BETWEEN THE LINES: Ashcroft No Friend of Civil Rights Activists

George W. Bush will be sworn into office on January 20th as only the fourth U.S. president to gain the office by winning the Electoral College, while losing the national popular vote. Coming to Washington with questions still swirling about his legitimacy, the two-term Texas governor has promised to do his best to unify the nation and heal the wounds of one of the closest and most extraordinary elections in American history.

After naming veteran officials from previous Republican administrations to several top cabinet posts, Mr. Bush hit a nerve with his selection of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft to head the Justice Department. Losing last November's election to the widow of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, Ashcroft is widely known as a staunch opponent of women's reproductive freedom and consistently hostile toward civil rights law. A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated, "Mr. Ashcroft has built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis and opposing African-Americans for public office."

Not surprisingly, Ashcroft was proud to accept an honorary degree in 1999 from Bob Jones University, infamous for its racist policies. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Elliot Minceberg, legal director with People for the American Way, who explains why his group and many other civil rights and feminist organizations are actively opposing John Ashcroft's nomination to be the next attorney general of the United States.

Elliot Minceberg: Well, unfortunately Sen. Ashcroft's record is a record of extremism on a range of issues that are critical to millions of Americans across the country. For example, he has opposed not just abortion, but abortion under any circumstances, including rape and incest. He's opposed contraception, including allowing federal health plans to cover contraception.

He's opposed virtually any kind of affirmative action and taken a position on a number of nominees -- most significantly the Ronnie White nomination to the federal court in St. Louis, the first African American judge ever to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court -- that betray a very startling insensitivity to issues related to civil rights and women's rights, etc.

Between The Lines: Ashcroft has a record where his opposition is fairly consistent against civil rights law, including school desegregation. Would you expand on this?

Elliot Minceberg: It's certainly true. Not only as a senator, but as a governor and attorney general in Missouri he's been a vigorous opponent of desegregation and perhaps most troubling, opposed voluntary desegregation plans that were agreed to by the city of St. Louis, the St. Louis school board, the NAACP, and even by suburban districts. The one party that opposed these desegregation plans was the state of Missouri, led by John Ashcroft both as attorney general and as governor.

Between The Lines: The duties of the attorney general of the United States encompass enforcing the laws of the nation. Tell us how you think Mr. Ashcroft's political track record on both these critical issues -- reproductive and civil rights -- will affect his enforcement of existing law.

Elliot Minceberg: We're very concerned about that. I think it's critical that the Senate question him very closely. Given his virulent position on reproductive freedom, what about his responsibility to enforce the federal law that guarantees women access to reproductive health clinics? Given his position on desegregation and affirmative action, what about his responsibility to enforce civil rights laws? As Archibald Cox said a number of years ago, the attorney general should be held to a higher standard than many other executive branch nominees. Respect for the law is absolutely critical for that position as well as the perception of fairness and impartiality in administering the law. I think we have reason to be very concerned about that with respect to the Ashcroft nomination.

Between The Lines: George W. Bush is coming into office as only the fourth president in the country's history to take office without winning the popular vote and he's making a lot of noises about unifying the nation and healing wounds. What in your mind does this nomination do to that promise of unity and bipartisan cooperation?

Elliot Minceberg: I think this nomination is a clear break of that promise. This nomination is to use, in the president-elect's own words, "a divider, not a uniter". It's a poke in the eye to African Americans who were pivotal in voting Ashcroft out of office in Missouri, to women and to many others who were genuinely hoping for bipartisanship by president-elect Bush, but so far, with nominations like this one, we're not seeing it.

Between The Lines: It's quite rare even for an opposition party that holds power in the Senate to deny a president Cabinet members of his own choosing. What are the chances that you're going to get a lot of support from mainline Democrats in the Senate to vote against Mr. Ashcroft?

Elliot Minceberg: That's something we're literally in the process of doing work on right now, so it's a little premature to answer. But I'd a say a couple of things about it. First of all, there have been plenty of executive branch nominations in the past that people thought were sure things that have gone down to defeat. Look at former Sen. John Tower or Zoe Baird for example. Another important thing to point out is that if Ashcroft were judged by the standards that he himself has used to judge executive branch nominees of the Clinton administration, there's very little question that there would be substantial opposition to him. Ashcroft has opposed people like Surgeon General David Satcher or Bill Lan Lee of the civil rights division without disputing that they were men of integrity and people that were qualified, but simply because he disagreed with their positions. Our concern about Ashcroft is that and much, much, much more.

Between The Lines: What is the role in your mind of the public in this nomination process? How important is it for citizens to raise their voices at this moment when the Senate will be considering nominees like former Sen. Ashcroft?

Elliot Minceberg: I think the public's role is absolutely critical. The process set by our Constitution is advice and consent, and the Senate has to consent. The Senate should hear from people around the country about what they think of this nomination. People should contact their Senators about this subject, Democrat as well as Republican, and should go to websites like ours and others for more information about the subject.

To learn how you can act locally, contact the People for the American Way by calling (202) 467-4999 or visit their website at: www.pfaw.org.

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