President Obama is not the only key figure in Washington with Irish as well as African roots.
Last week, what could have been a great New York immigrant story instead got derailed by what one U.S. senator characterized as the worst thing he’s seen in a 30-year political career.
But let’s begin at the beginning. The Bronx. That’s where an Irish immigrant mother gave birth to a child with the not-particularly-Hibernian name Debo Adegbile.
Debo’s father was from Nigeria, but according to press reports, Debo – whose middle name is Patrick, by the way – did not see much of his father.
And that wasn’t the only hardship he faced.
As The Washington Post noted last year, “Adegbile was raised by a single mother, an Irish immigrant who struggled with poverty and even occasional homelessness when he was a child. Despite her circumstances and the absence of her son’s Nigerian father, Adegbile’s mother fought to get her son into top private schools in Manhattan, where he usually received scholarships because of his good grades.”
School wasn’t the only place young Adegbile excelled.
When he was a tyke, Adegbile appeared on the famed PBS children's show "Sesame Street" for a number of years.
The television experience did not seem to hurt Adegbile’s performance inside the classroom. After attending NYU School of Law he was hired for a number of legal positions in Washington, D.C.
Adegbile was also hired by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, rising to the position of acting president.
It was while working for the Defense Fund in 2009 that Adegbile was thrust into controversy. The fund had been working to legally represent Mumia Abu-Jamal, the notorious Philadelphian convicted of killing police officer Daniel Faulkner.
The Abu-Jamal case is, of course, a lightning rod with opinions running high on both sides – those who feel the cop killer should fry, and those who feel Abu-Jamal was railroaded by a racist justice system.
Either way, this is an emotional case and many people – Irish Americans, in particular, with their historic ties to law enforcement – are not apt to be sympathetic towards a guy who reportedly bragged about killing a cop.
Nevertheless, Abu-Jamal’s trial was messy, and into the breech stepped Adegbile and the NAACP Legal Defense fund. They did not argue Abu-Jamal’s guilt or innocence, but did argue that the trial should be properly conducted, particularly if Abu-Jamal were going to face the death penalty. (He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison.)
For this, Adegbile was transformed into a “cop killer advocate,” particularly in right wing circles.
Fast forward to last year when President Obama nominated Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Adegbile’s unique combination of legal and political experience certainly made him a strong candidate. Ah, but the ghost of Mumia rattled in the closet, with many conservative pundits joining law enforcement organizations blasting Adegbile and his ties to the Jamal case.
Never mind that, as commentator Errol Louis noted, “By defending the constitutional rights of a convicted murderer, Adegbile … joined an honorable American tradition of ensuring that even the most despised criminals get a robust legal defense.”
Earlier this month, Adegbile decided to withdraw his name from the nomination process. He accepted a job in the private sector.
Again, the wounds of the Abu-Jamal case are still raw, and a reasonable case could be made not only for his guilt but his execution. It’s also important to add that members of Obama’s own party didn’t support Adegbile in the Senate.
But it should be further noted that Chief Justice John Roberts – beloved by conservatives – once served pro bono for a convicted killer of eight, a little fact which did not come up during his nomination hearings.
Why the different treatment for Adegbile? Probably because his mother was Irish, right?
No wonder Iowa Senator Tom Harkin called the Adegbile nomination saga “the lowest point that I think this Senate has descended into in my 30 years here.”
When you think about it, perhaps Debo Patrick Adegbile should offer up two choice words for both political parties: Thank you!
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)