It has become clear that, at least until Donald Trump nominates a Supreme Court Justice (and quite possibly beyond that point), congressional Democrats intend to make opposition to Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as Attorney General the centerpiece of their early resistance to the new president. The talking point you will hear and read about the most is alleged racism by Sen. Sessions. However, the true reasons for the opposition are (1) his desire to enforce, rather than ignore and revamp, U.S. immigration law and (2) his color blind vision of civil rights law.
As long as Sessions has a relatively gaffe-free confirmation hearing, casting Sessions as a racist based on his views on immigration and civil rights law, coupled with stale and largely discredited allegations from more than 30 years ago, isn’t likely to endear Democrats to the voters with whom they have fallen out of favor. Indeed, it seems to me that this sort of demonizing is a big reason for the falling out.
The electorate has some sympathy both for illegal immigrants and affirmative action. But it has little sympathy for branding as racist public figures who take a hard line on these matters.
Moreover, allegations of racism against this particular public figure — Sen. Sessions — cannot be sustained. We have explained why here, among other places.
Now comes a powerful character witness to take on the racism slander. He is Donald Watkins, a prominent African-American attorney from Alabama. The Washington Times reports:
Donald V. Watkins said he first encountered Mr. Sessions during their days at law school, when the future senator was the first white student to ask him to join a campus organization — the Young Republicans.
Mr. Watkins declined, but said his interactions with Mr. Sessions throughout the years have convinced him the man President-elect Donald Trump wants to make the next U.S. attorney general is a good man.
“Jeff was a conservative then, as he is now, but he was NOT a racist,” Mr. Watkins wrote in a Facebook post in May, which he reposted Friday afternoon, just hours after Mr. Trump announced Mr. Sessions as his pick.
Mr. Watkins said he wished he’d come forward in 1986, when Mr. Sessions had been nominated to be a federal judge. His appointment was derailed by Senate Democrats, including then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden and current Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary, who said Mr. Sessions had shown racist tendencies. The late Sen. Arlen Specter, who at the time was a Republican but later switched parties, also joined in opposing Mr. Sessions.
A few years later, Mr. Watkins said he ran into Mr. Sessions in Birmingham and said he was surprised Mr. Sessions didn’t call him as a witness.
“At the end of our conversation, I told Jeff that I had failed him and myself. I should have volunteered to stand by his side and tell the story of his true character at his confirmation hearing. The fact that I did not rise on my own to defend Jeff’s good name and character haunted me for years. I promised Jeff that I would never stand idly by and allow another good and decent person endure a similar character assassination if it was within my power to stop it,” Mr. Watkins writes.
Keep in mind that Watkins’ law school encounters with Jeff Sessions took place in Alabama in the early 1970s. Those of a certain age will appreciate the sterling character of a man who would reach out to a black student in that place during that time, and will understand the lasting impression it made on Watkins.
Actually, if one reads the Washington Times story closely, it becomes clear that Senators Chuck Schumer and Patrick Leahy are, in a sense, character witnesses for Jeff Sessions:
“I know Senator Sessions and we work out in the gym, but the fact that he is a Senator does not absolve him from answering tough questions in the confirmation process,” said incoming Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say.”
Mr. Leahy, who was instrumental in sinking Mr. Sessions’ judicial nomination in 1986, also vowed scrutiny.
“Senator Sessions and I have had significant disagreements over the years, particularly on civil rights, voting rights, immigration and criminal justice issues,” he said — though he said Mr. Sessions will get a fair hearing in the Senate. “The American people deserve to learn about Senator Sessions’ record at the public Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.”
Note that both Schumer and Leahy stop well short of calling Sessions a racist. It is clear from their statements that, as I said above, their opposition is based on Sessions’ positions on substantive matters — immigration, civil rights issues, and criminal justice reform (i.e., leniency for felons).
Contrast this with the statement of Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who hasn’t worked with Sessions and, I assume, doesn’t know him well:
“If you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen, Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. “No Senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants, and people of color than Sen. Sessions.”
Senators like Schumer and Leahy will come under pressure to adopt the tone of Gutierrez, and I wouldn’t bet against them doing so. In fact, Schumer’s statement leaves the racism-alleging door open.
But given the compelling testimony of Jeff Sessions’ African-American law school classmate, along with Sessions’ record as a prosecutor and Senator, his supporters should be able to slam that door Democrats’ face.
Charging Jeff Sessions with racism may be therapeutic for his opponents, but it will neither derail the Senator nor help the Democrats shed the well-earned contempt in which mainstream voters hold them.