Georgia’s Nunn, Fowler faced a Kavanaugh-like situation as senators

A judicial nominee with sterling conservative credentials. Late-breaking allegations of sexual harassment. Boatloads of public pressure. And two Georgia senators caught in the middle.

The eleventh-hour drama roiling Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, which has U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue treading carefully amid an emotionally fraught election year debate, has echoes of a similar fight 27 years ago. Just ask Sam Nunn and Wyche Fowler.

Georgia’s then-U.S. senators found themselves at the crux of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation fight. The Pin Point native initially appeared to be cruising to confirmation with the support of Southern Democrats such as Fowler and Nunn before law professor Anita Hill alleged that Thomas had made sexually explicit comments to her while they worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

What followed was a spellbinding Senate Judiciary Committee hearing not unlike the public spectacle expected Thursday, when Kavanaugh and one of his three accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, testify in the same room under oath.

Both Fowler and Nunn were put under immense pressure following Hill’s testimony. The George H.W. Bush White House heavily lobbied a dozen wavering Senate Democrats, and their offices were flooded with impassioned pleas from constituents on both sides of the debate. Feedback came even as they sought to sneak away for nine innings at a Braves game with Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

“Politics and sports collided Monday as Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. strode down the stadium aisle before the start of the Braves-Pirates game,” began an Atlanta Constitution story on Oct. 15, 1991. “Three men gave Mr. Fowler the thumbs-up sign and said, ‘Go Braves.’ Then in unison they turned their thumbs down and said, ‘Judge Thomas.’ ”

The Senate’s decisionmaking on Thomas was cast by the media as a choice between African-American and female supporters, critical voting blocs for Nunn and particularly Fowler, who was facing a tight re-election battle. (He ended up narrowly losing to Republican Paul Coverdell in a 1992 runoff.)

In an interview this week, Fowler recounted holding town hall meetings in several Atlanta-area churches, both with predominately black and white congregations, after Hill’s allegations surfaced.

“I did have recommendations on both (sides). Ask people for opinions and they’ll give it to you,” he said with a chuckle.

He insisted electoral politics played little role in his decision to eventually support Thomas after holding out until the last minute.

“I tried to look at these nominees as how they would affect the court and affect the country with a lifetime appointment,” he said. “I voted for (Thomas) because he was a Georgian, because he came out of poverty and had life experiences, difficulties that Mr. Kavanaugh, for instance, does not have.”

Ultimately, Fowler and Nunn were part of a group of 11 Democrats, eight of them Southerners, who crossed the aisle to help Thomas’ nomination squeak through the chamber on a 52-48 vote.

The two Georgians said at the time that they did not entirely disbelieve Hill’s testimony but that it wasn’t enough to disqualify Thomas. The Constitution quoted Nunn at the time:

“(Thomas’) reputation, his background, the testimony of numerous other women about his behavior toward them, his overall reputation for integrity,” he said. “Those factors, plus his strong denials, put the weight on his side, rather than on her side.”

Isakson and Perdue will need to make a similar choice in the days ahead after hearing from Ford and potentially two other accusers who have emerged over the past week. Kavanaugh has categorically denied all the allegations.

The two senators’ offices have recently seen a spike in calls and social media shoutouts over the nomination, according to spokeswomen for Isakson and Perdue, which has not been uncommon ahead of major votes in the Trump era. They characterized the feedback as split fairly evenly between people for and against Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Both Georgia Republicans have, however, been spared the swarm of protesters who have camped outside the offices of undecided centrist senators such as Maine Republican Susan Collins.

The two are not seen as swing votes on Kavanaugh, and both had publicly committed to voting for him — trumpeting the nominee as a family man and eminently qualified jurist — before Ford's allegations surfaced. Since then, both have promised to be open-minded to Ford's and Kavanaugh's testimony while taking cues from their party leaders in avoiding directly attacking Ford.

“I’m not going to discuss who, what, when or where with anybody until all the facts have come out,” Isakson said after Ford’s identity was first published in The Washington Post. “You’ve got first-class people up and down conducting (the hearing with Kavanaugh and Ford), and I think I’ll have everything I need to know to make a decision.”

“I’m not going to be closed-minded,” he added. “I’ll listen.”

Perdue, a close ally of Trump’s, has outwardly defended Kavanaugh in recent days.

“My support of Kavanaugh is that from what I’ve seen in his record, what I’ve seen in my personal interaction with him, (and that is) a very decent guy who is a balanced jurist who wants to defend the Constitution of the United States. … Now, if there’s something that this accuser is bringing out, then we need to hear that,” Perdue said in a recent interview. “All the facts need to be out, and the American people deserve that.”

While senators don't have to contend with the same racial dimension that they did during Thomas' confirmation saga, some Republicans are concerned that the Kavanaugh hearing could further exacerbate the party's gender gap, particularly among suburban women who will be critical to their effort to maintain control of the U.S. House this year.

Nunn declined to wade into the Kavanaugh fight but said that senators must keep Thursday’s hearing “fair” to both sides, despite “great tension and distrust” between the two parties.

“If there is a hearing with testimony from Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh that is not perceived to be fair, the Senate as an institution and the confirmation process are likely to suffer in public opinion, as was the case with the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings,” Nunn said in an emailed statement.

Nearly 30 years after casting his own blockbuster vote in favor of confirming Thomas, Fowler said he “absolutely” regrets the move, but not because of Hill.

“I think he’s a Supreme Court justice who does not apply the law, but has predetermined political positions which determine his vote,” he said of Thomas.

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