Top Democrat signals race will play major role in Sessions confirmation

The Senate’s number-two Democrat is signaling that President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the next attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, will face tough questions about his views on racial justice issues.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters on Wednesday that there were “elements” of Sessions’ background that “raise questions” over whether he is racially insensitive.

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“[Sessions] said several times, point blank, that this was not an issue as far as he was concerned,” Durbin said. “He believed that everybody deserved fair treatment.”

Durbin, however, declined to call Sessions racist or announce that he would oppose his confirmation.

Controversy when it comes to matters of race is nothing new for Sessions, one of Mr. Trump’s first high-profile endorsers. In 1986, his bid to become a federal judge was torpedoed by the Senate after he was accused of making insensitive remarks.

Sessions’ allies have pushed back strongly on the idea that he holds problematic views on race, and he has been endorsed by several people of color from his home state of Alabama.

“He is not a racist,” said Albert Turner Jr., the commissioner of Perry County, Alabama, in a statement endorsing Sessions on Wednesday. Turner’s endorsement is significant, as Sessions prosecuted his parents in a voter fraud case decades ago. That case, and some of Sessions’ alleged comments during it, helped sink his judicial nomination 30 years ago.

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“As I have said before, at no time then or now has Jeff Sessions said anything derogatory about my family,” Turner said. :He was a prosecutor at the federal level with a job to do.”

Durbin, however, says he is concerned by Sessions’ views on immigration and policing issues. In a face-to-face meeting the two recently had, Durbin says Sessions’ refused to commit to recommendations from an upcoming report by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division on practices by the Chicago Police Department.

Sessions has also repeatedly called for tougher enforcement of immigration laws. According to Durbin, Sessions has pledged to “follow the laws Congress passes” – something that rankled the Democrat, who wants an attorney general to use prosecutorial discretion in such cases.

The Senate is typically loath to stop the nomination of any potential appointee from the chamber. But Durbin warned that this case might be different, as the role of attorney general “requires a much bigger view of the world than any one of us would have as a United States senator.”