WASHINGTON — Led by Sen. Cory Booker, black lawmakers and civil rights advocates on Wednesday urged a Senate committee to reject the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general because of what they called his record of hostility to civil rights.
Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, disputed the assurances by the conservative Alabama Republican in a 10-hour confirmation hearing Tuesday that he would impartially enforce all laws, including those he opposes.
“Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job: To aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all of our citizens,” said Booker, who broke a Senate precedent by testifying against a colleague.
“In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions,” he said.
Also testifying against Sessions at the second day of Judiciary Committee’s hearings were Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of marches with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the Congressional Black Caucus chairman.
Speaking in favor of Sessions were former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, and Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Eight witnesses backed Sessions and seven opposed him.
With full support of the Republican majority, Sessions appears to be on track to win approval in the Judiciary Committee, on which he serves, and in the floor vote.
But hanging over both days of hearings have been Sessions’ rejection as a federal judge in 1986 over allegations of “grossly insensitive” remarks about race — which he now calls “damnable lies” — and his record of voting against measures to protect civil rights, women and immigrants.
Mukasey, a former New York federal judge, called those charges “a squalid practice.”
He said, “Of all the insidious practices that have crept into our politics in recent times, I know of none more insidious than casual and unjustified accusations of racism, smears that once leveled are difficult to wipe clean.”
Thompson, an African-American attorney, said Sessions had shown as a prosecutor and senator “a commitment to both strong law enforcement and equal justice for all.”
Canterbury praised him for his support of “law and order,” adding Session would protect police at a time when they are being hunted and targeted.
To show Sessions in a different light, the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) circulated a photograph of a smiling Sessions with Lewis in 2015 at the 50th anniversary of King-led march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Selma, Alabama.
In his testimony, Lewis spoke of the racism marchers faced and the sacrifices they made as he and others were beaten by police trying to block them.
“Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’ call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then. The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color,” Lewis said.
“It doesn’t matter whether Sen. Sessions may smile or how friendly he may be, whether he may speak to you,” Lewis said. “We need someone who will stand up and speak up . . . for the people who need help, for people who are being discriminated against.”