for a position with the federal government and doesn’t know what the job entails. But he’s sure Cogley can handle it.

“He has the ability to master whatever subject matter he is facing,” Cross says. “I have zero doubt that he will do the job well.”

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