Senate Democrats who joined with Republicans to deliver an unexpected defeat Wednesday to President Obama’s pick for a key Justice Department post got much of the initial attention. An equal number of Democrats who supported nominee Debo Adegbile, however, now face potentially withering scrutiny.
“The 30-second [attack] ads write themselves,” as one Senate aide said.
Obama’s nomination of Adegbile to be assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division drew outrage — along with respect for his skills as a litigator — because Adegbile had championed notorious cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal while a leader of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Senate observers consider at least seven Democrats to be vulnerable after backing Adegbile in the failed 47-52 vote to advance his nomination in the face of bitter opposition from national and state police groups. They are Mark Begich of Alaska, Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Mark Warner of Virginia.
Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner on a Center City Philadelphia street. The former Black Panther’s death penalty was overturned in 2011, in part through Adegbile’s legal efforts.
“This is not at all about the principle that every defendant deserves a competent attorney,” Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), who led the opposition to Adegbile, said in talking about the nomination fight in a speech Thursday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just outside Washington, D.C.:
This was always about the principle that no one should be able to make a mockery of the criminal justice system, fan the flames of racial strife in America, join a dishonest international anti-American campaign, along the way drag the family of a fallen police officer through three decades of hell and then be confirmed to a high post of the Justice Department.
As The Foundry reported Wednesday, the Democrats who voted against Adegbile included Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana.
Because he “flipped,” Coons cast perhaps the most surprising vote. Coons had supported the nomination when the Judiciary Committee on which he sits — and where Adegbile is on staff as senior counsel — advanced Obama’s nominee to the full Senate in a 10-8 party-line vote.
Then there was Manchin. Onlookers said the West Virginia Democrat was visibly moved as he presided Tuesday while Toomey made his fourth floor speech opposing Adegbile. As before, Toomey repeatedly underlined the brutality of the crime and Adegbile’s publicity-garnering willingness to portray Abu-Jamal as a folk hero at a time when the convicted murderer had no shortage of lawyers.
Manchin later asked Toomey’s office for more information about the case. Manchin also had a telephone conversation with the slain officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, who had pleaded with the Judiciary Committee to reject Adegbile.
Heitkamp, another Democrat who did not support Obama’s nominee, also appeared affected by Toomey’s presentation when she presided during an earlier floor speech, observers said.
“Sometimes it still works,” the Senate aide said of Toomey’s impassioned speeches and other time-honored tactics, such as building on a collegial relationship with Manchin.
Although scores of civil-rights groups were behind Adegbile, state and local chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police let their opposition be known. Senators more than likely heard from FOP officials in their states — whether, like Coons, they were among the seven Democrats who decided to vote against Adegbile or, like Shaheen, among Democrats who opted to stick with Obama’s politically risky choice.
In the end, the local police groups “raised hell” about the Adegbile nomination, the Senate aide said, leaving little doubt how difficult a time he would have working with them at the Justice Department. The national FOP was less consequential after backing away late last week from an earlier pledge to include the nomination vote on its legislative scorecard.
The run-up to the vote proved suspenseful as Reid moved it several times after first signaling his intent late last week, because the snowstorm Monday prevented many senators from returning to Washington. The presence of Vice President Joe Biden in the chamber, to break a possible tie, was a sign of the high stakes.
For now, Reid is not expected to seek reconsideration of the nomination — something the rules allow since he voted against Adegbile solely to reserve that right. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who is retiring this year, was a rare Democrat in his decision to take to the floor hours later to denounce the vote as one of the most “shameful” of his 30 years in the Senate.
This story was produced by The Foundry’s news team. Nothing here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation.