Republicans are using the "Fast and Furious" investigation to undermine Justice Department efforts against voter suppression, several Democrats said Thursday as the House of Representatives voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
"I think it's an effort to undercut our fight against voter suppression," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Huffington Post. "Eric Holder has been the point man on this."
Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) caused an uproar by suggesting that the Republican effort against Holder was really about his department's efforts to prevent low-income and minority voter disenfranchisement.
"These very same people who are holding him in contempt are part of a nationwide scheme to suppress the vote," Pelosi said.
While calling for Holder's resignation earlier this month, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) specifically cited the DOJ's efforts to protect voting rights. "Your department blocks states from implementing attempts to combat voter fraud," Cornyn charged.
Over the last few months, the DOJ has investigated allegations that state governments are using voter identification laws and other means to disenfranchise minority voters, including a controversial effort to purge voter rolls in Florida, where memories of President George W. Bush's contested victory in 2000 are still fresh.
"Eric Holder has responsibility for investigating these voter suppression efforts, and he has been paying some attention to Florida," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said. "Not only the right-wing element of the Republican party but the gun lobby jumped in and created a whole new story about [Fast and Furious] having been concocted in order to take away their guns."
"Whatever the motivation, there has certainly been great anger and vitriol directed at the attorney general for that action," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said regarding the Republican investigation of Holder.
In addition to accusing them of obstructing DOJ efforts to protect voting rights, several Democrats suggested that Republican vitriol was fueled, consciously or unconsciously, by Holder's race.
"There's no question," Rep. Frank said. "It's not an accident he's the only guy they go after. Some of it is conscious, some it may not be fully articulated, but yeah, I think the fact that Eric is the leading black official outside the president makes him kind of a surrogate for the president."
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who agreed with Pelosi's statement, said he was wary of also accusing Holder's opponents of racism.
"I'm a black man, born and raised and lived my whole life that way. I certainly wouldn't rule that out, given my personal experience and everything I know about history," Ellison said. "There's been Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod, and there's others. But then again, they didn't give Clinton the love treatment now either, did they?"
While giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt, Ellison did express concern that "there is a certain level of disrespect you see when the target is a person of color, which I think is probably informed racially."
"But you know, making an accusation of racism is very serious business. And when I say it, I mean it. So if I don't know it, and I only suspect it, I'm a little bit reluctant to make the accusation," Ellison added.
All of the House Democrats interviewed had concerns about how the investigation of Operation Fast and Furious has been conducted and suspicions over why Republican lawmakers have so aggressively targeted Holder.
Even though the Fast and Furious operation was conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Waters said that "the head of the ATF was not even called" by the GOP-run House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has spearheaded the investigation. "You know that this does not smell right," she said.
Requests for comment sent to the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the committee, were not immediately returned.