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Juan Williams: Holder exclusive — 'Proud to be an activist'

Only two years ago, House Republicans voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Recently, Senate Republicans have trashed the former head of his civil rights division, Thomas Perez, and blocked his current choice to run the division, Debo Adegbile.

But now the attorney general is making surprising friends with his efforts to cut the nation’s prison population. Among his unlikely allies are congressional Republicans and even Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“They did what they did and I disagree with it,” Holder said in an interview last week, still stung by the contempt citation. “But at the end of the day… from my perspective, my legacy… as people try to decide ‘What kind of attorney general was this guy?’ I think they will focus more on what it is we did during my time, as opposed to fights I had with Congress.”

Holder predicts that Congress will pass his proposed reforms to the criminal justice system, specifically reductions in sentencing, even if Republicans hold majorities in both chambers after November’s midterm elections.  

“Next year you are likely to see significant accomplishment when it comes to criminal justice reform,” he said.

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Holder spoke with me in Philadelphia after getting a warm reception for a speech to the nation’s criminal defense lawyers. During the speech, he celebrated the first birthday of his “Smart on Crime” initiatives that have attracted support from conservatives and liberals for cutting prison costs and reducing prison populations.

The attempt to attract broad support for that plan even led Holder to have breakfast with Republicans Trey Gowdy (R-S.C) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), two members who voted to hold him in contempt.

Despite his bridge-building, the first black attorney general serving the first black president remains critical of how conservatives managed the Justice Department during the Bush Administration.

“In the years, I think, before I came to the attorney general’s office the department lost its way,” he said.

He is also critical of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts’ famous formula — “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” — troubles him.

“There are still [racial] issues we as a society are working our way through,” Holder said. “And the lack of desire to do that, I think, undermines the ability that I think is inherent in the American people to make progress. But it also does not prepare us for demographic changes, the likes of which this country has never seen.”

He added: “The justice system is part of the larger society and to the extent there are racial issues we are still grappling with, it is not a shock that you are going to see them in the justice system… [There is] a whole range of ways the justice system, if it is run properly, can make this country the country it wants to be.”

Holder remains indifferent to conservative protests that he is an ‘activist’ looking for trouble by digging into what he calls “policies [with] disproportionate impact on communities of color.”

“If you want to call me an activist attorney general, I will proudly accept that label,” he said. “Any attorney general who is not an activist is not doing his or her job. The responsibility of the attorney general is to change things [and] bring us closer to the ideals expressed in our founding documents.”

Later, he defiantly added that critics who say his department includes an “activist civil rights division and this is an activist attorney general — I’d say I agree with you 1000 percent and [I am] proud of it.”

Holder famously stirred white conservative anger when he said America is a “nation of cowards,” for its reluctance to engage in serious conversations about racial disparities. In a recent speech at historically black Morgan State University, he reiterated that position.

Disparate racial outcomes “are not only shameful and unacceptable – they impede our ability to see that justice is done,” Holder said. “And they perpetuate cycles of poverty, crime and incarceration that trap individuals, destroy communities and decimate minority neighborhoods.”

Holder’s bitter divide with conservatives about racial issues has its roots in the city in which we conducted our interview. In the 2008 election, the presence of two members of the New Black Panther Party at a polling station in Philadelphia led Republican prosecutors to bring charges of voter intimidation.

House Republicans claimed Holder’s Justice Department treated the case lightly and used a double standard, going easy on blacks when whites charged with the same crime would have faced harsh prosecution.

That fuse ignited a series of explosive fights between Holder and the GOP. House Republicans voted to find him in contempt of Congress for allegedly withholding documents in the ‘Fast and Furious’ gunrunning case. Holder later asked publicly, “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?” — a question that had a particular potency given his status as the only black person ever to hold the post.

Yet now Holder and some members of the GOP are on the same page, at least on some issues.

In its first year, Holder’s “Smart on Crime” plan has won support from Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and John Cornyn (Texas) as well as Perry.

Two bipartisan bills with “Smart on Crime “ proposals have moved through the Senate Judiciary Committee. Similar bills are in still in committee in the House. But Chaffetz, Gowdy and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) are on board this bandwagon.

Elements of the plan are in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) new anti-poverty program. On the Democratic side, Holder has support from Sens. Dick Dubin (Ill.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) as well as House members such as Reps. Bobby Scott (Va.), John Conyers (Mich.) and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.).

The attorney general is also winning GOP support for early release of elderly prisoners as well as people not involved with violent crimes. And, under the new rules, federal prosecutors will have the discretion to keep the quantity of drugs found on a defendant out of any formula that triggers mandatory minimum sentences.

Holder is similarly proposing new rules on probation. He is championing job training for people leaving jail to help them avoid returning to prison.

As I was leaving, Holder said he will speak with his wife and President Obama before deciding whether or not to remain for the last two years of the current administration.

To my eyes, he looks like a man with new energy, not like a man ready to leave his job.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.