In SF, ex-AG Eric Holder tells left to keep fighting

Former Attorney General Eric Holder doesn’t see a lot of political sunshine on the horizon for anyone who feels aghast at efforts by national Republican power-holders to roll back much of what he and his erstwhile White House boss did before President Trump’s inauguration. But he does have some basic advice.

“You can’t just curl up in a fetal position,” he said Wednesday night at a gathering of about 800 decidedly liberal lawyers at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

Yes, he said in response to on-stage questions from Stanford law Professor Pamela Karlan, he hears “disturbing echoes” of Watergate in current White House affairs. And yes, he told Karlan, he worries that the arc of the moral universe that Martin Luther King Jr. said always bends toward justice may “bend away.”

But that doesn’t mean you give up, said Holder, who as U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama was the first African American to hold the post.

“It’s the responsibility of all of us to keep our hands on that arc,” he said. “There is fighting to be done, there are lawsuits to be brought … you can never underestimate the power of the American people.”

Holder was speaking at the annual fundraiser for Legal Aid At Work, a nonprofit that represents low-income workers statewide — just the kind of audience ripe for a renowned Democrat whose mission is cast as that of a man fighting against powerful forces hammering down on the little guy.

To accent the point of his visit, Holder handed out an award from the nonprofit to retiring U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who in 1962 was the first African American lawyer in the federal Justice Department’s civil rights division. Legal Aid at Work Executive Director Joan Graff said Holder was booked for the gig because, with Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions in power, “we have grave concerns with respect to the law, and there’s no one better than Eric Holder to speak to that.”

That aspect had particular local weight considering Holder and the law firm where he is a partner, Covington & Burling, were hired in January to advise the state Assembly and Senate in their fight against Trump’s policies. The Assembly allowed the contract to expire in June, but the Senate retained the service.

Holder told the crowd Wednesday night that he found it disturbingly curious that the 1960s paradigm of state’s rights versus federal power has been reversed — so much so that hirings like his own seem necessary to combat attempts to roll back his or Obama’s achievements on a wide range of issues from LGBT and immigrant rights to health care and environmental protections.

Back during the civil rights movement, “the worst words that could ever come off somebody’s lips were ‘states rights,’” he said, because they were the rallying call of racists like Alabama Gov. George Wallace for efforts “to oppress people.” Now, the oppression is reversed, he said.

“What we’re talking about now in California … is an effort not to go back.”

The ex-attorney general said after his talk that his main advice to California is to be “unafraid and determined,” because the state is in for a stiff battle.

“There’s a lot of creative negativity going on in Washington, and we’re going to have to stay busy,” he said.

As Holder left the stage, he cocked his ear and smiled. The song pumping from the speakers was “Revolution,” by the Beatles.

Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:

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