When Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton set out to place Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins in the national spotlight, he probably wasn’t looking for ways to help Rollins advance her career or her agenda.
Cotton was ostensibly trying to prevent Rollins from being confirmed as the US Attorney for Massachusetts. As far as advancing careers and political agendas, Cotton, who is eyeing the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, may have calculated that going after Rollins would have the side benefit of getting his name repeated again and again in the Boston media market. And, not to be cynical, but here is where we can note that New Hampshire is set to host the first Republican presidential primary in 2024, and 75 percent of New Hampshire’s population is in the Boston media market.
But as Cotton and others in the Senate Judiciary Committee spent an hour talking about Rollins on Thursday and then took a party-line, 11-to-11 vote on her nomination, something else quickly happened: Rollins is emerging as a nationally debated figure, and on her terms.
When Rollins first ran for district attorney, she was both an underdog and bold; she promised to change the rules and the norms of the criminal justice system. She was elected and kept her campaign promise. Soon after taking office, she issued a 65-page memo detailing how prosecutions would be reoriented, including the now-famous list of 15 low-level crimes her office would not prosecute.
It was this memo that Republicans seized upon during the committee hearing. Like others did locally two years ago, her Senate critics called her soft on crime and radical.
But here is the thing: Politics in the modern age has often been about smearing opponents and being largely unserious — as long as it plays well on cable television and social media. Facts and actual policy differences, it seems, don’t matter.
In this hearing, however, there was a refreshing element: Rollins is what she is, and everyone is on the same page on the facts and the policy.
The memo that was so often discussed, and her written answers to committee members who tried to goad her into making a political mistake, were all provided by her without apology.
To be sure, there are many who disagree with Rollins’s approach. The thing about trying out an interesting new idea is that it is an experiment. And in public life, such experiments will be debated.
And think about it: Three years ago, few said Rollins would win even a county-level race, and now her ideas are the hot topic of debate in a major US Senate committee.
It didn’t have to be this way. Rollins was up with a number of other Biden nominees for US Attorney around the country. They were all advanced to the full US Senate for confirmation by a simple voice vote without discussion.
This is the way it usually is with US Attorneys. Senators largely believe that presidents can pick their people to serve in roles like this. There hasn’t been a single roll call vote and debate on a US Attorney pick in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 28 years.
But Cotton wanted one on Rollins, not because of her qualifications but over policy differences. Because it was a tie vote, the US Senate will again have to have a roughly party-line vote to even consider bringing up the Rollins nomination. Even though Rollins was lost in the national conversation because Capitol Hill was avoiding a government shutdown and potentially passing an infrastructure bill on the same day, Rollins could soon be a nationally known name and a lightning rod of the nation’s culture wars.
In the end, the votes are there to confirm Rollins, but along the way she could also be elevated to the national spotlight and driving a national debate in ways that may surprise even her.