- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2016

Civil rights and immigration advocacy groups are blasting Sen. Jeff Sessions as the nearest thing to a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but one prominent black lawyer in Alabama says he’s no racist.

Donald V. Watkins said he first encountered Mr. Sessions during their days at law school, when the future senator was the first white student to ask him to join a campus organization — the Young Republicans.

Mr. Watkins declined, but said his interactions with Mr. Sessions throughout the years have convinced him the man President-elect Donald Trump wants to make the next U.S. attorney general is a good man.

“Jeff was a conservative then, as he is now, but he was NOT a racist,” Mr. Watkins wrote in a Facebook post in May, which he reposted Friday afternoon, just hours after Mr. Trump announced Mr. Sessions as his pick.

Mr. Watkins said he wished he’d come forward in 1986, when Mr. Sessions had been nominated to be a federal judge. His appointment was derailed by Senate Democrats, including then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden and current Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary, who said Mr. Sessions had shown racist tendencies. The late Sen. Arlen Specter, who at the time was a Republican but later switched parties, also joined in opposing Mr. Sessions.

A few years later, Mr. Watkins said he ran into Mr. Sessions in Birmingham and said he was surprised Mr. Sessions didn’t call him as a witness.

“At the end of our conversation, I told Jeff that I had failed him and myself. I should have volunteered to stand by his side and tell the story of his true character at his confirmation hearing. The fact that I did not rise on my own to defend Jeff’s good name and character haunted me for years. I promised Jeff that I would never stand idly by and allow another good and decent person endure a similar character assassination if it was within my power to stop it,” Mr. Watkins writes.

His testimony will likely matter now, as Democrats have signaled a fight over the Sessions nomination.

The same charges leveled against Mr. Sessions in 1986 — that he wrongly prosecuted civil rights workers for voting violations and showed racial insensitivity to employees in the U.S. attorney’s office — have been raised.

And Democrats said Mr. Sessions has added to his record by opposing legal status for illegal immigrants and pushing for stricter enforcement of existing laws.

“I know Senator Sessions and we work out in the gym, but the fact that he is a Senator does not absolve him from answering tough questions in the confirmation process,” said incoming Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say.”

Mr. Leahy, who was instrumental in sinking Mr. Sessions’ judicial nomination in 1986, also vowed scrutiny.

“Senator Sessions and I have had significant disagreements over the years, particularly on civil rights, voting rights, immigration and criminal justice issues,” he said — though he said Mr. Sessions will get a fair hearing in the Senate. “The American people deserve to learn about Senator Sessions’ record at the public Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.”

Members of the House were more pointed.

“If you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen, Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. “No Senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants, and people of color than Sen. Sessions.”

The Trump transition team appeared primed to battle those charges.

“When Senator Sessions was U.S. attorney, he filed a number a desegregation lawsuits in Alabama and he also voted in favor of the 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act,” transition team spokesman Jason Miller told reporters on a conference call. “He also voted to confirm Attorney General Eric Holder, and even spearheaded efforts toward awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks.”

He also pointed out that Mr. Specter eventually voiced regret for his vote against Mr. Sessions for the federal bench and said his senate colleague was an “egalitarian.”

“Even from someone who once voted against him to receive praise like that really speaks to Senator Session’s character,” said Mr. Miller. “We feel very confident that Senator Sessions has the background and the support to receive confirmation.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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