Thirty years ago, a campaign ad suggested Jeff Sessions saw the Ku Klux Klan as a bunch of “good ole boys.”
But, as John Sharp of AL.com notes, the attacks against the then-U.S. Attorney seeking a spot on the federal bench, wasn’t from Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy who was fighting his nomination.
The 1986 ad came from Congressman Richard Shelby – who would later become one of Sessions’ colleagues and a longtime friend in the Senate.
William Stewart, professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama, says the relationship between Shelby and Sessions “definitely changed.”
Shelby, who narrowly won that 1986 election for his first term in the U.S. Senate, will likely support Sessions as he faces the Senate Judiciary Committee for a confirmation hearing on his nomination as Donald Trump‘s Attorney General – the same committee that denied Sessions’ appointment as a federal judge 30 years ago.
In a statement, Shelby called Sessions “a dear friend” of more than 20 years and “a man of great integrity.”
“I was an enthusiastic supporter of Jeff in his bid to join me in the U.S. Senate,” Shelby said. “We have been rock-solid partners in Congress ever since.”
Much has changed over the past three decades.
“The linkage of Sessions to the Klan by Shelby occurred days before the Nov. 3, 1986, election. Shelby, then a Democrat, won his first Senate term that year by defeating Republican Sen. Jeremiah Denton by a razor-thin margin of 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent.
“Denton, at the time, had backed Sessions’ nomination to the federal judiciary. The Judiciary Committee hearings proved to be a disaster at the time that battered Sessions’ reputation after his nomination was rejected amid allegations that he once called a black staffer “a boy,” that he considered the NAACP as ‘un-American’ and used criminal prosecutions to thwart voting rights for blacks.
“In addition, a colleague testified that Sessions once joked that he felt the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he learned they smoked marijuana.”
A Tuscaloosa Democrat at the time, Shelby used the comments to blast Denton in a campaign ad, angering Sessions, who told the Mobile Register the claims were “slanderous” and “absolutely false.”
“I expect the false ad to be withdrawn at once,” Sessions said in a Nov. 3, 1986, article. He demanded an apology from Shelby.
Shelby – a Republican since 1994 – now takes a decidedly different view of his one-time opponent: “Jeff Sessions’ record of standing up for all Americans and his high moral character indisputably prove that the 30-year-old claims of the past are nothing more than baseless political accusations.”