Politics & Government

Loretta Lynch: From Durham to Washington, a quiet, effective career

As the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., Loretta Lynch pushed a host of high-profile cases but somehow managed to stay out of the media glare herself.

She can’t avoid the spotlight now. Since President Barack Obama put her name forward to lead the U.S. Justice Department, Lynch has been featured nearly everywhere: Fox News. MSNBC. The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post. Magazines. Partisan bloggers.

All have tried to flesh out a broader story of an accomplished lawyer whose early life was shaped in North Carolina. Lynch, 55, is a Greensboro native whose family moved to Durham when she was 6.

Her father, a preacher who led churches that played a powerful role in the civil rights movement, describes his daughter as low-key, amiable and firm when necessary.

“I think she’s going to be fair. I think she’s going to be friendly. I think she’s going to be tough,” the Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, 82, said from his Durham home.

The resilience that family and colleagues have cited as one of Lynch’s attributes could be tested as she goes through a confirmation process that could be as much about partisan politics as it is about her work history.

Poised to be the first African-American woman to run the huge federal justice department – 116,000 full-time employees and an annual budget of $27 billion – Lynch has twice been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“She’s got an excellent background,” said Henry Frye, the first black N.C. Supreme Court chief justice, a Greensboro resident and longtime family friend of the Lynches. “I’ve never heard anything negative about her.”

But that might change in the coming weeks as partisan loyalists dig for details.

Outside Washington’s politically divided Beltway, Lynch has gone up against some tough adversaries.

In the U.S. attorney’s office she has led since 2010, she has helped put terrorists, gangsters and white-collar criminals behind bars. Before her first stint as a U.S. attorney there from 1999 to 2001, she drew attention for her work on a 1999 case against New York City police officers accused of sodomizing a Haitian immigrant with a broken broomstick inside their headquarters.

It remains to be seen how she will do against Senate Republicans who long have objected to Eric Holder’s stands on such issues as civilian trials for terror suspects, voter ID laws and immigration reform.

Public statements she has made and responses to questionnaires she has filled out as the top prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York show her to have views similar to Holder.

Though Obama announced her a little more than a week ago with predictions of a quick confirmation in the lame-duck congressional session, some Senate Republicans have called for a moratorium on new presidential appointments until early next year, when the party will have control of the chamber.

Off to Harvard

Lynch is no stranger to politics.

Her father ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Durham before she left home for Harvard University. She stuffed envelopes and answered phones.

Lorenzo Augustus Lynch Sr., a native of Oak City in the northeastern part of the state, said last week that he always preached to “let your children follow their dreams.”

So he kept his thoughts to himself when his daughter, one of three valedictorians of the Durham High School class of 1977, turned down a full scholarship to an in-state school to go to Harvard.

She majored in English and delighted in reading Chaucer in Old English. When she received a degree with honors from the Ivy League school, she told her father, a pastor paid not quite $40,000 a year, that she wanted to go to law school there. He again didn’t stand in the way, but he helped pay tuition and bills.

“I didn’t know she was interested in the law until she graduated cum laude,” Lorenzo Lynch said last week.

As a child in Durham, Loretta Lynch showed a keen interest in books. The family lived off Fayetteville Street near White Rock Baptist Church, where her father served as the pastor for 27 years before a bitter ouster in 1993.

Lynch and her two brothers, Lorenzo Jr., now deceased, and Leonzo, a minister in Charlotte at Ebenezer Baptist Church, made regular trips to the public library branch a block away.

“They were bookworms, all three of them,” the elder Lynch said. “People used to always tell me that they would see them walking along with a stack of books in their arms. They would tell me they carried books taller than they were. I couldn’t tell you what they were reading.”

Lorine Lynch, mother of the three, was a librarian who started life as a farmhand, a story her daughter recalled at her first swearing-in ceremony as U.S. attorney.

Mother and daughter stood beside each other decades earlier during the strife of the civil rights movement, when Lynch, new to Durham, scored extremely high on a standardized test at a predominantly white school.

“She did so well, they said, ‘This is wrong, you have to retake the test,’ ” her father recalled. “She took it again, and do you know, she scored even higher.”

Lynch grew up in Durham at a time when there were citywide sit-ins, marches and rallies for equal rights and integration of the schools.

At Durham High, she not only was a stellar student, she participated in the Beta Club, a literary group and an honor society. She had an afterschool job at a fast-food restaurant, her father said, and she was a fabulous seamstress who not only made outfits for herself, but stitched clothes for her mother for special banquets and other occasions.

Though she finished at the top of her high school class, her father said, school officials decided she had to share the title of valedictorian with three other students – one of whom was white.

Support from the president

That story of being a black woman in America, blazing new paths over the stumbling blocks of adversity, is one that Lynch typically lets others tell.

Obama, when introducing her at the White House on Nov. 8, pointed out that Lynch was born in Greensboro a year before the lunch-counter sit-in by students who organized in the church her father pastored.

“Loretta rode on her father’s shoulders to his church, where students would meet to organize anti-segregation boycotts,” Obama told those gathered at the ceremony attended by her surviving brother. “She was inspired by stories about her grandfather, a sharecropper in the 1930s, who helped folks in his community who got in trouble with the law and had no recourse under the Jim Crow system.”

In addition to her brother, Lynch was joined at the White House ceremony last weekend by her husband, Stephen Hargrove, whom she married in 2007, and two stepchildren, Ryan and Kia.

“If I have the honor of being confirmed by the Senate, I will wake up every morning with the protection of the American people my first thought,” Lynch said at the ceremony. “And I will work every day to safeguard our citizens, our liberties, our rights and this great nation, which has given so much to me and my family.”

Nan Aaron, president of the Alliance for Justice, which represents a coalition of 100 liberal groups, cheered the prospect of Lynch’s nomination in a statement. “We are confident that Lynch will build on Holder’s strong legacy of standing up for civil rights and ensuring equal justice for all Americans,” she said. “We call on Ms. Lynch to take a leading role in addressing the Supreme Court’s repeated efforts to deny access to the courts and the ballot box.”

Questions will come

Lynch, Obama has said, is someone who “battles drug lords and mobsters and terrorists and still has the charming reputation for being a charming people person.”

Her office has gone after public corruption in both parties and touched on the gamut of cases that go through the courts.

After leaving her first stint as the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, she became a partner at Hogan & Hartson, a giant firm that specializes in corporate, financial and regulatory law.

In recent weeks, she has overseen cases that deal with allegations of money-laundering, sexual abuse at an Army base, murder, a faked death, extortion by a union delegate, illegal distribution of Oxycodone by a doctor, an investment scheme scam and more.

She has pressed ahead with the prosecution of Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican from Staten Island accused of wire and mail fraud, filing false tax returns, hiring undocumented immigrants and perjury.

Critics such as Hans von Spakovsky of The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies have seized on statements made by Lynch to describe her as “another Eric Holder.”

She has spoken in support of the U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against North Carolina and the 2013 election law overhaul.

“Fifty years since the civil rights struggle we stand at a time when we see people trying to take back what Martin Luther King Jr. fought for,” Lynch said to an audience in Long Beach, N.Y. “People try and take over the state house and reverse the gains made in voting in this country.”

She has spoken out against zero-tolerance school discipline policies and explained her concerns about an uneven application of the death penalty.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, and Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, plan to have her quizzed on whether she believes the president’s executive amnesty plans and talk of using his executive power to impose an immigration program are constitutional and legal.

Lorenzo Lynch said he thinks his daughter is up for the job and will respond to questions with her usual fashion – with dignity and a passion for justice.

“Did you hear what President Obama said about her?” the proud father said. “She seems to make a difference but doesn’t make a splash.”