The late Ted Kennedy and John McCain are often referred to as the last “lions” of the Senate whose voices reverberated large over famous policy rumbles in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
Had Jeff Sessions remained in the Senate, his roar would arguably be among the loudest in defense of President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda. Revered by conservative media personalities and social conservative groups like the Family Research Council, Sessions is often recognized as the mastermind behind Trump’s policies on international trade, border enforcement and policing. He was the first senator to endorse Trump in 2016 and became an influential figure in the future president’s successful run at the White House. As a result he got his dream job – Attorney General.
Sessions has never lost a political race. Six years ago, he ran unopposed for his former seat.
And then recusal happened.
“If Sessions had kept his Senate office and not joined Trump’s cabinet in 2017, the 2020 U.S. Senate race probably would have been an easy re-election race,” said Phillip Rawls, a retired journalism professor at Auburn University who covered state politics for years as a reporter with The Associated Press. “Instead, Sessions joined a long list of allies who ended up on the president’s wrong side.”
Sessions, as the nation’s 84th attorney general, recused himself early in 2017 from the Russian investigation into the 2016 presidential campaign over concerns about impartiality given his role as an adviser in the Trump campaign.
An independent investigation, headed up by special counsel Robert Mueller, threatened to unravel Trump’s presidency and the president has never forgiven Sessions.
The ill-will has continued: Trump is endorsing former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville ahead of Tuesday’s Republican runoff for the Senate, while slamming the former attorney general on Twitter
Trump enjoys some of his highest approval ratings in ruby red Alabama, and his support of Tuberville has made a difference as polls show the former coach leading Sessions ahead of the crucial runoff election. The winner faces Democratic incumbent Senator Doug Jones in what could be a brutal and expensive campaign before the Nov. 3 general election. Jones is awash in campaign money with over $8 million as he faces an uphill battle to hold onto a seat that has been in Republican hands consistently for a generation. Sessions and Tuberville each have around $500,000 cash on hand.
Sessions held onto the seat from 1997-2017, and as he travels the state campaigning at county Republican functions, he’s quick to point out his experience as an advantage toward tackling the issues. He’s also comparing his background with that of Tuberville, who is a political novice that up until 2018, claimed a homestead exemption at a house in the Florida panhandle.
“He’s not been vetted,” Sessions said of the former football coach, who guided the Auburn Tigers from 1999 to 2008. “We don’t know what his political philosophy is. I think all Alabamians need to know he’s been hiding out, not answering questions and refusing to debate.”
He added, “I’ve been vetted. They’ve dug into my record more than once.”
Sessions, more than any other time in recent memory, is answering questions from journalists and the public as he seeks to whittle away at Tuberville’s lead. Sessions has been interviewed by The New York Times and on Fox News by conservative media heavyweights like Tucker Carlson who, on Tuesday, called Sessions “one of the very few politicians I do respect.” Ann Coulter has gone on Twitter to praise Sessions and slam Trump for backing Tuberville.
“He certainly stands tall among many people especially in today’s world when Republicans seem to cave in on everything once there is an ill-wind blowing toward them,” said Lou Campomenosi, who heads up the Common Sense Campaign tea party in Baldwin County.
Said Colleen Holcomb, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Eagle Forum, which is among the conservative organizations that is endorsing Sessions during the campaign: “Conservatives know from his record that we can count on Jeff Sessions to be able to hit the ground running with the wisdom these perilous times demand, especially on issues like defending our borders, protecting our civil liberties, ensuring fiscal stability and vetting judicial and Supreme Court nominees.”
Sessions remains a staunch conservative on the issues, both new and old ranging from police reforms to Confederate monuments.
He slams any suggestions to “defund” police but says police training is “very important” and is advocating for racial sensitivity courses for officers when needed. He also supports police training for de-escalation of potentially violent situations like riots and encourages police chiefs to confront explosive situations “at the soonest possible time.”
The one issues Sessions is most familiar with is immigration, and he has called immigration reform among the “most important issues” facing Congress. As a Senator, he crafted a reputation as a hardliner who opposed amnesty for undocumented immigrants when such a position wasn’t widely embraced by the Republican Party.
His former aide in the Senate, Stephen Miller, has been credited as the chief architect of the Trump Administration’s immigration plans that include the travel ban and family separations at the border.
Sessions, on the campaign trail, is attacking Tuberville for what he believes is a “weak” stance on the immigration issue, calling out the former coach for statements he made in December suggesting he would be receptive toward accepting 400,000 people from India “who are educated and well-trained” to come to the U.S. on work visas. Tuberville has since said he opposes amnesty.
Said Sessions, “He’s taking a position that is the Republican establishment position, the Wall Street and Silicon Valley position. It’s not the Trump position.”
Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University and a longtime observer of Alabama politics, said the immigration issue represents a potential political tragedy for Sessions if he loses on Tuesday. It was Sessions, Brown notes, who was touting Trump’s immigration agenda long before Trump ran for president.
“No member of the United States Senate was more vocal or energized about the immigration than Jeff Sessions and that’s before you heard of Donald Trump running for president,” said Brown. “Yet, it’s Sessions whose individual political career may be ended because he wasn’t adequately loyal toward President Trump.”
The coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the nation has also allowed Sessions more time to campaign ahead of the runoff. The original runoff date was March 31, but it was postponed in March as the pandemic first emerged as a public health concern.
Pandemic politics are likely to come to the forefront in July, as relief aid packages begin to expire. Sessions said he “would be open” to another extension of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides temporary unemployment benefits to people affected by the widespread closures and economic distress during the pandemic. The law expires on July 31.
Sessions said he believes there were flaws with the original plan that was approved by Congress in March. He said that people “who were in secure positions” were receiving relief checks that otherwise could have been utilized better for taxpayers.
“Someone working at the federal government, maybe they make $70,000 a year working for the Social Security Administration in a secured job,” said Sessions. “I don’t understand why they were given a $1,200 check. It does appear also that maintaining these high unemployment insurance payments well above normal has caused people not to want to go back when they’ve been offered the ability to return to their jobs. It incentivized them to remain out of work.”
He added, “I think every dollar needs to be carefully spent and not wasted and every single dollar has to be protected and it should advance the goals we have.”
Sessions said his past Senate experience will enable him to “push back” on major bills if improvements are necessary.
“It’s what I’ve always done,” he said, accusing Tuberville of not being prepared for the Senate scrums that could await him. Tuberville has refused to debate Sessions leading up to the runoff.
“It’s not that he rejects a debate after flatly promising to do so,” Sessions said. “It’s that he is hiding out on the issues. It’s a chicken way to run a Senate race. I don’t think he’s ready for the job and he doesn’t seem interested in the job.”
Projects of local concern
Asked to name an issue of local importance for Alabama, Sessions pointed to working alongside with Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama on providing funding for military installations and bases such as Redstone Arsenal Army Base in Madison. The North Alabama base employs up to 40,000 government and contract workers and serves as a major research and engineering center that houses the critical missile defense systems for the Pentagon.
Sessions also signaled interest of returning to the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, which takes up annual appropriations for the Defense Department that provides crucial financing the Austal USA plant’s littoral combat ship program in Mobile. Sessions once served on the committee and was part of battles with McCain over the future of the LCS program, which the late Arizona senator wanted to see replaced.
Sessions also praises the efforts of those involved, including himself as attorney general, to get the FBI to build a campus in Huntsville that will serve as a backup to the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. The project is expected to bring more than 4,000 jobs to North Alabama over the next decade.
“There are all kinds of advantages of being out of Washington,” said Sessions. “This is taxpayers’ money. It doesn’t all need to be sent to Washington D.C., which has 11 of the 20 highest income counties (surrounding it) in America.”
Sessions, who has long lived in Mobile, is also weighing in on the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project, which has crumbled under the weight of a financing plan that was backed heavily by tolling. The toll plan was widely opposed in coastal Alabama, and alternative plans haven’t been fully endorsed by local and state officials.
“An alternative plan being floated about could result in quite a reduction in costs,” said Sessions. “When you get the costs down, you only have to finance a much lesser amount. There’s a lot of difference in financing $700 million than $1.25 billion. It’s a huge difference. That’s where the tolls can be reduced.”
The original plan, estimated to cost over $2 billion, would have been Alabama’s largest infrastructure project in history. Some lawmakers are hopeful that if Trump is re-elected in November, he will focus on an infrastructure plan that he boasted about while campaigning in 2016.
“It’s part of his agenda and needs to come up soon if he’s re-elected, and I think he will be,” Sessions said. “It will provide an opportunity for extra-big projects.”
Race relations, Confederate roots
Sessions – whose full name is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, named after Jefferson Davis (the president of the Confederate States of America) and P.T. Beauregard (the Confederate general who oversaw the Battle of Fort Sumter that commenced the Civil War) – has long found himself at odds with civil rights groups and other left-leaning organizations over his views on race relations.
In fact, his only setback in public life – before he finished second during the March 3 primary behind Tuberville — occurred in 1986, when his nomination to a federal judgeship was torpedoed during a high-profile hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee amid allegations of racial bias. He was accused of referring to the NAACP and the ACLU as “un-American” and “Communist-inspired,” for making light of the Ku Klux Klan, and for calling a black U.S. assistant attorney a “boy” – a claim he has denied over the years.
Race relations continued to nag at Sessions in 2017, during his confirmation hearings for attorney general.
Cornell Brooks, then-president and CEO of the NAACP, led several sit-in demonstrations at Sessions’ offices in Alabama. Brooks and a group of demonstrators were arrested in Mobile, following a lively protest that revolved around shouts of “Reject Sessions, reject oppression.”
“We don’t see either Tuberville or Sessions taking on the issues that are near and dear to the NAACP and near and dear to Black and brown Americans,” said Bernard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP. “We are not endorsing anyone, but with what we have in the White House, we need to someone here in Alabama who will look after our interests in terms of economic, education and in terms of the criminal justice system.”
Sessions hasn’t shied away from his family’s background while on the campaign trail, especially when asked about the fate of Confederate monuments which have become a flashpoint in the wake of George Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. During a stop in Fairhope last month, Sessions said his great-grandfather was killed during the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War in 1862, leaving his great-grandmother a widow and single mother with a baby.
“This is the heritage of so many people,” Sessions said. “You can’t deny it. You can’t wish it away. It wasn’t long ago that we had segregation in our schools. We had segregation in our restaurants. We’ve moved past that. We cannot deny it happened.”
Sessions said the “eradication of every single monument that reflects anything about the Confederacy” right now is “not appropriate.”
He has been critical of Jones’ June 10 vote in the U.S. Armed Services Committee on an amendment to remove monuments and base names associated with the Confederacy within three years. Jones said the vote was bipartisan and came out of a Republican-controlled committee.
“That was an extreme thing and an emotional reaction to the woke movement that I thought was excessive,” Sessions said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to remove every symbol of the Confederacy. We know that there is a danger to judge history by perfection and demand perfection from our ancestors.”
Eagle Scout to Senator
Supporters have often referred to Sessions as “down-to-earth” and an “Eagle Scout,” which is accurate: Sessions attained the Boy Scouts’ highest honor and once displayed the organization’s famed motto, “Be prepared” on his Senate office desk.
He grew up in tiny Hybart and attended the Wilcox County schools around the same time as Governor Ivey. In 2016, Ivey, then lieutenant governor, recalled Sessions as a youth playing on a rope swing over a creek and participating in activities at Camden Methodist Church.
Sessions’ religious affiliation with the Methodist Church created controversy for him in 2018. As Attorney General, Sessions cited the Bible verse Romans 13 to legitimatize the Trump administration’s migrant policies. More than 600 Methodist clergy and church members brought charges against Sessions condemning the separation of children from families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The charges were eventually dropped.
Sessions and his wife, Mary, and have three children and six grandchildren.
It was in Mobile where Sessions rose in his legal career after receiving his Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Alabama in 1973. From 1975-77, Sessions served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.
In 1981, Sessions was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to serve as U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Southern District, a position he held for a dozen years before being elected Alabama Attorney General in 1995. He served in that post for two years before running and winning his first race at the Senate.
The 1996 Senate election was somewhat close and represented the only time Sessions faced a tough political contest. He defeated Democratic state Senator Roger Bedford by 104,000 votes, or 52.45% to 45.6%, in an election that took an advantageous turn for Sessions thanks to a powerful ad that accused Bedford of using his state Senate position to get a water line to his hunting lodge. The move, Sessions’ campaign claimed, cost taxpayers more than $4,000 in state money. Political experts called it a “killer ad” and one that Bedford struggled to respond on, according to Press-Register archives.
Rawls, the former state reporter, said he’s been wondering if Sessions would pull off a “last minute surprise like he did” during that first 1996 race, when Sessions was a 49-year-old state attorney general.
“It looked like … Bedford might win the Senate race until Sessions brought up records showing Bedford got state funds to build a water line to a hunting lodge he used,” said Rawls. “This gave Sessions the momentum to replace Democratic Senator Howell Heflin.”
Heflin was the next-to-last Democrat before Jones to win a Senate election. Heflin last won a Senate race in 1990, opting not to run during the 1996 contest. Shelby, a Democrat who won in 1992, switched to the Republican Party in 1994.
Sessions, meanwhile, cruised to re-election victories every time he ran and generated a reputation as a loyal conservative. He had no opponent in 2014.
Hedge fund revelation
Rawls said he doesn’t see a correlation with the 1996 hunting lodge revelation to recent media reports about Tuberville’s involvement with a controversial hedge fund in which his business partner pleaded guilty to investment fraud and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Said Rawls, “The hedge fund is hard for voters to understand. The water line to a hunting lodge was easy to understand.”
Tuberville was never criminally connected to the faulty business investments, but he was sued by investors in 2012. He settled the case for an undisclosed amount in 2013.
The Tuberville campaign has since said that the fraud case surprised the former coach who never “received a dime.” The campaign called Tuberville’s involvement in the investment partnership as a “big mistake” and one in which Tuberville has “paid for.”
Sessions, in recent days, is questioning Tuberville’s role with the hedge fund. He has questioned whether Tuberville was more than simply an “investor” or if he was a “managing partner” who should provide more of an explanation over what he knew about the investments.
The case, and Tuberville’s role in it, was widely reported in 2013 by multiple national outlets including ESPN.
Brown, the retired Athens State University professor, said there is now “such a short window” for Sessions to utilize the information. He said he’s not sure why the Sessions campaign waited so long to utilize opposition research to their advantage.
“If I had found a silver bullet involving Coach Tuberville’s background, I would’ve fired them long before now,” said Brown. “We have to start with the assumption that the Sessions campaign had the resources and the candidate had the skill to do opposition research. They should’ve known everything about Tommy Tuberville since he fell from his mother’s womb.”
He added, “If you run second in the first primary, you don’t run a soft-sell Mr. Rogers campaign. If need be, you go nuclear. The first rule of campaigning is to control the message and set the agenda. The Tuberville folks have been able to do that since Day 1 in the primary and up until today. The Sessions campaign has had trouble gaining traction. I’m beginning to wonder – did they do opposition research? If not, that’s foolish for that level of office.”
Republican strategists are also looking at Sessions and his campaign and are wondering why his ill-fated relationship with Trump became the campaign’s biggest issue leading to Tuberville’s polling lead.
“I wish we would’ve seen Jeff Sessions run the kind of campaign Jeff Sessions deserved from Day 1 and unfortunately that has not happened,” said Angie Stalnaker, a Republican Party strategist based in Montgomery. “Everything from his announcement throwing his hat into the race to now is less than what he deserved. The very first day he announced to now, it has been about Trump instead of Jeff Sessions and Alabama. If he made his campaign about Jeff Sessions and Alabama, we’d have a different (result) on July 14.”
Stalnaker said Sessions should have focused his campaign strategy on a message “that there is one Republican in this race and that is Jeff Sessions” and that “no one knows if Tommy Tuberville is a Republican or what he truly believes.”
Said Stalnaker, “Joe Biden and Tommy Tuberville have the same exact strategy – stay in the basement, shut the door and keep your mouth shut.”
Jonathan Gray, a coastal region campaign strategist for the GOP, said part of Sessions’ problems are “his own fault.” Gray said that it was Sessions who decided to recuse himself from the Russia investigation without first consulting the president before proceeding with the attorney general confirmation hearings in 2017.
“I think the president’s bigger anger is he would have liked to have known that from Jeff before he appointed him,” said Gray. “Jeff wants to be attorney general and he didn’t disclose to the president that fact that would have disqualified him in the eyes of the president. That’s why the president is angry. (Sessions) recused himself from something that was going to be a boulder for the president for two-to-three years. I don’t think that is fair, but I think that is where the president is coming from.”
Sessions has posted explanations for his recusal decision and has received the backing from those who believe he did the right thing from an ethical standpoint. Former Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, who received the 2019 Presidential Medal of Honor from Trump, said that had Sessions not recused himself from the investigation, Democrats would have “damaged President Trump badly.”
Young Republican leaders in Alabama are also aware of Sessions’ rationale. Among them is Alan Crisologo, treasurer with the College Republican Federation of Alabama and chairman of the Samford College Republicans.
“The recusal has been a point of contention, I guess, between the president and (Sessions),” said Crisologo. “Some people are worried about that. Looking at that (from my perspective) and from the people I’ve talked to, is that Sessions did everything required by law. I don’t see how he could have avoided that.”
He added, “”it could improve Tuberville’s numbers. But one thing younger people are looking toward is whether they will have a job coming out of high school or college. I think when younger people look at Sessions, it’s what he can do to help them get a job. He’s been pro-American in terms of jobs.”
Crisologo, who is 20, wasn’t born the year Sessions won his first election to the Senate. He’s not endorsing a candidate in the race, but he can recall his parents long supporting the veteran senator for years while his family lived in Cullman.
“There wasn’t anything he did that made us not support him back then,” he said.