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Loretta Lynch makes history as first black woman to become attorney general (+video)

When the gavel sounded and the count of 56 to 43 was announced, Loretta Lynch wasn't in attendance. But her father was.

Loretta Lynch was not present when the Senate confirmed her as the first African-American woman to become US attorney general on Thursday. But her dad was.

There, in the gallery reserved for friends and family, he sat in the back row, his raincoat on, his hat held in his lap. He gazed down on the Senate floor as lawmakers gathered for the historic vote.

When the gavel sounded and the count of 56 to 43 was announced, he nodded, smiled, and reached over to shake the hand of the man next to him.

At her nomination hearing in January, when friends and family came to support her, Ms. Lynch introduced her father, the Rev. Lorenzo Lynch. She called this fourth-generation preacher, upon whose shoulders she rode during civil rights protests, “the source of my inspiration.”

Supporters point to Lynch’s stellar qualifications to hold the highest law enforcement office in the land – from her tough job as US attorney for the Eastern District of New York to her Harvard law degree, to her character combination of “steel and velvet.”

But given the ever more complex issues facing the United States, whether they be terrorism, cybersecurity, or community policing and race relations – all of which she has had experience with – Lynch will undoubtedly need plenty of inspiration as well.

She has only 1-1/2 short years to make a dent on these and other issues, but her first priority lies in the building where her father sat on Thursday, says Jon Gould, professor of public policy and law at American University in Washington, D.C.

“No. 1 is trying to improve, if possible, the relationship between the Justice Department and Congress,” Professor Gould says. That may sound strange, given everything else on the plate of a new attorney general, but Gould says it’s basic to the success of the Obama administration. 

“When Congress has the attorney general in its cross hairs, it just makes it more difficult for the administration to do anything,” he says.

And Eric Holder, whose job Lynch will now hold, was certainly a target of Republicans in Congress. He was the first Cabinet officer to be held in contempt of the House. He has been sharply criticized for the “Fast and Furious” gun controversy at the border, for a halfhearted investigation of the Internal Revenue Service over political targeting of conservatives, and for his support for the president’s “executive amnesty” for undocumented workers last November. During her confirmation hearings in January, Lynch said she found the legal argument for the executive action "reasonable."

Loretta Lynch's father, Lorenzo Lynch, center, accompanied by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, (D) of Texas, left, greets supporters off the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, after the Senate voted to confirm Ms. Lynch for attorney general. Andrew Harnik/AP

Some of these issues came up on the Senate floor on Thursday, as Republicans such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa complained bitterly about a “deeply politicized” Justice Department and demanded that a new attorney general stand for independence from the president. He voted against her confirmation.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who is running for president, repeatedly called out the “lawlessness” under Mr. Holder and said that Lynch promised “the exact same lawlessness.” He was the only senator not to vote on the actual confirmation – he had a plane to catch. 

Ten Republicans voted for Lynch, including, surprisingly, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. All of the Democrats backed her. Senator McConnell had delayed the vote on Lynch's confirmation because he wanted to clear a stalled human-trafficking bill first.

Democrats spoke bitterly about the GOP delay. The vote was held up for 56 days – twice the number of days than the last seven attorneys general combined.

“Loretta Lynch has a lot of patience,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota on the Senate floor, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California described her as able to “bring people together” – two qualities that could go a long way in patching things up with Congress.

That ability to bring people together will come in particularly handy in dealing with community policing issues that roiled Ferguson, Mo., and have gone on to engulf other communities. The latest is Baltimore, Md., where the Justice Department on Wednesday opened a civil rights inquiry into the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American who died from a spinal injury that he suffered after he was arrested by police earlier this month.

In her nomination hearing, Lynch said her highest priorities would be to “ensure the safety of all of our citizens, to protect the most vulnerable among us from crime and abuse, and to strengthen the vital relationships between America’s brave law enforcement officers and the communities they are entrusted to serve.”

Interestingly, one of the issues that has most upset Republicans – the president’s immigration executive order – may not be much of an issue for Lynch, Gould says. “I see that being kicked down the road” as it works its way through the courts, he says.

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