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Pickering Makes Fight Personal

Seeking to rehabilitate his father’s image, Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) has launched a one-man lobbying effort in advance of the coming battle over the nomination of Judge Charles Pickering.

While the Senate floor has been bogged down in a battle over a different judicial nominee, Rep. Pickering has been setting up meetings with key Congressional Democrats and making the case for his father’s elevation to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pickering said he is well aware of the racially tinged controversy surrounding his father’s nomination, which was defeated by the then-Democratically controlled Judiciary Committee a year ago, and knows that he will need at least nine Democratic votes to block a likely filibuster. But Pickering is hoping that he can use the nomination fight to not only restore his father’s image, but also that of the state of Mississippi, which just two months ago went through another racial imbroglio regarding Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

“To overcome Mississippi’s past image, I would hope that we can use my father’s confirmation to bring the community in my state together,” he said in a Friday interview. “We can use this to redefine our state.”

He’s talked three times in recent weeks with Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), an influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and is reaching out to other CBC members and to potential swing votes among Senate Democrats.

The White House and Senate Republican leaders are aware of Pickering’s efforts and are encouraging it, hoping that a son’s personal plea will be the humanizing touch that moves votes.

“He knows him best,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a friend of more than 30 years to Judge Pickering who has aggressively promoted his elevation to the circuit court. The younger Pickering also worked for Lott for many years before running for the House, handling all telecommunications issues for the Senator.

Rep. Pickering’s past work as a Senate aide figures to play a key role in his lobbying effort, particularly with Democrats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where the 39-year-old lawmaker built relationships with both staff and Senators.

But it’s the mix of Lott, the Pickerings and racial politics that is promising to make this nomination fight such a bruising battle, although it’s unclear when the Judiciary Committee will take up the fight as they first try to wade through other controversial circuit court nominees.

A coalition of national and Mississippi-based civil rights groups led the charge against Pickering in late 2001 and early 2002, accusing him of racial insensitivity as a lawyer, a state legislator and then as a U.S. District Court judge.

In particular, the groups, later joined by most Senate Democrats, focused on a case in which Judge Pickering gave a lenient sentence to a convicted cross burner. The White House and Senate Republicans were caught flat-footed in the face of the Pickering assault and barely had time to fight back.

And the younger Pickering was also distracted in the early stages of his father’s first nomination fight. A legal showdown erupted over the composition of his new Congressional district, with competing state and federal plans that had dramatically different percentages of black voters. With both sides trading allegations that the other was trying to cut a deal to confirm Pickering Sr. based on the shape of Pickering Jr.’s district, federal courts ultimately favored the GOP plan, and Pickering easily defeated then-Rep. Ronnie Shows (D) in November.

In the days leading up to the March 2001 committee vote — which rejected Pickering, 10-9, on party lines — Rep. Pickering desperately sought to mount a counteroffensive, devoting his and his staff’s time solely to compiling memos and charts outlining his father’s defense.

Now, with no redistricting fight to distract him, Pickering is trying to conduct a similar campaign, but this time in a pre-emptive manner that lays the groundwork before the nomination fight really heats up. “This is the sort of due diligence that should have been done the first time,” said Lott.

But Lott’s own fall from political grace has made the nomination’s prospects even murkier. Back in November, after the GOP had reclaimed the Senate and he expected to be Majority Leader, Lott boldly declared that his friend’s nomination would be the first out of the gate in January.

Then, Lott’s words at former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 100th birthday party led to another Mississippi racial battle, with Chip Pickering watching his political mentor destroyed nine months after his father was branded a cross-burning sympathizer.

“I grieved. I grieved over the confirmation fight. I grieved for Senator Lott. And then I grieved for my state,” he recalled.

Democrats were stunned when President Bush renominated Judge Pickering on the first day of the 108th Congress, considering how much Bush’s condemnation of Lott’s words led to the leader’s fall.

One Republican official said that the White House felt it had to renominate Pickering — “politically and in principle” — because Bush had to stand by words uttered on the campaign trail last fall, when he frequently cited the defeated Pickering nomination as an example of Democratic obstructionism.

Lott said he was “trying to be helpful wherever I can” but was mostly laying low on the Pickering nomination. He is well aware that the upcoming Pickering fight will be another instance in which the liberal groups will air all of the accusations of his own racial insensitivity and will attempt to defeat the nomination of his good friend.

“Hey, I’m a big boy, there ain’t nothing more they can do to me,” Lott said, smiling.

Rep. Pickering’s early lobbying efforts on his father’s behalf have seen some early stumbles, at least in terms of reactions from Democrats.

Thompson first met with Pickering about his father’s nomination three weeks ago, and was apparently the first Democrat in Mississippi or Washington that the Congressman had spoken to about the issue. Thompson gave Pickering a lecture about home-state politics, saying he needed to connect with black interest groups back home and at least neutralize their opposition to his father.

“I said, ‘How in the hell do you expect to get your daddy approved if you’re not talking to people?’” Thompson said.

Heeding Thompson’s words, Rep. Pickering arranged a meeting between himself, his father and the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus last week in Jackson.

One way to mollify some of the opposition to Pickering would be for the White House to assure Mississippi black leaders that, upon Pickering’s elevation to the circuit court, a black judge would be selected as his replacement for the district court. Democratic and Republican sources indicated that idea was floated in 2001, with Thompson in particular leading the push for a black judge to replace Pickering.

But Lott and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) had already forwarded their preferred selection for the Pickering seat, Keith Starrett, a white man serving as a county judge who had lost in a bitterly divisive election for a seat on the state Supreme Court in 2000.

Thompson declined to comment specifically about any proposed deals, past, present or future. “There are a lot of things being talked about, but no commitments,” he said.

More meetings are on the way for Rep. Pickering, particularly with Senate Democrats from the so-called “red” states. Pickering is reticent to say which Senators he’s targeting, although he already has the public support of Democratic Sens. John Breaux (La.), Fritz Hollings (S.C.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Zell Miller (Ga.) from last year.

With another 51 GOP votes in his corner, he’s on the hunt for at least a handful more Democrats, knowing that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is promising a Pickering filibuster. Democratic aides say it’s an easier fight on Pickering because he has what they see as a long record of questionable decisions, as opposed to the current blockade of D.C. appellate court nominee Miguel Estrada, who has virtually no paper trail.

A hearing is likely in the early spring, with a floor fight possible in April or May. Chip Pickering says he’s put the past fight behind him and is ready for this new round.

“You grieve for a short time and then you get back up and try to make something good out of it,” he said.

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