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Al Gore has not publicly said he will appoint the first black attorney general if he is elected president. Even while vigorously courting African-American voters last week, Gore kept his promises vague. Then again, President Bill Clinton never explicitly pledged to name the first woman to the post after his election in 1992. But eight years ago, Clinton was determined to make a historic appointment by naming a female attorney general. And if Gore wins in November, political insiders say the stars may be aligned for another first: an African-American attorney general. It’s hard to imagine a stronger candidate than the DOJ’s current No. 2, Eric Holder Jr., a former D.C. Superior Court judge and U.S. attorney for the District — and the first African-American to serve as deputy attorney general. “Officially, the campaign is focused on one thing and one thing only,” notes a close colleague of Holder. “Nonetheless, a number of senior people involved in the campaign have made it clear that Eric would be considered. There’s no question that he’s interested and they’re interested.” Holder declined to comment. But the political calculus won’t be simple. If he wins in November, Gore will have several equally qualified and viable prospects for the AG slot. And in the end, he may rule Holder out as too close to the controversy surrounding Attorney General Janet Reno’s reign. Those most frequently mentioned by DOJ observers as strong contenders: Holder’s predecessor, Jamie Gorelick, who left the department in 1997 for a top position at Fannie Mae, and Gore’s current chief-of-staff, Charles Burson, a former attorney general in Gore’s home state of Tennessee. Other individuals likely to be considered for the post in a Gore administration include the vice president’s brother-in-law and former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, Frank Hunger, and former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger. Understandably, campaign officials in Nashville say it is too early to speculate. “We’re focused on the campaign and the work of the campaign now. We will address transition issues after Election Day,” says campaign spokesman Dagoberto Vega. HOLDING STEADY Few would quibble with Holder’s professional credentials for the job. After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1976, Holder began work at the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. He was nominated to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, became the first African-American to serve as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in 1993, and returned to the Justice Department as deputy attorney general in 1997. The Gore team has a solid candidate in the 49-year-old Holder — a known quantity, someone who is familiar with Department operations, and someone who has survived congressional scrutiny and proven himself confirmable. Though Holder’s managerial style has been subject to criticism, supporters say that perceived weakness should not be a major issue in his consideration for the more public role of AG. “Eric’s a decent administrator. Making the trains run on time has never been his strong suit,” says Holder’s longtime friend, Steptoe & Johnson partner Reid Weingarten. “I think perhaps he would make a greater attorney general than he made a deputy.” But there are many who believe that if elected, Gore will feel pressured to distance himself from the Clinton Justice Department and lingering questions surrounding Reno’s handling of the Waco standoff and the Whitewater and campaign finance investigations. “Holder’s certainly someone who can step right in and do the job. The question is whether anyone who has been associated with Janet Reno and the Clinton Justice Department is radioactive,” says one former Justice Department official. “My principal thought is that Gore may want to start over with his own people,” notes Michael Bromwich, former DOJ inspector general and now a partner in the D.C. and New York offices of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. FRIENDS AND FAMILY Indeed, presidents have historically turned to close personal advisers to head the Justice Department. Kennedy chose his brother as his attorney general; Nixon chose his law partner; Carter, a close friend; Reagan, his personal attorney. In the last half of the century, Clinton’s selection of Reno — with whom he had no previous relationship — is an aberration, one unlikely to be repeated, points out Paul Light, vice president of the Brookings Institution. “If you go back and look at previous administrations, attorney general has always been a position where you put someone you really trust,” Light says. Within the vice president’s inner circle, two individuals stand out as likely contenders for the role of AG: Hunger and Burson. As former assistant attorney general for the Civil Division, Hunger would be a credible choice. His close friendship with Gore might be perceived as inappropriate, however. A Mississippi-born trial lawyer, Hunger was married to Gore’s sister, Nancy Gore Hunger, who died from lung cancer in 1984. Hunger stepped down from his role at Justice last year to devote himself to the Gore campaign. He now heads the litigation practice in the D.C. office of Atlanta’s Long, Aldridge & Norman. The selection of Hunger, however, seems unlikely in an age of increasing partisan wrangling over DOJ independence. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for holding hearings on presidential appointments, was unavailable to comment. But presumably Hill Republicans would want assurances that the attorney general will act in the nation’s best interests — not the president’s. “Appointing a family member may be the kind of risk that was acceptable 40 years ago, but may not be acceptable today,” Bromwich says. Those who know Hunger doubt he would want the job and predict he will remain a behind-the-scenes adviser if Gore is elected. “Attorney general is not an important enough job for Frank Hunger,” says a D.C. lawyer close to the Gore campaign. Should Gore opt for a longtime friend to fill the AG slot, chief-of-staff Burson is viewed as the more likely choice. A longtime family friend and campaign chairman of Gore’s first Senate race in 1984, 56-year-old Burson fits the model of the loyalist attorney general. In his two terms as state attorney general of Tennessee, Burson argued four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He moved to Washington in 1997 to serve as Gore’s counsel, where he quickly got a crash course in politics and public relations after drafting Gore’s now-infamous “no controlling legal authority” defense to allegations of illegal campaign fund raising. He took over as Gore’s chief-of-staff following Ronald Klain’s departure in 1999. Despite Burson’s success as a state attorney general, some feel he lacks the law enforcement background that has come to be expected of the U.S. attorney general. “The attorney general has to have credibility as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” says onetime head of DOJ legislative affairs L. Anthony Sutin, not referring to Burson specifically. “It must be an individual that can command the trust and respect of the men and women in the FBI, DEA, and on the ground in U.S. attorneys’ offices.” Other lawyers with r�sum�s spurring conjecture in the pre-election season include Seth Waxman, U.S. solicitor general; Dennis Archer, mayor of Detroit and a former Michigan Supreme Court judge; and Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. And as a former attorney general of Connecticut, vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman may add some relatively unknown names to the mix. But some wonder just how seriously those outside Gore’s intimate network will be considered. “I’ve always said that Reno’s legacy will be that never again would a president pick an attorney general they didn’t know well,” says Kent Marcus, Reno’s former deputy chief of staff, now a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio. “I imagine that forevermore when senior officials sit around discussing candidates they’ll say, ‘Let’s not do a Reno.’ “ Marcus adds, “I don’t think that’s good. I think it’s reality.” In Holder, Gorelick, and Dellinger, Gore’s team has a happy medium — familiar personalities without the appearance of blind allegiance to Gore. Those close to Holder describe his relationship with the vice president as “professional” and “friendly.” Gorelick, 50, and Dellinger, 59, have both served as advisers to the Gore campaign and may be part of the transition team if Gore wins. But observers note that Gorelick, a veteran of the Department of Energy and former general counsel of the Department of Defense, is likely to be considered for multiple appointments in a Gore administration, including secretary of defense. Dellinger, a professor at Duke Law School for more than 20 years before being named assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel in 1993, may be deemed too academic and not experienced enough for the post. DIVERSITY FACTOR And then the conversation comes back to Holder — and to race. Certainly, it’s an awkward — not quite politically correct — subject. After all, no one wants to reduce an individual as talented as Holder to the color of his skin. Then again, racial and gender diversity has become an unavoidable reality in the presidential transition process — particularly for Democrats — ever since Bill Clinton promised an administration that “looks like America.” He never promised a female attorney general, but somehow the only candidates whose names were mentioned were women. If Gore wins, there will undoubtedly be pressure to go a step beyond. With law enforcement issues like racial profiling and bias in the death penalty becoming increasingly urgent political hot buttons, naming a black attorney general would be a powerful statement. “The vice president has made it very clear that he views all the accomplishments of the past administration as being a stepping stone to do better,” says prominent diversity lawyer Weldon Latham, who is a longtime friend and adviser to Rev. Jesse Jackson, noting that there has never been an African-American named to any of the top four cabinet positions. “I don’t think there’s anyone better situated than Eric Holder, and I don’t think the time could be any better for the first African-American attorney general.” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group addressed by Gore earlier this month, echoes those sentiments. “I don’t want to predict what Gore’s appointments will be,” Waters says. “Clearly, Eric Holder is a highly qualified individual who’s sitting in the right place at the right time.”

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