The Senate Judiciary Committee has released a list of the witnesses who will testify at this week’s hearings on the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general, and two of them signal the GOP’s intention to tie Lynch to their criticism of Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to combat racial discrimination in voting rights and law enforcement.
Among them is Catherine Engelbrecht, a Tea Party activist who founded the group True the Vote to promote the myth of widespread voter fraud and who has clashed with Holder over his defense of voting rights, or what she calls his “radical, racialist assault on voters’ rights across America.”
Also included is David Clarke, the sheriff of Milwaukee county, who has become a Tea Party hero for his criticism of protests of racial inequality in the justice system following a series of police killings of unarmed black men.
Both have become prominent Tea Party figures by voicing the line that racial inequality no longer exists in the U.S. and that the Justice Department’s efforts to stop voter suppression laws and combat discrimination in the criminal justice system are themselves racist. The Right cast Holder as the primary villain in this narrative, and prominent Holder critics such as the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky are using some of the same arguments to attack Lynch.
Engelbrecht’s attitude toward voting rights protections was perhaps most clearly illustrated with her reaction to a bipartisan bill meant to restore the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013.
In an email to supporters, Engelbrecht claimed that the effort to restore the Voting Rights Act — one of the great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement — was in fact a “terrible race based bill” that would “exclude millions of Americans from full protection of the law — based solely on the color of their skin.” She fumed that restoring federal voting rights oversight to areas with a history of racial discrimination in election laws should be called the “Voting Rights Segregation Act.”
Engelbrecht has worked to drum up support for harsh voting restrictions that disproportionately affect racial minorities by hyping fears of widespread “voter fraud” and recruiting armies of volunteers to root out suspected fraud in their communities. These efforts haven’t exactly uncovered the evidence they’ve been looking for, although they have created hassles for legitimate voters targeted by True the Vote volunteers.
Sheriff Clarke, meanwhile, has been a leading conservative voice against protests against police brutality and racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, and has expressed outrage that President Obama and Holder have expressed some support for the protests. Clarke, who is African American, went on Fox News in November to accuse the president of fueling “racial animosity between people” by supporting the protests and even suggested that Obama was encouraging protesters to riot “with a wink and a nod.”
He also contended that Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was a “coconspirator in his own demise” because he “chose thug life.”
Clarke has ties to the radical “constitutional sheriffs” movement who believe that county sheriffs are the highest law enforcement officers in the land and have the power to defy federal laws and arrest federal officials for enforcing laws that they believe are unconstitutional. In 2013, Clarke accepted the “Constitutional Sheriff of the Year” award from the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association after he had made headlines by running radio ads encouraging his constituents to arm themselves rather than rely on calling 911 in an emergency.
Other witnesses signal the intention of Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to focus on what they argue are constitutional oversteps by Holder. Engelbrecht claims that the IRS has targeted her since she started her political activism and fellow witness Sharyl Attkinson claims that Holder’s Justice Department hacked into her personal computer. (A computer security expert reviewing Attkinson’s evidence for Media Matters said it looked more like a malfunction caused by a frozen backspace key.)