Images of iconic Democrats float across the television screen: former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
“A lifetime of fighting for justice,” an announcer intones. “A civil rights champion.”
But that “champion” is none of those Democrats. It’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican nominated by President Donald Trump as attorney general.
The commercial, airing on cable news networks, advocates for Sessions’ confirmation by the Senate – but does so with misleading claims that ignore Sessions’ history of racially insensitive remarks and his scant record of civil rights achievements.
The ad’s sponsor is the 45Committee, a nonprofit affiliated with a Republican “super PAC” that supported other Republicans during last year’s primaries before falling in behind Trump in the general election. The group’s backers include several prominent Republican donors, including J. Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, and Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate.
The committee operates independently, not allowed to coordinate with candidates or campaigns. It can raise and spend unlimited amounts, and does not have to publicly disclose its donors.
During last year’s campaign, it ran commercials touting Trump as a “proven job creator.” It also aired ads decrying the “endless scandals” surrounding the Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One showed Clinton in black and white against a darkened background with the legend, “Tired career politician.”
The Sessions ad shows the senator looking on as Obama signs legislation into law and engaging in friendly conversation with Biden in the Senate chamber.
More significant, it also includes a now-famous photo of the senator standing hand-in-hand with Lewis atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during a 50th-anniversary commemoration of the so-called Bloody Sunday march. (Apparently, Trump’s Twitter denunciations of Lewis and his Atlanta-based congressional district did not preclude using his image.)
The ad notes that Sessions is a former Alabama attorney general and federal prosecutor “who worked to desegregate Alabama schools and fight for equality.”
At best, however, that claim is an exaggeration.
It dates to 2009, when Sessions told the National Review that as U.S. attorney for southern Alabama in the 1980s, he filed “20 or 30 civil-rights cases to desegregate schools and political organizations and county commissions.”
Last year, after his nomination as attorney general, Sessions listed four such cases in materials he submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among them was a lawsuit that forced Mobile to fully integrate its public schools under an earlier consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.
But under fire from Democrats, Sessions walked back even this more modest assertion. He acknowledged to the Judiciary Committee that his only role in those cases was to “support” the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Federal lawyers based in Washington filed those suits and took them to court. Although Sessions’ signature appeared on court records, it did so mostly as a formality.
Searches of public records have turned up no school desegregation cases that Sessions initiated.
Race is an unavoidable topic for Sessions, 70, who grew up in the segregated South during a tumultuous time. He was a high school senior in Camden, Alabama, about 30 miles from Selma, when Lewis and others were beaten and gassed by state troopers on Bloody Sunday. Weeks later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered two sermons in Camden, inspiring voting-rights marches on the county courthouse that the police quashed with smoke bombs, tear gas and nightsticks. Sessions, who had no black classmates until he was a college senior, has said he didn’t know about the turmoil at the time, despite widespread news coverage.
Sessions’ racial attitudes came under scrutiny in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan nominated him for a federal judgeship. Witnesses told the Judiciary Committee that, as a federal prosecutor, Sessions had jokingly praised the Ku Klux Klan, disparaged the NAACP and allegedly addressed a black lawyer as “boy.” Sessions has always denied the latter claim, but he has given varying explanations of the other remarks.
During the 1986 confirmation hearings, Sessions also came under fire for prosecuting one of the leaders of the original Selma march on vote-fraud charges in the 1980s. The trial ended with a quick acquittal, and civil rights activists still claim Sessions brought the case to suppress political activity by African-American citizens. He has defended the prosecution.
The Judiciary Committee voted down Sessions’ nomination, and he returned to Alabama. Ten years later, he won election to the Senate and at one point served as the senior Republican on Judiciary.
This time, civil rights organizations and other liberal groups continue to oppose Sessions’ nomination. They question his commitment to enforcing voting-rights and civil-rights laws.
But Sessions’ confirmation seems likely. Republicans have a majority in the Senate, and by all accounts, Sessions is personally popular even with his Democratic colleagues. The Judiciary Committee today delayed a vote on Sessions' nomination after Democratic members said they needed more time to study his record.
So the television commercial tries to motivate supporters to get in touch with lawmakers on Sessions’ behalf.
“Tell your senator,” the ad says, “it’s time for real reform.”