By Congressional Quarterly
In a political twist of fate, Sessions captured the seat vacated by the man who a decade earlier denied him a federal judgeship.
In June 1986, Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama cast the pivotal vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee against Sessions because of racially tinged remarks made by the attorney. The nomination never reached the Senate floor.
In the 105th Congress, Sessions will not only succeed Heflin but also take his seat on Judiciary -- which Sessions concedes holds "great irony." Sessions said the 1986 experience left him with no bitterness, but he did say he would be sympathetic toward nominees.
Sessions will also serve on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which will have primary Senate jurisdiction over an omnibus highway bill that is a top item on the 105th agenda.
A supporter of the balanced-budget amendment, Sessions in 1996 easily turned aside Democratic state Sen. Roger Bedford, who warned that Sessions would cut federal services crucial to the state. "There's still a strong feeling here that money sent to Washington doesn't come back in effective ways," Sessions said during the campaign.
Sessions' strong support of business priorities won him the support even of some Democrats, notably state House Speaker Jimmy Clark. Sessions castigated Bedford, chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, as being "very much the lapdog of the trial lawyers" for blocking a tort overhaul sought by Republicans in a state noted for its generous juries. He also attacked Bedford for his dependence on labor money to fuel his campaign.
But as was the case with other Alabama Republicans in 1996, Sessions did not highlight fiscal issues so much as social ones. "Without personal discipline and moral and religious faith, our nation's future is jeopardized," said Sessions, who first earned the support of religious political activists in the state with his advocacy of a constitutional school prayer amendment.
Sessions opposes abortion rights in most cases. He is a firm advocate of gun owners' rights. He supports spending for a strong military and campaigned on the idea of helping the economy to grow by cutting tax rates.
When the Judiciary Committee blocked his nomination in 1986, Sessions was serving as the chief federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Alabama, building a reputation through his prosecution of drug dealers. In 1994, with a corruption scandal raging in Montgomery, Sessions rode a vow to clean up the ethics mess to an overwhelming victory in the race for state attorney general.
Sessions unseated Democrat James H. Evans, who had been targeted by the GOP after putting Republican Gov. Guy Hunt (1987-93) in jail on corruption charges. This made Sessions the fair-haired boy of the Alabama GOP, which was gathering strength rapidly but still wanted figures of statewide stature.
Two years after that victory, Sessions overcame grumbling that he was breaking a promise to fill out his term to win the seat that had been held by the 75-year-old Heflin for 18 years. He was not tested much as a campaigner, neither stumping too hard nor engaging his lagging opponents in as many debates as they would have desired. Nevertheless, his victory gave Alabama two Republican senators for the first time since Reconstruction.
Sessions easily outpaced six Republican rivals to earn the nod. Sid McDonald, a former state legislator who headed up the state's largest long-distance carrier, poured about $1 million of his own money into the race and forced a runoff. But his complaints that Sessions had accepted campaign contributions from tobacco interests while his office was investigating a tobacco company were not enough to stop Sessions, who successfully defended himself against a state ethics charge that he had shared information with the company while it was under investigation.
In the general election, Bedford ran on a similarly social- conservative platform, leaving the two men to duke it out over questions of personal propriety. Sessions won that fight on points by spreading the revelation Bedford had earmarked state funds for a water line that raised the value of property he co-owned.
Bedford, in turn, accused Sessions of cronyism in his use of outside counsel in the attorney general's office. Bedford turned few votes around with his complaints about a Sessions opinion that allowed GOP Gov. Fob James Jr. to seat a political contributor on the Auburn University board of trustees.
An Eagle Scout and the son of a country store owner in Camden, Sessions was an attorney for a firm in Russellville before becoming assistant U.S. attorney in 1975. His work won him the recognition of the White House, and in 1986, President Reagan nominated Sessions to be a federal judge. But Sessions' words doomed his nomination.
According to sworn statements by Justice Department lawyers, Sessions called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union "un-American" and "communist-inspired" and said they "force civil rights down the throats of people." He also said of the Ku Klux Klan, "I used to think they're OK," until learning that some Klan members were "pot smokers."
Sessions brushed off the criticisms, saying the remarks were in jest or had been misinterpreted. Coming to Sessions defense was Sen. Jeremiah Denton, R-Ala., (1981-87) who said the nominee's comments were "distorted" or taken out of context. Denton also said Sessions was a victim of a political conspiracy stemming from his effort to prosecute blacks for voter fraud.
But Heflin opposed the nomination, saying he was unsure whether Sessions could be fair and impartial in the lifelong position of federal judge. On June 5, 1986, Heflin announced a last-minute decision to vote against Sessions in the Judiciary Committee.
© 1997, Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
Alabama - 3rd District
Bob Riley (R-Ala.)
Born: Oct. 3, 1944, Ashland, Ala.
Education: U. of Alabama, B.A. 1965.
Occupation: Auto dealer; trucking company executive; farmer.
Family: Wife, Patsy; four children.
Political Career: Ashland City Council, 1972-76; candidate for mayor of Ashland, 1976.
Capitol Office: 510 Cannon Bldg. 20515; 225-3261.
By Congressional Quarterly
With the GOP compass now pointing "true South," in certain respects Riley is a prototypical modern Republican. He hails from the South, shies from the label of "career politician" and is deeply conservative on both social and fiscal issues.
Repeating a pattern seen throughout the South in recent years, Riley in 1996 won a historically Democratic seat that Glen Browder vacated. Browder retired in order to pursue, unsuccessfully, the Democratic Senate nomination.
Like many traditional conservatives, Riley says that providing for the national defense should be the central concern of the federal government. He will be able to ply that philosophy from a seat on the National Security Committee. He will also serve on the Banking Committee.
The military has been a major source of jobs in the district and remains a big concern with Fort McLellan slated to be shut down by the 1995 base-closure commission. The district's other facility, the Anniston Army Depot, traditionally has to fight for its workload.
A number of district jobs have also been lost in recent years due to plant closings, and Riley opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement.
He has no military experience himself, but Riley has performed numerous other types of work. He owns a car dealership and a trucking company; he has also raised cattle and sold commercial and residential real estate.
Riley got entangled with one of his primary opponents, businessman B.B. Comer, over the question of whether he had ever previously sought office. Comer ran a television ad taking issue with Riley's claims to political purity, because Riley had served on the Ashland City Council during the 1970s and lost a mayoral race as well. Riley explained that he meant he had never run for an office equivalent to Congress.
Riley lists a balanced federal budget as his top priority, and he also favors an across-the-board cut in tax rates. He favors eliminating the Department of Education and supports most efforts to give states more power.
Riley drew much of his grass-roots support during the 1996 campaign from Christian activists, drawn by his strong positions on issues where politics and questions of morality intersect. He is an opponent of abortion rights and a supporter of voluntary prayer in schools. Riley opposes homosexuals serving in the military and a law granting unpaid family and medical leave to workers.
He is right in line with Republican thinking on certain other prominent issues, such as term limits, which he supports. Riley, who agreed with the GOP wisdom in the 104th Congress that sought to achieve balance in the federal budget by slowing the growth of many domestic programs, felt no need to distance himself from Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and the House GOP agenda. Gingrich and former Vice President Dan Quayle both stumped for Riley.
Riley's Democratic opponent, state Sen. Ted Little, tried to tie Riley to the less popular aspects of that agenda, particularly the notion of slowing Medicare's growth. But Little did not fully embrace the national Democratic platform himself, referring to himself as an "independent Democrat."
Riley was able to pin Little down by mocking his efforts to fashion himself as a fiscal conservative. Riley also tied Little to the issue of high-profile jury decisions in tort trials, blaming Little for the failure of a GOP tort overhaul bill to pass the Alabama Senate. In the end, Riley won the seat by a hair.
He won the Republican nomination over six other contenders, including Comer, who forced him into a runoff. Since all the candidates kept to an almost uniformly conservative line, the candidates used gimmickry to try to draw attention to themselves, including the use of nicknames and a campaigning 9,300-pound elephant.
But Riley separated himself from the pack through old-fashioned means: He raised a lot of money and stumped the district tirelessly. A devout Christian, he refused to campaign on Sundays.
© 1997, Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
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