WASHINGTON — Confirmation of a US attorney nominee normally is automatic and uneventful, but the choice of Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins for the top federal law enforcement job in Massachusetts has sparked criticism from a Republican senator that has forced her Democratic backers to scramble for support ahead of a key Thursday vote.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said Wednesday he was hopeful that his panel would approve Rollins’s historic nomination to be the first Black woman US attorney for Massachusetts despite opposition organized by Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
“We’re prepared to defend her,” said Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. “She’s a very good candidate.”
But the outcome of the committee vote was uncertain amid last-minute lobbying by supporters and opponents. It included efforts by Katie Lawson, the Dorchester woman who says Rollins threatened her while exiting the South Bay Center mall last December. Lawson has been e-mailing and calling senators urging a no vote, alleging that Rollins inappropriately flashed her blue lights and activated her siren as they were both leaving the mall.
“She should be held accountable for her actions,” Lawson told the Globe. “She doesn’t get to do whatever she wants to everybody.”
Rollins denied the allegations. She said Lawson was driving the wrong way and she thought she would hit her. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and the state ethics commission cleared Rollins of any wrongdoing.
Lawson said that a staffer for Cotton reached out to her in July and that she provided his office tapes and other material. But Lawson said her outreach to senators was on her own. Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler confirmed the senator’s staff contacted Lawson.
Cotton has been critical of Rollins’ policies as a criminal justice reformer and forced an unusual delay in her committee confirmation vote, which was scheduled for last week, to press his colleagues to oppose her.
A committee aide said no Democrats were expected to oppose Rollins. But the committee’s membership is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, so the vote could end up tied 11-11 if all Republicans oppose her. Such an outcome wouldn’t derail Rollins confirmation, but would delay it. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would have to hold an additional vote by the full Senate just to bring up her nomination. That vote, and Rollins confirmation, only requires a simple majority.
Rollins has the strong support of Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, who said they have been urging committee members to approve the nomination. Their work includes sharing dozens of letters of support they collected from Rollins’s fellow district attorneys, former US attorneys, law enforcement officials, and social justice advocates,
“I have spoken to several people on the committee, both Democrats and Republicans, and I am hopeful that she will receive a majority vote,” Warren said. But she acknowledged it’s been difficult to get senators to focus on Rollins’s nomination amid major legislative battles on Capitol Hill over government funding, the national debt limit, and President Biden’s domestic agenda.
Warren said she had yet to get a commitment from any committee Republicans to vote for Rollins.
“I’ve had several substantive conversations that were quite positive, but people want to go back and take a deeper look,” Warren said.
Cotton was evasive Wednesday when asked how he thought the vote would turn out.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Two days after Biden nominated Rollins in July, Cotton said he would try to block her confirmation. He linked her to Democratic policies he said have contributed to increased violent crime nationwide.
Rollins, who was elected Suffolk district attorney in 2018, has advocated for progressive reforms, such as not prosecuting several types of low-level, nonviolent crimes that she argued helped lead to overincarceration, especially for people of color. Cotton, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has said he believes the United States has an “under-incarceration problem” and he has been highly critical of Democrats on criminal justice.
Three other Republicans on the committee — John Cornyn, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham — have said they had concerns about Rollins, but their votes remained unclear, as do those from all the other Republicans aside from Cotton.
“I’m still studying it, but I’m disinclined” to support her, Cornyn said Wednesday.
The top Republican on the committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said he was aware of Cotton’s concerns but still was awaiting a staff briefing on Rollins on Wednesday. Markey and Warren urged him to “take a good look” at Rollins, and Grassley indicated it would be difficult for him to oppose a US attorney nominee supported by home state senators.
That practice normally makes US attorney confirmations routine. The seven other nominees the White House announced with Rollins in July — a diverse group that included another Black woman and four Black men — were approved en masse in a unanimous voice vote by the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 23, Markey said.
Markey said deference to Rollins’ home state senators has been part of his pitch to committee members to support her.
“We’re trying to convince the other Republican senators that she’s an excellent district attorney in Suffolk County, that her support from the law enforcement community is very strong and the prerogative of the naming of a US attorney should remain with the senators from the home state rather than changing it into something that will become much more political,” he said.