CAPITOL HILL - In an unprecedented display of dissent, prominent African-American Democratic lawmakers testified Wednesday in opposition to the nomination of a colleague, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be attorney general.
“If confirmed, Senator Sessions will be required to pursue justice for women, but his record indicates that he won’t,” said Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee that is considering the Sessions nomination. “He will be expected to defend the equal rights of gay and lesbian and transgender Americans, but his record indicates that he won’t. He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won’t.”
Moments later, Democratic Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, said America has made great strides towards equality and justice, “but we are not there yet. We want to go forward.
“It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be. We need someone who will stand up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who have been discriminated against,” Lewis added. “We need someone as attorney general who will look out for all of us.”
Breaking with tradition
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas took to Twitter to call Booker’s testimony “a disgraceful breach of custom.”
Booker himself acknowledged he is “breaking with Senate tradition,” but said “in the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country.”
Earlier in the day, the committee heard from a variety of Americans with unique and vastly different perspectives on the nominee, a long-serving senator from Alabama once denied a federal judgeship over allegations of a racist past. Sessions vehemently and repeatedly denied any racial prejudice in hours of testimony Tuesday.
Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, who served in the George W. Bush administration, described Sessions as “principled, intelligent, knowledgeable, thorough, modest, and thoroughly dedicated to the rule of law and to the mission of the [Justice] Department, which is to enforce the law and preserve our freedoms.”
Cornell Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), noted that the next attorney general will serve during perilous times.
“With racial divisions deepening, hate crimes rising, with state-imposed, racially-motivated voter suppression spreading in state legislatures, with police-involved shootings reduced to hashtag homicides and viral videos, it is critical that this committee examine Senator Sessions’ entire record,” Brooks said.
“The NAACP firmly believes that Senator Sessions is unfit to serve as attorney general,” he added. “Senator Sessions’ record reveals a consistent disregard for civil and human rights of vulnerable populations, including African Americans, Latinos, women, Muslims, immigrants, the disabled, the LGBT community and others.”
'Mischaracterized and distorted'
By contrast, the commissioner of the non-partisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Peter Kirsanow, said, “Senator Sessions’ approach to civil rights is consistent, legally sound, intellectually honest, and (he) has an appreciation and understanding of the historical bases for civil rights laws.
“Several aspects of Senator Sessions’ record unfortunately have been mischaracterized and distorted to portray him as somehow being indifferent, if not hostile, to civil rights. The facts emphatically show otherwise,” Kirsanow added.
Several witnesses spoke in opposition to Sessions based on their life’s stories.
“My father raped me at least once a week from age four to age 12. I endured psychological, verbal and physical abuse from him for years,” said Amita Swadin of Los Angeles, California. “I live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and struggle every day to be well.”
Swadin objected to Sessions initially having downplayed the significance of an infamous video that surfaced during the presidential campaign in which Trump bragged about groping women.
“It directly and negatively impacts me when people minimize sexual assault,” she said. “So to hear Senator Sessions initially say President-elect Trump’s comments do not constitute sexual assault, and then to consider him leading the Department of Justice has been incredibly worrisome.”
Mechanical engineer and Afghanistan war veteran Oscar Vazquez spoke about having been brought to the United States from Mexico as a child. President Barack Obama signed executive orders shielding hundreds of thousands of undocumented child arrivers from deportation, and Sessions has said he backs Trump’s pledge to rescind them.
“Our country’s top law enforcement officer must be someone who understands that immigrants make our country stronger,” Vazquez said. “Most Americans agree that it’s not right to deport someone who was brought here as a child – deport them to a country they might not even remember. We need an attorney general who will protect the American people from those who would do us harm, but who will also show mercy to those who deserve it.”