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How Mumia Abu-Jamal doomed Debo Adegbile in the Senate

It took just hours for the attacks to begin.


Following a morning vote on President Obama's nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, vulnerable Democrats who voted for Debo Adegbile's confirmation were already in the line of fire.

The New Hampshire GOP blasted out a statement this afternoon declaring: "SHAHEEN VOTES FOR RADICAL OBAMA NOMINEE WHO DEFENDED UNREPENTANT COP KILLER." The North Carolina Republican party issued a statement saying: "Kay Hagan Votes For Extremist DOJ Nominee Who Helped Get A Convicted Cop Killer Off The Hook."

The Adegbile vote failed 52-47 with seven Democrats plus Majority Leader Harry Reid (he voted "no" for procedural reason) opposing the nomination. It's the latest political incarnation of the long legacy of Mumia Abu-Jamal -- a journalist and former Black Panther who has become as internationally-recognized cause celebre in the 31 years since he was convicted of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Republican lawmakers seized on the fact that Adegbile, while working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, had participated in the preparation of a legal brief filed on Abu-Jamal's behalf in order to woo several Democrats in GOP-leaning states into voting against his confirmation.

The vote exposed a rift in the Democratic caucus, in which the Democratic leadership was unable to deliver the votes to confirm an Obama appointment -- despite having pushed through a rule change last year that lowered the number of votes needed for such confirmations.

The nomination angered some Democrats, who noted that the vote placed vulnerable Democratic Senators in the middle of the decades-long tug-of-war over control of Abu-Jamal's legacy between the law enforcement community and civil rights groups. That consternation only grew after the nomination failed, meaning some vulnerable Democrats had walked a political plank for not much.

Initially sentenced to death, Abu-Jamal eventually got that penalty reduced to life in prison and has continued to insist upon his innocence --branding himself as a political prisoner. He's written books and granted interviews from his prison cell, and his fight to be released has earned the support of countless celebrities, civil rights activists, and groups that focus on racial disparities in the justice system. A suburb of Paris even named a street after him.

But while his plight has been lionized by some, Abu-Jamal remains a political lightning rod and object of scorn in the law enforcement community; the Fraternal Order of Police vocally opposed Adegbile's nomination.

Abu-Jamal has been a political football before. In 2009, Van Jones' support for a new trial for Abu-Jamal was one of the things Republicans seized on while pushing for his ouster from the White House. In 2012, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched a series of robocalls against Pennsylvania congressional candidate Kathy Boockvar -- who was challenging GOP Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick for Pennsylvania's eighth district seat -- that the committee claimed "exposed her ties to convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. The calls focused on the fact that Boockvar's husband had previously served as an attorney for Abu-Jamal's literary agent -- who faced charges after being arrested while protesting the conviction.

Democrats representing red states and up for reelection in 2014 were stuck in the miserable position of choosing between defecting from their caucus by opposing an Obama nominee or voting for Adegbile and facing the potential that they would face campaign ads that alleged they supported someone who defended a cop-killer hit the airwaves. In the words of one Democratic aide: "It's a 30-second ad that writes itself."

Added Linn Washington, a Philadelphia journalist who has covered the case for three decades: "Mumia Abu-Jamal remains a convenient bogey man. It is perhaps the most well known murder case in the United States... the Republicans are going to continue to try to prove guilt by association for anyone who they can link to him. At this point, it's pattern and practice."

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Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.

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