Cory Booker, John Lewis put race at center of Sessions AG hearing

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WASHINGTON — Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader, said on Wednesday that the law-and-order mantra of Sen. Jeff Sessions, nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to be attorney general, harked back to an era when police officers routinely used their authority to harass and attack African-Americans.

Lewis, D-Ga., testified at the second day of hearings on whether Sessions, R-Ala., should be confirmed as attorney general. Sessions, a conservative, has a tough-on-crime reputation. But civil rights groups point to votes opposing the Violence Against Women Act and a bill making it a hate crime to attack gay people as evidence that he will not enforce all laws equally.

"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," said Lewis, who protested segregation alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was beaten severely during a march in Selma, Alabama. "The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color."

Lewis testified after Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who broke with Senate tradition and testified against one of his colleagues. He alluded to Sessions' opposition to immigration and his support for voter-identification laws that disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.

"He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won't," Booker said. "He will be expected to defend the rights of immigrants and affirm their human dignity, but his record indicates that he won't."

The unusual testimony highlights the racial undertones of Sessions' nomination. Thirty years ago, the Senate rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship over questions about his failed prosecution of African-Americans in a fraud case. He acknowledged using words like "un-American" to describe the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Since then, he has served for nearly 20 years in the Senate and, though he has staked out far-right positions, he is well liked by his colleagues and appears headed for confirmation. In a hearing on Tuesday, Senate Democrats did not launch a coordinated attack on Sessions for his views on race.

But Lewis urged senators to focus on those views. "It doesn't matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you," he said.

Sessions has said he was caught by surprise at his 1986 hearing. He went into these hearings much better prepared. African-American friends and former colleagues testified on his behalf on Tuesday and echoed the theme of his candidacy, that Sessions would enforce even those laws that he disagreed with and voted against.

Republicans have worked to rebut what they see as a smear campaign. As Lewis was about to testify, Trump transition team members circulated photographs showing Sessions and Lewis marching together over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a confrontation there between civil rights marchers like Lewis, whose skull was fractured, and police officers.


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