With the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as US attorney general on Wednesday, there’s a new face on the Senate floor.
The newly-minted senator from Alabama, Luther Strange, was sworn in on Thursday afternoon. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah administered the oath, as Attorney General Sessions and Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama looked on. Later, the ceremony was re-enacted in the Old Senate Chamber, with Vice President Mike Pence presiding. Senator Strange will serve as the interim senator from Alabama until November 2018, when a special election will be held to fill the seat for the remainder of Sessions’ term, which ends in January of 2020.
Strange's appointment has raised concerns about corruption among some Alabama lawmakers, stemming from his role in halting an impeachment investigation of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who was responsible for choosing the interim senator. But most observers appear to agree with the governor's selection, describing Strange – who has experience in state politics as well as in Washington – as the logical choice.
“Bentley wanted to appoint a winner,” Brent Buchanan, a Republican political consultant in Montgomery, Ala., told The Wall Street Journal, saying Strange is a strong Republican who can hold the seat “for the next 25 years.”
As a teenager, Strange received a scholarship to play basketball at Tulane University, where his height earned him the nickname “Big Luther.” He followed that up with a law degree at Tulane Law, and was admitted to the Alabama State Bar Association in 1981.
A well-connected Republican, Strange worked for a time as a lobbyist in Washington. In 2010, he was elected to the post of Alabama attorney general. As the state's highest attorney, he was involved in several high-profile cases: when Governor Bentley signed the appointment letter, he noted Strange’s role in negotiating a settlement agreement with BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
He helped prosecute former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard for ethics violations. Mr. Hubbard was sentenced to four years in prison in 2016. Strange also directed a challenge to former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
This history of action, coupled with his good reputation among voters, made Strange a “natural choice” for interim senator, John Anzalone, a Democratic consultant and pollster who worked for Mr. Obama, told The Wall Street Journal.
But some Alabama state lawmakers have expressed concern that Bentley – who made the appointment – may have been swayed by more than professional admiration. In 2016, Strange asked the Alabama House Judiciary Committee to halt an impeachment investigation of Bentley, which it had undertaken following allegations that the governor had used state funds to enable an affair with a former political adviser. Bentley denies the allegations.
"The air of corruption is thick," said state Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican who led the impeachment effort, according to the Associated Press. He noted that Strange was able to stop an impeachment proceeding and then petition for a better appointment from someone who was perhaps beholden to him. Strange made no secret of his desire for the open seat, saying he was planning to run for Senate in 2018 whether or not he received the interim appointment.
Strange, however, countered on Thursday that he had halted the impeachment investigation “before there was even a presidential election.” It was President Trump’s victory – and his selection of then-Senator Sessions as attorney general – that gave Bentley a Senate seat to fill.
Mr. Buchanan, the political consultant, supports that view, saying the two men “are the antithesis of friends.”
According to the governor’s office, Bentley conducted more than 20 hours of interviews with potential candidates before choosing Strange, Reuters reported.
"He is going to do a fantastic job for this state," Bentley said Thursday, according to AP.
"It is the honor of my life," Strange said at a news conference in which Bentley signed the official appointment letter, as the AP reported. "I'm very excited about this opportunity to head to Washington in this historic time in our nation's history."
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.