Obama's No-Win Attorney General Decision
As President Obama decides who is next attorney general nominee will be, advocacy groups representing women, the Hispanic and African-American communities, and LGBT individuals are all jockeying to boost their favored candidates up the short list.
With just over two years left in the Obama era, this nomination has a particular urgency for these groups, as it’s one of the last chances to influence the makeup of the cabinet.
It also sets up a no-win scenario for the White House, as regardless of whom Obama picks, the choice is likely to alienate some of the central components of his Democratic coalition.
“This is important to us,” explained Denis Dison, senior vice president at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, “because there is no guarantee that there will be a friendly administration beginning in 2017."
And the clock is ticking, making it less likely that the White House can reassure its supporters by promising that more pleasing picks are on the way, like the Obama administration did when the Congressional Black Caucus complained in early 2013 that the president wasn’t living up to its promises on diversity.
And of course, the president can’t satisfy all of these groups at once.
"You have to have a lot of sympathy for President Obama, who being the president, is facing demands from all quarters,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “All of us want our agenda to be put forward."
National Hispanic Leadership Agenda Chair Hector Sanchez said that getting the White House to appoint a Hispanic nominee was a "top priority for our coalition," naming Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Rep. Xavier Becerra as among those he views as most qualified.
Hispanic American groups are already angry with Obama about his lack of promised executive action on immigration. Sanchez argued that the president has "lied" to Hispanics about his deadlines for “administrative relief” on immigration, and that one way he could "send strong signs that he cares about our community" is by appointing a Hispanic attorney general.
But, he added, "It's not one or the other. We're going to keep pushing for administrative relief too."
If the president kept Perez at the Department of Labor and nominated another Latino to the cabinet, added Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Tom Saenz, he would set a record for the number of Latinos serving in the cabinet at one time.
"At present, there are no Latinos in the leadership of the Department of Justice, it's a glaring absence," he said. "We think that it's critically important that there be serious consideration of a Latino attorney general."
Similarly, LGBT groups have been been lobbying behind the scenes, pushing for U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan to receive more serious consideration.
"We've said that selecting someone like her would be a huge milestone for the LGBT community," said Dison, of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. "It would send the message that… ability is more important that sexual orientation… It would also be signal to young people: having an out attorney general would send the signal that you could be yourself and still succeed at life."
Women’s groups certainly favor a female nominee -- U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch and former White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler are both rumored to be on the administration’s shortlist – but stress that’s not a requirement.
“Anatomy and skin color" means less to O'Neill, the president of NOW, than policies that benefit women and minorities. But she wants the president to have "strong, independent women in the mix… who can voice unpopular opinions in the White House when he is getting advice."
“We're very badly underrepresented… the more women we can have in high positions, the better,” added Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. But she downplayed her expectations, telling the Beast, "I personally think there is less pressure than you would have had at the beginning of the term because you only have two years left. Having said that, we remain hopeful.”
African-American political advocates also want a black candidate to be considered for the job. “If in the consideration and selection of who is going to be the next AG, if an African American isn't considered, given all the talent out there, like [U.S. Attorney] Loretta Lynch... that would be alarming to me,” said Pamela Meanes, president of the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest association of African-American legal professionals. “Given that there has only been one, it absolutely would be a statement that people of color are qualified to hold the position [of Attorney General]."
But the African-American community appears to be the least likely group to lash out against the president if Obama doesn’t pick one of their own.
“The civil rights community has been muted when it comes to making demands of the president, because he enjoys such huge support from African-Americans,” said political commentator and journalist Roland Martin. “So there is extreme caution from [African-American] political leadership.”
Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton was at an event with the family of Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., when he first got word that Eric Holder would be stepping down.
"I was hoping that someone was dreaming," Sharpton said. "There could not have been worse news while I standing there with those families."
The imperative among African-American advocates was not that Holder's replacement be black, but instead that he continue Holder's legacy on voting rights, racial profiling, and policing.
"It would be nice [if the nominee was African-American], but it wouldn't be required," Sharpton said. "It's important that he continues the policies that Holder began with voting rights, policing et al… Clarence Thomas healed me from just looking from a black face in high places."
The White House and Department of Justice have already reportedly narrowed the list down to just three names, according to Politico: Ruemmler, Perez and Soliciter General Donald Verrilli. The Washington Post also mentioned Lynch and former Associate Attorney General Tony West as candidates on the shortlist.
But from a purely coalitions-minded perspective, there is no easy answer, or candidate that satisfies all the major interest groups. So regardless of the choice, one thing is clear: the White House will need to manage some hurt feeling to rally their coalition through a difficult confirmation process.