DURHAM, N.C. — The Rev. Lorenzo Lynch was in his living room here, surrounded by photographs of his daughter Loretta, when he first heard the news that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was stepping down and that she was on the short list of candidates to replace him.
He wasn’t surprised she was being mentioned. All the photographs of her on the wall reflect her success as a federal prosecutor, as does the pile of newspaper and magazine articles he keeps nearby. But, in Lorenzo Lynch’s mind that day, there was no chance she would actually be chosen as the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement official. Loretta Lynch is a career prosecutor with little political experience in Washington and in the highly charged position of attorney general, that could prove to be her biggest challenge in the capital.
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” he said, smiling, on a recent afternoon. “But I dismissed it. No way.”
Lorenzo Lynch, 82, a retired fourth-generation Baptist minister, grew up in the segregated South, a place where every aspect of his life was touched by Jim Crow laws, where a minister driving to other states to preach could not stop and use the bathroom.
“You were never judged on the merit,” he said. “There were no black police, no black judges, no black bankers or even clerks in the stores.”
Loretta E. Lynch grew up in a different time. But she, too, experienced remnants of the old South. She did so well on a standardized test in her mostly white elementary school that she was asked to take it again. (She scored even higher the second time.)
And in 1977, although she was the top student in her senior class, the administrators of Durham High School asked her to share the honor with two others, including a white student, to avoid the controversy they feared would follow having the first lone black valedictorian.
This week, Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is on her own in the spotlight. The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin two days of confirmation hearings Wednesday on the first African American woman nominated to be attorney general.
If confirmed, Lynch, 55, will be the first U.S. attorney to become attorney general in modern history. (The last one was William Wirt, who was attorney general under President James Monroe in 1817.) From her office in Brooklyn, where she supervises 170 lawyers, she would be moving to Washington to oversee 116,000 full-time employees, a $27 billion budget and a department that is often a lightning rod on Capitol Hill.
For much of his tenure, Holder was a regular target of Republicans’ ire and he was held in contempt of Congress for not disclosing certain documents related to a botched gun operation.
Lynch is poised to take the job at a moment of high tension between law enforcement and minority communities across the country, with the Justice Department assuming a prominent role in investigating allegations of civil rights violations and excessive use of force by some police departments.
“She will face an exceptional amount of her time responding to Congress,” said Robert Raben, a consultant and the former assistant attorney general for legislative affairs in the Clinton administration. “And a big chunk of the time is partisan and political shenanigans. With the complete control of Congress by another party, there’s maximum possibility that there’s going to be an onslaught of oversight to tie up the leadership of the department and humiliate the president.”
“The thing about being the head of the Justice Department,” added Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman under Holder, “is you never know exactly where political controversy is going to come from, but you can be certain it’s going to come.”
Loretta Elizabeth was the middle of three children born to Lorenzo and Lorine Lynch. Her mother, a soft-spoken school librarian, grew up in northeast North Carolina and picked cotton when she was young.
“I told Loretta that I picked cotton so she wouldn’t have to do the same thing,” Lorine Lynch said.
In high school, the bespectacled, curly-haired teenager not only was the top student in her senior class but also was president of the literary club, directed the senior class play and worked at a fast food restaurant in her spare time.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offered her a full scholarship for four years, but Lynch turned it down. She wanted Harvard.
“I always preached to let your children follow their dreams,” Lorenzo Lynch recalled, chuckling at the memory of her turning down the scholarship. “Sometimes, you have to take your own medicine.”
At Harvard, Lynch majored in English and American literature and loved reading Chaucer in Old English. She also was a cheerleader and charter member of the university’s first black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
“She was very serious, very quiet, hardworking and very smart,” said Sharon Malone, her sorority sister and now a prominent physician and the wife of Holder. “We were both from the South. We were at Harvard at a time when the assumption was that you were there because of affirmative action. It made you work harder. You had something to prove.”
It was in college that Lynch, who declined to be interviewed for this article, decided she wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating cum laude, she was accepted at Harvard Law School.
When she graduated from law school, Lynch and another Harvard student, Annette Gordon-Reed, joined the Wall Street law firm Cahill Gordon and Reindel as litigation associates. They and another African American woman at the firm called themselves “the triplets” and worked brutal hours.
“We often found ourselves sitting in a conference room at 3 in the morning, eating Chinese food and working on a case,” said Gordon-Reed, now a Harvard law professor. “She’s a Southern steel-magnolia-type person — very, very strong,” Gordon-Reed said. “But she’s also one of the funniest people I know.”
After six years, Lynch took a 75 percent pay cut to get more trial experience and do what she considered meaningful work. She joined one of the nation’s premier U.S. attorney’s offices, the Eastern District of New York, as a prosecutor. The office covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island; serves 8 million people; and handles cases that include cybercrime, public corruption, financial fraud, organized crime and terrorism.
Lynch quickly earned a reputation as a talented trial attorney, and her former boss in the office, Zachary W. Carter, calls her “unflappable.”
Lynch has said one of her proudest achievements came in her role as a member of the prosecution team in the highly publicized 1999 trial of New York City police officers who severely beat and sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a broken-off broom handle in a precinct bathroom.
In 1999, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recommended Lynch to head the Eastern District, and President Bill Clinton nominated her for the last two years of his presidency.
She had little time for a social life.
“You know, I don’t know if Loretta had time to court in her early years,” her father said. “She worked all the time. I used to go to see her. She came in at 9 at night. I was concerned, but I decided to keep my mouth shut.”
At the end of Clinton’s term, Lynch went back to private practice and joined Hogan and Hartson, now Hogan Lovells, as a partner.
While at Hogan, she began dating her future husband, Stephen Hargrove, who works at Showtime Networks. She brought him to Durham to meet her parents, and Lorenzo Lynch took him out for a drive one afternoon. In the car, Hargrove asked for his permission to marry his daughter.
“I said, ‘I couldn’t give you my daughter if I wanted to,’ ” Lorenzo Lynch recalled. “She’s a very independent agent.”
As President Obama was beginning his first term, Schumer called again on Lynch to discuss the U.S. attorney position in the Eastern District. “She did an amazing job the first time,” Schumer said. “When she handled cases where there was tension between police and the community, both the police and the minority community would go away raving about her. Everyone said she was fair and would always listen. . . .
“I said, ‘Your community, your state, your country needs you,’ ” Schumer recalled.
Both times she was nominated to be U.S. attorney, Lynch was confirmed unanimously by voice vote in the Senate.
As the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn the second time around, Lynch oversaw about 170 lawyers and a number of high-profile cases, including the prosecution of reputed mobster Vincent Asaro and his associates in a $6 million heist 36 years ago at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a case immortalized in the movie “Goodfellas.” She also prosecuted former representative Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who pleaded guilty in December to felony tax fraud.
“Loretta is steel wrapped in velvet, incredibly tough with a diplomatic touch,” said former associate attorney general Tony West.
In the past several years, Lynch became well known at main Justice in Washington, where she chaired a committee that advised Holder on policy decisions.
One time when Holder came to make a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lorenzo Lynch went to meet him afterward.
“I said, ‘I’m Loretta’s father, but really Loretta’s my boss,’ ” he said. “And the attorney general said, ‘No, that can’t be true.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Loretta’s my boss!’ ”
If Lynch is confirmed, her father knows exactly what he’s going to do. He will drive to a small country church where his parents are buried and place flowers on their graves. Then, he will drive 30 miles away and place flowers on the grave of his high school principal, who refused to go to an all-black car on a train ride back from Philadelphia. He was arrested and sued the railroad line.
“He was one person in my life who stood for justice,” Lorenzo Lynch said. “Just like my daughter.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.