Twice in my more than 40 years as a newspaperman I contemplated denying the ink that runs through my blood and interviewed, unsuccessfully, for political jobs: once at the White House, for a speech-writing post in the Clinton administration, but years before that in Birmingham, Ala., to become a press aide to Sen. Howell Heflin.
Some may remember Heflin as the hefty senator with a deep Southern drawl who during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas questioned Anita Hill about her accusation of sexual harassment by Thomas. “Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex?” asked Heflin.
Heflin was parodied as the stereotypical Southern man who denigrates women. But he voted against the Thomas nomination, and Hill later said she understood what Heflin was trying to accomplish. “He was really preempting things from being asked by people in a more hostile way,” she said. “It’s a technique that was lost on us at the time.”
The late senator’s name has come up of late because he’s the reason Jeff Sessions isn’t a federal judge today. Heflin was the swing vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee when President Ronald Reagan’s nominee came before it in 1986. It was assumed that Sessions’ home-state senator, despite being a Democrat, would follow tradition and vote for him. He did not.
Heflin was moved by accusations that Sessions was a racist. As Alabama attorney general, Sessions prosecuted three civil rights activists on trumped-up voting fraud charges. They were acquitted. Sessions, who called the Voting Rights Act “an intrusive piece of legislation,” was also accused of calling a black colleague “boy” and making jokes about the Ku Klux Klan.
Heflin, a World War II Marine who had served as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, said he was struck by Sessions’ body language when asked during his confirmation hearing if he had ever said the Ku Klux Klan was “OK.” Said Heflin: “There’s no substitute for personal observation of what a witness testifies.”
His nomination doomed, Sessions withdrew his name from consideration. But in the most bitter of ironies, Sessions won Heflin’s seat when the senator retired 20 years ago, and held it until President Trump named him his attorney general. In that position, Sessions may outrank alt-right chief strategist Steve Bannon as the most dangerous member of the Trump administration.
Less than three months into the job, Sessions has confirmed the fears of many that racial insensitivity, if not racism, colors his judgment on policies that adversely impact brown and black people.
Sessions has threatened to rescind $4.1 billion in Justice Department grants to so-called sanctuary cities like Philadelphia because they have refused to hold undocumented immigrants detained by local police for minor crimes unless federal authorities present warrants for more serious charges.
Sessions says “such policies … make our nation less safe.” But there is no evidence of that. A recent study by the University of California, Riverside, and Highline College found “no statistically discernible difference in violent crime rate, rape, or property crime” in cities with sanctuary policies.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross says Philadelphia stands to lose $20 million in federal funds this year if Sessions goes through with the threat. “We need these resources for the people we protect and serve,” Ross said he told Sessions during a recent meeting on violent crime Sessions held with police chiefs. But the attorney general didn’t budge.
It is Sessions’ position that will make cities more dangerous, if immigrants fearful of family members being deported become less likely to report crimes.
Sessions is also on the wrong path by trying to scuttle agreements the Obama Justice Department made with cities where police departments and minority communities have tangled, including Baltimore, where riots broke out in 2015 after the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, while he was in police custody.
Sessions said he has “grave concerns” that Baltimore’s consent decree “will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.” What will make Baltimore less safe is continuing policies and procedures that make the police and minorities antagonists. Fortunately, a federal judge refused Sessions’ request to delay signing the Baltimore agreement.
All the consent decrees follow recommendations by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing co-chaired by former Philadelphia Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Sessions’ suggestion that the task force wasn’t mindful of the need to guard against weakening police forces is insulting to all the law enforcement personnel who participated in the program. But it also speaks to Sessions’ character.
It’s not just Sessions’ body language we need to watch, though that was good advice by Heflin; We need to carefully consider the outcome of his machinations. To this point, they seem to have more to do with maintaining a status quo in law enforcement that would do nothing to uplift or protect the lives of black and brown Americans.
Harold Jackson (@harjerjac) is editorial page manager for Philadelphia Media Network.