The ongoing delays before a final vote on Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general should give vulnerable Senate Democrats extra time to bite their nails.
Their leaders and donors expect them to oppose the Republican senator from Alabama. But many voters in their home states, which Donald J. Trump won, want them to support the president’s choice to run the Justice Department.
Adding to these senators’ anxieties, the National Rifle Association and National Sheriffs’ Association endorsed Sessions and announced that their legislative report cards will include the yeas and nays on his confirmation. Voters in these Republican-leaning states will scrutinize these ratings and weigh them seriously before going to the polls in November 2018.
Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs in the next mid-term election, Democrats must defend 23. Some of these are held by Democratic stalwarts in Left-wing states — Maryland’s Ben Cardin and California’s Dianne Feinstein, for example, have little to fear. But ten other Democrats are from states that President Trump just won, including Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, Florida’s Bill Nelson, and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow. Five more come from states won by Trump last November and by GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012: These even more precarious Democrats are Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and Montana’s Jon Tester.
It might have been easy for these donkeys in Elephantland to reject Sessions if their party’s opposition strategy had succeeded in tarring Sessions as a latter-day Governor George Wallace (D., Ala.), a genuine southern racist. Alas for Democrats, their anti-Sessions race card turned into a joker as people learned the truth about his record:
‐ Far from being a white supremacist, Sessions as a U.S. attorney helped prosecute Klansmen Henry Francis Hays and James Llewellyn ‘Tiger’ Knowles, Jr. for the 1981 kidnapping and lynching of Michael Anthony Donald, a 19-year-old black man from Mobile whom Hays targeted at random. A June 7, 1983 United Press International story cites “Jeff B. Sessions” as the federal prosecutor in this matter. According to UPI, this case suggested that “a government crackdown has begun on the Ku Klux Klan.”
‐ Once Sessions secured Hays’s and Knowles’s convictions for Donald’s murder, he ensured that Knowles received a life sentence and insisted that Hays should receive the death penalty. As Alabama’s elected attorney general, Sessions spoke out until Hays was executed in Alabama’s electric chair in June 1997. Hays thus became the first white man executed for killing a black man in Alabama since 1913.
‐ As part of this case, Sessions also secured a $7 million federal jury award against the United Klans of America, payable to Donald’s family. This massive penalty incinerated the Klan’s cash like a blazing cross. With its offices and property seized and its finances in ashes, the Alabama KKK was too broke to spread its evil.
‐ As U.S. Attorney, Sessions co-filed pleadings with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Birdie Mae Davis v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County. This marathon legal case began in 1963 and crawled through the courts until 1997. During Sessions’s four-year–long encounter with this 34-year-old litigation monster, his filings argued against the continued existence of segregated campuses in this jurisdiction. According to a fact sheet supportive of Sessions’s nomination for attorney general, a federal district court considering his 1985 brief “agreed that the school district was not yet fully integrated, and it ordered the school district to take certain corrective steps in order to achieve full integration.”
“At a time when many U.S. attorneys in the South were not always welcoming to the Civil Rights Division, Jeff Sessions was,” said retired federal prosecutor Barry Kowalski, a self-described liberal Democrat who often disagreed with Sessions. As he told CNN: “Jeff had the vision and the courage and the desire to do right.”
‐ As a U.S. senator, Sessions led the charge to grant Congress’s highest honor to civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks, who triggered the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
“For her courage and for her role in changing Alabama, the South, the nation, and the world for the better, our nation owes thanks to Ms. Parks,” Sessions said on the Senate floor in April 1999. “I hope that this body will extend its thanks and recognition to her by awarding her the Congressional Gold Medal.” Parks was so honored that June. “This medal is encouragement for all of us to continue until all people have equal rights,” she said as she accepted it at the U.S. Capitol. The front of the medal declares Parks the “Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement.”
Sessions also recognized Parks on the Senate floor upon her death in 2005 and at the 2012 centennial of her birth.
‐ As a senator, Sessions voted to confirm Eric Holder as attorney general, helping to make the fervent liberal Democrat the first black American to hold that position. As the Senate evaluated Holder, Senator Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) praised Sessions for his bipartisan backing of Holder. As Durbin commented on January 12, 2009: “My colleague, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said, ‘I think his instincts on law and order are good’ and that he was ‘disposed to support’ Eric Holder.”
During Senate debate on Holder’s nomination, Sessions said, “I have talked to him, and I believe he will be a responsible legal officer and not a politician as the Attorney General. I intend to support him.”
‐ Sessions in March 2015 literally held the hand of U.S. Representative John Lewis (D., Ga.), a true hero of the civil-rights movement, as they joined thousands of others and crossed Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. This event marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers pummeled Lewis, the Reverend Hosea Williams, and other civil-rights leaders as they led protesters across the bridge.
With the baseless case against Sessions in flames, endangered Trump-state Democrats face a choice: They can back Sessions and demonstrate that they have learned something since November 8, or they can oppose their well-liked colleague and signal that they remain hypnotized by the Democrats’ exhausted siren song about “eternal white racism.”