Democrats Help Block Nominee For DOJ's Top Civil Rights Job

The nomination of Debo Adegbile, a civil rights lawyer who helped handle the appeal of a cop killer, forced Democrats to choose between infuriating law enforcement groups or angering minority voters.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. A handful of Senate Democrats joined Republicans yesterday to defeat President Obama's choice to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Debo Adegbile is a civil rights lawyer who once helped handle the appeal of a cop killer. His nomination forced a tough choice upon Democrats: Vote yes and infuriate law enforcement groups, or vote no and anger minority voters. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, the aggressive push by police unions prevailed.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: To the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nomination of Debo Adegbile was a thumb in the eye of law enforcement. Those were the FOP's exact words, in a seething letter to the White House two months ago. Because Adegbile oversaw the appeal of a man who fatally shot a police officer more than 30 years ago, the FOP said it would not forgive a yes vote on the nomination.

Executive director Jim Pasco spent weeks delivering that message to Senate Democrats.

JIM PASCO: What you have to do is read between the lines. This is extraordinarily important to us, and it's something that we'll take into consideration going forward, as we evaluate the member.

CHANG: What the largest police union in the country can do to a lawmaker - especially one in a conservative state - was not lost on Senate Democrats. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the party's No. 2, tried unsuccessfully to scrape up enough votes for Adegbile.

Was it your sense, among your colleagues, that the threat of any backlash or retaliation from law enforcement unions was a factor?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Yes, it was.

CHANG: Seven Democrats voted no on Adegbile - including Joe Manchin, of West Virginia.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN: I made a conscientious decision. Am I allowed to do that? I made a conscientious decision.

CHANG: Did the FOP reach out to you?

MANCHIN: I made a very conscientious decision based on the facts I had in front of me, OK?

CHANG: It was a decision that put him in a good place - at least, for now - with the law enforcement community. Last year, the FOP spent $165,000 on lobbying, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In Washington, that's hardly anything, but politicians still covet an endorsement from the FOP. It makes a candidate look tough on crime.

Hilary Shelton, of the NAACP, says the union preyed on the fear of Democrats in competitive states to get its way this time.

HILARY SHELTON: I think the FOP, quite frankly, was quite unscrupulous in how it leveraged a very conservative white vote to oppose an extremely capable candidate.

CHANG: And Shelton says placating that conservative white vote will mean losing black votes after opposing someone like Adegbile, because he had a strong civil rights record and extensive experience before the Supreme Court.

SHELTON: Debo Adegbile is someone that has such a long and renowned history of working for issues important to the African-American community. So when we look at this person being punished for representing an African-American that was on death row, then indeed, we should be all outraged.

CHANG: But Jim Pasco, of the FOP, says that outrage is misplaced. The fight about Adegbile wasn't about black versus conservative. It was about his representation of a cop killer, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

PASCO: You could connect the whitest, most Southern, conservative lawyer in the country to Mumia Jamal, and we'd oppose him till the last dog died.

CHANG: In fact, the intense emotional response to Abu-Jamal's case runs so deep within law enforcement, police groups say they're not even going to treat Wednesday's vote as a victory. The fight is just moving into the next phase. Michael Bouchard, of the Major County Sheriffs Association, says every Senate Democrat who voted for the nomination is going face reprisals from them, come re-election time.

MICHAEL BOUCHARD: Typically, when people are up for re-election, they like photo-ops, and they like law enforcement to be there in uniform. We're not going to be there in uniform. We're not going to be at photo-ops. We're not going to be supportive of those efforts, if we're not actively listened to.

CHANG: And they're certainly going to be turning out as many voters as they can who are sympathetic to their cause.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Correction March 6, 2014

An earlier broadcast of this interview incorrectly stated that a group of Southern Democrats joined Republicans to defeat President Obama's nominee. The Democrats weren't all from the South.

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