The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eric Holder: Hillary Clinton is the best candidate to ‘protect the Obama legacy’

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. attends his last staff meeting at the Justice Department on April 24, 2015. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Eric H. Holder Jr., the nation's first African American attorney general, said black voters can't afford to let "wistfulness" about the excitement of the historic 2008 and 2012 elections keep them from the polls this year. He has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with whom he served in President Obama's Cabinet, and he spent the weekend stumping for her in South Carolina, where black voters make up more than half of the Democratic primary electorate.

The Palmetto State, which will hold its primary on Feb. 27, was flooded with Democrats this week because of Sunday night's presidential debate.

Holder, who stepped down last year and has returned to private practice, was in Charleston on Saturday to attend the First in the South Dinner, held by the South Carolina Democratic Party, and later campaigned with Clinton at a popular annual fish fry hosted by Rep. James E. Clyburn. He sat down to talk with Post Politics on Sunday afternoon, ahead of the Democratic debate, and discussed why he thinks Clinton is best suited to "continue the great work that President Obama and his administration did." This interview has been edited for length.

What do you say to black voters who say they are not as excited about this year's election as they were about the last two?

"I think what people have to understand is that what we have to do is protect the Obama legacy. We’ve made really substantial progress in the last eight years -- it'll be eight years at the end of 2016 -- and the question is who is best situated to protect that legacy and not let the progress that we have made get rolled back. And there is no question that there are going to be attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, they sent [President Obama] a bill the week before last that he had to veto. There will certainly be efforts to counter the executive actions that he’s taken on immigration issues, when it comes to gun safety issues and his foreign policy.

"You need somebody who’s got a record on those issues that’s consistent with the positions that the president took, and Hillary Clinton is that person, there’s no question. They are in lockstep when it comes to gun safety issues. Sen. [Bernie] Sanders, quite frankly, is not. So to the extent that people are a bit of a nostalgic, wistful feeling, I think that ought to be converted into a concern for the future and for the preservation of all the great work that President Obama and his administration did."

Some voters don't think Clinton, compared to Sen. Bernie Sanders, is progressive enough.

"People have not, for whatever reason, focused on the fact that Hillary Clinton is and always has been a change agent. If you look at her record as a progressive and think about what she did early in her career at Children's Defense Fund. We can talk about here in South Carolina where she worked to make sure that kids were not incarcerated, jailed with adults. Health care -- Hillary Clinton led the fight for health care during the Bill Clinton administration. Although the overall effort wasn’t successful, the CHIP program came out of that effort.

"I think there is, from my perspective, a misperception about who she is as a political figure. There’s no question in my mind that she is a progressive, and especially if you look at the guts, the guts that she has demonstrated in taking on this gun issue. You tell me when’s the last time you saw a presidential candidate before an election say that 'I am for gun safety measures. This is one of the most important parts of my campaign.' She’s taken on the gun lobby and that’s supposed to be political suicide, and if that’s not a progressive stand, I can’t imagine what is. She’s not half-steppin’, she’s saying: I stand four-square with this president. That there’s been too much gun violence, and although I respect the Second Amendment, we have to be reasonable, logical, the American people have to be listened to and those who represent the American people, especially in our Congress, have got to get some backbone and stand up to the gun lobby, and she’s doing that.

"As you look at the relationship between Hillary Clinton and the African American community, there’ve been some who’ve expressed concerns, there's this wistfulness concerning President Obama and what I would say as a measure of reassurance to those folks is that you have to look at her record in its totality and you have to compare her to her opponents. You can't do in 30 days what she has done over 30 years. You can’t suddenly convert and express concerns about issues that matter to the African American community. I’ve known her for almost 25 years, and the concerns that resonate with the African American community and communities more generally of color, she’s been there. People now are seeing the changing demographics and seeing the need to engage with communities of color in order to have electoral success. Long before that became a political imperative, Hillary was there. And she continues to be there and that’s why I made the decision to come out and endorse her, and that’s why I’m here in South Carolina today. And I’ll be back."

What would you say to some young people, including some of those who have taken to the streets to protest the deaths of unarmed black people during encounters with police, who have lost faith in the political process?

"They ought to continue marching, continue disrupting. That's in the great tradition of Dr. King, who was maybe the best disrupter this country has ever seen and became a second founding father. The nation that came about after the civil rights movement was fundamentally different from the one that existed before. So I would urge young people to continue marching, to continue demonstrating, continue disrupting but with an aim. What is the goal and the reality is you have to work through the legislative process, as Dr. King did, as John Lewis did, as Lyndon Johnson did, to take those protest movements and convert that energy into law. Those disruptive activities resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and resulted in Barack Obama and Eric Holder. But for their sacrifices, their energy, you wouldn’t have the progress that we see now.

"And I think we made progress in the Obama administration. We're not at the place where we need to be, there’s no question about that. So the question is who does President Obama hand the ball to on January 20th of 2017? I, for one, having been in the Obama administration and worked on these issues for years would feel most comfortable if the two of them, that is Hillary and Barack Obama are sitting next to each other on that podium in January [2017]."