Debo’s Downfall

Feature: How an unlikely coalition worked together to block the Debo Adegbile nomination

Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey and Mike Fitzpatrick hold a news conference with the Fraternal Order of Police / AP

Seven Senate Democrats joined 44 Republicans on March 5 to oppose the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—a vote President Barack Obama labeled a "travesty" and pundits denounced as "racist." The bipartisan blockage arose from the unlikely coalition of a moderate Republican congressman, a popular African-American Democrat, a Tea Party senator, a powerful labor union, and a long-grieving widow.

When Obama spoke of "extremist" Republicans blocking his executive and judicial appointees, he wasn’t talking about Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Penn.). The American Conservative Union gave him a 32 rating in 2013, just four points ahead of renowned "RINO" Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine). He may be the only congressman with endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee and Sierra Club.

One issue on which he always toes the conservative line is law enforcement.

"We rely on police officers across the country to protect communities and enforce laws," he said.

That’s why he opposed Adegbile’s nomination to serve as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Adegbile led the NAACP legal team that represented convicted cop-killer Mumia abu-Jamal, before taking a job with Sen. Pat Leahy (D., VT) on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The nominee came with a certain perspective on law enforcement that would not have been helpful to building a relationship between cops and the Justice Department," Fitzpatrick said. "Adegbile was offensive to police officers everywhere given his involvement in representing an unrepentant cop killer."

Fitzpatrick comes from a family of cops. His uncle, Phil—a patrolman and poet—was killed in a shootout with robbers in New York City. That loss made it easy for him to connect with Maureen Faulkner, whose husband, Danny, was murdered by abu-Jamal in 1981. Fitzpatrick met her in 2005 when two Paris suburbs named streets after the cop killer to commemorate his status as a "political prisoner." Fitzpatrick introduced his colleagues to Mrs. Faulkner and a subsequent resolution condemning French ignorance passed with overwhelming numbers.

Resolutions, however, are symbolic: Rue Mumia still stands in Saint Denis, France. Fitzpatrick would have to spend months wooing wary Senate Republicans and reluctant Democrats to vote against Obama’s nominee even as the president was slamming as "obstructionist" those who failed to support his nominees.

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The Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights may be the most important position in the Justice Department. He prosecutes everything from hate crimes to voting laws to private sector hiring standards, college admissions and public school disciplinary practices.

"There’s not an aspect of American life that the Civil Rights Division doesn’t have its tentacles in," said J. Christian Adams, a former lawyer in the division.

Adams resigned over the department’s refusal to prosecute two Black Panthers who brandished weapons outside a Philadelphia polling place in 2008. Adams suspects that the decision came from the top: then-assistant attorney general Tom Perez, who would go on to become labor secretary. Political appointees wield more influence than career attorneys in the Obama administration, Adams said.

"They’re in weekly meetings, monitoring progress on cases, deciding which cases to litigate. They’re in charge of hiring and firing. There’s nothing that political appointees don’t influence," he said. "The head of the civil rights division micromanages every case—I witnessed it firsthand."

The nomination did not surprise Adams. Adegbile helped prepare briefs against religious freedom that the Supreme Court unanimously rejected and touted a radical racial ideology "based not on equality, but skin color," Adams said.

Robert Popper, another former civil rights lawyer in the Obama administration, agreed that Adegbile, like other Obama appointees, was out of the American mainstream.

"He’s an extremist and he fits in with the other Obama nominees and appointments," he said. "Obama has consistently nominated extreme liberals and I don’t think that’s changed. The ideology is very consistent and this appointment was an attempt to put into service an extreme ideology."

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Liberal ideology alone hasn’t thwarted previous nominations—Perez was confirmed to the Justice Department without much difficulty. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has worked to make it easier still: He pushed through the "nuclear option" in November, ending the filibustering of nominees in order to ensure the confirmation of liberal appointees on straight party line votes.

Adegbile was so radical he couldn’t muster the required votes in a filibuster-free Senate. Even liberal Democrats broke ranks.

"At a time when the Civil Rights Division urgently needs better relations with the law enforcement community, I was troubled by the idea of voting for an Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights who would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job," Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) said in a statement released after the vote.

Coons represents one of the most liberal states in the country. He faces no reelection challenge—unlike Adegbile supporters like Mark Udall (D., Colo.), Kay Hagan (D., N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D., La.), Mark Warner (D., Va.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.)—but crossed party line anyway. This nomination was different.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), who arrived to the Senate during the 2010 Tea Party wave, was passingly familiar with Adegbile when the president announced his nomination on January 6. But calls from Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and Rep. Fitzpatrick, who put him in touch with Maureen Faulkner, convinced him this was a nomination that couldn’t go through.

The Pennsylvania Republicans put Faulkner in touch with every Senate office. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.V.) credited a phone conversation with the widow for his no vote. Faulkner said she spent considerable time on the phone with North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s staff. Even a Reid staffer left her voice messages apologizing for not including her in committee hearings.

"I think it’s a travesty that Obama nominated him," Faulkner said in a phone interview. "I knew this was wrong and unjust. I needed to speak out because I wanted to explain the facts of the case to these senators."

Obama and his supporters attempted to defend Adegbile in private and public by pointing out that the Constitution affords every defendant the right to an attorney. That didn’t sit right with Seth Williams, Philadelphia’s first black district attorney and a staunch Democrat.

Williams’ staff participated in several police rallies organized by Fitzpatrick and Toomey. He also coauthored with Toomey a Wall Street Journal editorialsubtly titled "The Justice Nominee and The Cop Killer"—as the vote drew near.

"It is one thing to provide legal representation, and quite another to seize on a case as a political platform to push an extreme political attack on the justice system itself—all while championing a cop-killer," he said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon. "When a lawyer chooses that course, it is appropriate to ask whether he should be singled out for a high-level national position in, of all things, law enforcement."

The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, stated in a letter that Adegbile’s case was "based on falsely disparaging and savaging the good name and reputation of a lifeless police officer."

"Certainly any legal scholar can see the injustice and absence of ethics in this cynical race-baiting approach to our legal system," the letter said. "Your Civil Rights Division, under the direction of Thomas E. Perez and Roy L. Austin, Jr., has increasingly built obstacles to [improving relations between minorities and police] with its aggressive and punitive approach towards local law enforcement agencies. Your nominee will certainly exacerbate that growing division and distrust."

Police officers and their wives began calling politicians to urge Adegbile’s defeat.

Toomey addressed hundreds of cops in town halls and press conferences in the months leading up to the confirmation vote. He followed up with floor speeches, pointing out that Adegbile’s legal team went beyond representing Mumia to political advocacy, staging rallies and fundraising off of his name.

Mumia has been a household name on the left for years. Celebrities—including Operation Dumbo Drop actor Danny Glover, Patch Adams producer Mike Farrell, age of consent opponent Jacques Derrida, police assaulter Naomi Campbell, Andrew Cuomo ex-wife Kerry Kennedy, perennial corruption probe target Rep. Charlie Rangel (D., N.Y.), and noted whiner Gloria Steinem—have long argued that the convicted murderer is innocent.

Mumia, in other words, is big business. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s donations ticked up after Adegbile’s team took on the case in 2009. Contributions rose 26 percent between 2008 and 2010.

Maureen Faulkner doesn’t get paid for speaking engagements at college campuses or NAACP rallies. There’s no Faulkner Rue in France. At 24, she had to go back to her job at Trans World Airlines after abu-Jamal murdered her 26-year-old husband, Danny.

"Mumia shot Danny in the back, then stood over my husband and emptied his gun. He was writhing on pavement trying to avoid the bullets, so Mumia shot him between his eyes," Faulkner said.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d still be defending my husband. I could have let the chips fall [with the nomination], but I believe in truth and justice—I wasn’t going to let it happen," she said. "I thank the [Democrats] who did the right thing. The other ones didn’t take the time to look more into the case because they were scared of the truth."

Fitzpatrick recognized the ease with which politicians can dodge phone calls and made a last ditch effort to get the facts of the case before senators and their staffs. He purchased and shipped 100 copies of The Barrel of a Gun, a Mumia documentary shot by Philadelphia filmmaker Tigre Hill to every senator.

"I approached the subject willing to follow the facts. I was surprised how overwhelming the evidence was," Hill said in a phone interview. "Here in Philadelphia, people who look objectively know that Mumia killed Faulkner, but the further you get from Philly, the crazier the story gets."

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Reid scheduled the confirmation vote on March 3. Toomey and Fitzpatrick stepped up the volume of calls to swing votes. They may not have succeeded if a snowstorm didn’t postpone the vote until March 5, a delay that gave them time to circulate a letter from Mrs. Faulkner around the Senate.

"Set aside any partisan feelings you have and do the right thing today when you vote on Mr. Adegbile’s confirmation. Please spare my family and me from further pain," the letter said.

Toomey read the letter on the Senate floor about an hour before Joe Biden’s motorcade rushed to the Capitol. That’s when the Pennsylvania Republican knew victory was in sight, according to a staffer.

"They needed him for a tiebreaker and Harry Reid only calls for a vote if he thinks he has the votes," the staffer said.

He didn’t. Adegbile’s nomination was defeated 52-47. Democrats Coons, Heitkamp, Manchin, Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), and John Walsh (Mont.) joined the Republican caucus in voting the extremist nominee down.

Reid switched his vote at the last moment to "no," a procedural tactic that will allow him to bring the nomination to the floor again in the future. Fitzpatrick said he’s prepared to repeat his efforts if that day arrives.

"There are thousands of qualified attorneys that could have been nominated … that the president would nominate an individual to high public office associated with this case is surprising," he said. "When that happens, there will be people from Philadelphia willing to stand up."