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WASHINGTON — Starting this week Sen. Mazie Hirono will become the face of an online ad campaign that aims to get Democrats fired up about the future of the federal courts.
The advertisements will be paid for by Demand Justice, a nonprofit group led by prominent Democratic political operatives, including its executive director, Brian Fallon, who is a former press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In January, Hirono pledged to vote against President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees as a way of pushing back on his administration’s attempt to fast-track far-right conservatives for lifetime appointments.
Trump’s efforts have been supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said confirming judges is a top priority while Republicans retain control of the chamber.
Hirono, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been openly critical of the confirmation process. During a January floor speech, she laid out her misgivings.
“The American people depend on the Senate to fully consider and vet each judicial nominee because throughout the course of their lifetime appointment, judges will issue rulings and opinions that touch each of our lives,” she said.
“The process of nomination, considering and confirming judges should be a deliberate one. Its purpose should not be to confirm as many judges as quickly as possible.”
She noted that several of Trump’s nominees had received confirmation hearings before they were deemed “unqualified” by the American Bar Association.
Hirono’s stance caught the attention of Demand Justice, which is headed by Fallon.
He told Civil Beat that Hirono’s voting record — especially when it comes to opposing moves to invoke cloture, or ending the debate on a nominee and proceeding to a final vote — is exactly what he wants out of Senate Democrats.
According to statistics compiled by his nonprofit, Hirono voted against moving forward on approving Trump nominees more than any of her colleagues. Through May, she’s only voted for cloture on a Trump nominee 18 percent of the time.
“She’s the MVP on this issue, and she’s by far the most reliable opponent of what Trump and McConnell are doing,” Fallon said.
“We want to lift up what she’s doing and impose some positive peer pressure on some Democrats who say they are resisting Trump, but who are turning the other way when it comes to these hugely consequential decisions on the judges they are confirming.”
If other Senate Democrats followed along, he said, they might have an outside shot of blocking some of Trump’s picks for the federal courts.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, threatened to block Trump’s judicial nominees unless Flake can get concessions on issues related to tariffs and travel restrictions to Cuba.
Flake sits on the Judiciary Committee with Hirono, which has a partisan split of 11 Republicans to 10 Democrats, so Flake’s threats carry weight.
Fallon said his group is planning to run online ads in about 10 states, including Hawaii, to convince constituents to urge their senators to vote like Hirono.
He said the group does not plan to target Democrats who might face tough races in red states, but that it wants to sway those Democrats who might need a little nudge.
Among the states are Minnesota, Colorado, Michigan, Delaware, Virginia, California, Vermont, Illinois and Connecticut. Demand Justice will also run online ads in Washington, D.C.
Fallon said one of the reasons to advertise in Hawaii is to make sure Hirono’s constituents see what she’s doing in Washington on their behalf. Hirono is up for re-election this year, but does not face a challenger in the primary and is expected to cruise to victory in November.
“The courts are being made over in Trump’s image, which is mostly white, mostly male judges who are anti-choice, anti-environment and have a very pro-corporate view,” Fallon said.
“You’ve heard a lot of discussion on the left about the vision that progressives have — if they can regain power — about $15 minimum wage and Medicare for all,” he said. “But if we shut our eyes to the changing composition of the federal judiciary all of those policy goals will be completely vulnerable to legal challenges from Trump’s judges
The ad campaign will build on a recent profile of Hirono by NPR reporter Nina Totenberg.
The piece, titled “The Quiet Rage of Mazie Hirono,” described the Hawaii senator’s evolution from a so-called “good girl” of Hawaii politics to a “badass” due in large part to her outspokenness about Trump, who she has described as “xenophobic” and a “liar.”
The NPR story also explored her role on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a coveted assignment for those looking to make a name for themselves on the national stage.
Hirono has carved out a unique niche on the committee, and even more so in reaction to the #MeToo movement. She now asks every nominee whether they’ve ever been accused of sexual misconduct or had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
Her fiery response to Totenberg’s question about why her skepticism of Trump’s judicial nominees was any different than Republicans’ opposition to Obama’s nominees drew a lot of public reaction.
Hirono told Totenberg that she wanted fair, qualified judges who “care about individual and civil rights.”
The article then quoted the senator as adding: “If that’s considered liberal, as opposed to what I call justice and fairness, as I’m wont to say, ‘F*** them!’”
Fallon did not divulge who his financial backers are, and as a 501(c)4 “social welfare” group, Demand Justice is not required to make such public disclosures. He did say, however, that it plans spend “five figures” on advertising campaign featuring Hirono.
Eventually, he said he hopes that Democrats and progressives will be as passionate about the issue as Republicans, but he doesn’t foresee that happening in 2018.
Fallon said in 2016 many on the right “held their nose and voted for Trump” just for the opportunity to appoint more conservatives to the bench, including a position on the U.S. Supreme Court that is now held by Neil Gorsuch.
Former President Barack Obama had nominated Merrick Garland for the seat Gorsuch now holds. But McConnell and the Republican-controlled Senate blocked Garland’s confirmation until after Trump won the election and made his own pick for the high court.
“The Democratic base is just not conditioned to think of judges as a voting issue in the way that Republicans are already primed to do,” Fallon said.
“So much of the Republican base is driven on the abortion and gun issue that caring about judges has been a very natural thing, and they’ve laid two to three decades of groundwork. We are not going to be able to achieve the same dynamic in time for 2018.”
But if there’s another opening on the Supreme Court, he said, “we will be ready to wage a fight.”
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