Sen. Jeff Sessions (R)
Elected: 1996, term expires 2014, 3rd term.
Born: Dec. 24, 1946, Hybart .
Education: Huntingdon Col., B.A. 1969, U. of AL, J.D. 1973.
Family: Married (Mary); 3 children.
Military career: Army Reserves, 1973–86.
Elected office: AL atty. gen., 1994–96.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1973–75, 1977–81, 1993–94; Asst. U.S. atty., 1975–77; U.S. atty., 1981–93.
Republican Jeff Sessions, Alabama’s junior senator, grew up in the state’s Black Belt, is the son of a country-store owner, and recalls walking to school barefoot. He graduated from Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama Law School, then practiced law in a small town near the Tennessee Valley and later in Mobile. He was appointed U.S. attorney in Mobile in 1981, at age 35, and became known as a tough, aggressive prosecutor over the next dozen years. In 1985, he was nominated for a federal judgeship but was attacked by liberals for ‘‘gross insensitivity’’ in racial matters when he prosecuted vote fraud cases. With Alabama’s Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin voting against him in the Judiciary Committee, his nomination never went to the Senate floor. In 1994, Sessions challenged state Attorney General Jimmy Evans, a Democrat who had successfully prosecuted Republican Gov. Guy Hunt the year before, and won 57%-43%. In March 1995, when Heflin announced his retirement, Sessions started running for his seat.
|Jeff Sessions (R)||1,305,383||(63%)||($3,240,151)|
|Vivian Figures (D)||752,391||(37%)||($332,007)|
|Jeff Sessions (R)||199,690||(92%)|
|Earl Gavin (R)||16,718||(8%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (59%), 1996 (52%)
In the contested GOP primary, Sessions relied on his base in southern Alabama, territory that not long ago cast almost no Republican primary votes. Long-distance carrier executive Sid McDonald spent more than $1 million on his campaign. From Birmingham north, the primary was a close race: McDonald led by 30%-29%. But in the rest of the state, Sessions led 48%-12%, for a 38%-22% statewide victory. In the runoff, McDonald extended his lead north from Birmingham, 54%-46%. But almost half the total votes were cast farther south, and there Sessions led 73%-27%, for a 59%-41% win. The Democratic nominee, trial lawyer and state Sen. Roger Bedford, was financed by trial lawyers and endorsed by key public employee unions and African-American organizations—the heart of today’s Alabama Democratic Party. In the past, Democratic primaries had turnouts of nearly 1 million, with the advantage going to moderate or conservative candidates like Glen Browder, the 3rd District representative running in the Senate primary. But only 315,000 people voted in the Democratic primary, about half of them black; Bedford led Browder 45%-29%. In the runoff, Bedford had more money and won 62%-38%. In the general election, Bedford was competitive in fundraising and seemed the better campaigner. He opposed abortion rights, gun control, and gays in the military. Sessions avoided debates and attacked the Democrat as a “Ted Kennedy” supporter, a reference to the Massachusetts liberal senator that suggested Bedford was too far to the left for Alabama. Sessions also emphasized Bedford’s role in leading a battle against tort law changes in the Alabama Senate in 1996. Sessions won 52%-45%, running best in the suburban counties around Alabama’s cities. Bedford carried the Black Belt and other rural counties.
Sessions has a very conservative voting record in the Senate. He serves on the Judiciary Committee that once rejected his nomination for a judgeship, and in 2003 complained, “I’m angry and passionate about the way the Democrats refused to let the Senate vote on these judgeships.” But Sessions also has taken on some atypical causes for a conservative. With none other than Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts liberal, he co-sponsored a bill to combat sexual assault in prisons. And he has co-sponsored bills to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for minor players in drug offenses. “I believe as a matter of law enforcement and good public policy that crack cocaine sentences are too heavy and can’t be justified,” he said. He has not always toed a partisan line on Judiciary. In 2007, he asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to make public a memo giving two of his aides power to hire and fire federal prosecutors, and he grilled Gonzales sternly on department policy on election-related crimes.
In 2006, Sessions emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of the bipartisan immigration bill sponsored by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He staunchly opposed granting immigrants who had entered the country illegally a process to achieve citizenship, which the bill established. Over the next two years, as Congress debated changes in immigration policy, Sessions was a major roadblock to proposals easing immigration restrictions. In January 2007, he got the Senate to pass a bill banning federal contracts for 10 years to contractors who do not use the e-verify system and hire illegal immigrants. Later in the year, he fought a bill that came to the floor that created a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants. He objected to a provision that 30% of immigrants be admitted on the basis of marketable skills, saying the percentage should be much higher, and he also said that immigrants with temporary legal status should be ineligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. “The American people have been clear that they want us to restore the rule of law to our immigration system before legalization programs are considered,” Sessions said. In March 2008, he succeeded in getting passed an amendment to the budget to fund completion of a fence along the border with Mexico, to impose mandatory prison terms for illegal border crossers, and to deport illegal immigrants convicted of a felony.
Although Sessions has sponsored few major bills, he has had considerable success in inserting into other legislation provisions he favors that set new federal policy. He typically targets bills that are likely to pass, an effective strategy. When the Medicare prescription drug bill came to the floor in 2003, Sessions inserted a provision for higher Medicare reimbursement for rural hospitals and threatened to vote against the final version of the bill unless it contained his provision. It did, sending $738 million to Alabama, more than any other states except Texas and Florida. The 2004 special-education bill included a Sessions provision giving school districts the authority to establish uniform discipline policies for all schools. With the retirement of New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici in 2008, Sessions may be the Senate’s leading advocate of nuclear power. “Nuclear does all four: It’s all-American, it creates high-paying American jobs, it emits no CO2, and it’s cost-effective,” he told the Birmingham News.
On the Armed Services Committee, Sessions has been a big advocate for missile defense, and has also focused on building up defense installations in Alabama. He supported the Bush administration on the Iraq war, and was one of nine senators voting against an amendment banning “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of prisoners. Along with Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, he is one of the Senate’s biggest critics of earmarks, the special provisions inserted into spending bills by lawmakers for their districts or states. Nevertheless, on Armed Services Sessions supports major projects with an impact on Alabama.
During the fight in Congress in late 2008 over government bailouts of private industries, Sessions opposed the $700 billion bill for the ailing financial markets. In November 2008, he complained in a letter to President Bush that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson “is acting as a Wall Street investment banker, allocating hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money, with no oversight and no state plan.” He opposed as well a multibillion-dollar government loan for General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, citing the fact that the foreign manufacturers with plants in Alabama weren’t seeking similar treatment. “It strikes me as unfair to our auto industry,” Sessions said. “They propose taxing Alabama’s healthy auto industry to subsidize a sick one in Detroit.”
In 2002 Sessions was opposed by Democrat Susan Parker, the state auditor and a fundraiser for colleges. She had the support of teachers’ unions, but Sessions outspent her 4-to-1 and won 59%-40%. Parker carried two Tennessee River counties in the north and 12 Black Belt counties in the center of the state, but Sessions won everything else. He raised early money in advance of the 2008 election, warding off possible challenges by prominent Democrats Artur Davis, a House member, and Ron Sparks, the state agriculture commissioner. His opponent was state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures of Mobile. Sessions raised $6.4 million and spent $3.8 million, while Figures spent $331,000. Sessions won 63%-37%.