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The day after President George W. Bush announced he wanted John Ashcroft to be his attorney general, liberal activist Ralph Neas picked up the phone to call NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond. Bond returned the call from Arizona, where he was vacationing at the Grand Canyon. The subject of the conversation: how to defeat Ashcroft. Less than a month later, the battle has been joined. Ashcroft’s nomination has loosed a torrent of liberal opposition unseen in the capital in years. With roots in the epic Supreme Court confirmation fights over Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas four years later, a wide network of interest groups is challenging the Bush administration. And Ashcroft, whose confirmation is likely, is merely the first skirmish. Fueled by the bitter Democratic loss in the presidential election, a wall-to-wall coalition of organizations from the Sierra Club to the AFL-CIO, from Handgun Control to the NAACP, has formed in a matter of weeks. It has assembled Web petitions, letter-writing campaigns, congressional testimony, and many other anti-Ashcroft measures. Each group is looking mostly at its own issues — school desegregation, disability rights, abortion, free speech — but is also working in concert with others. The result is a cross-over movement launched even before Bush took office. The goal is to establish sustained opposition to the new administration. In coming months, it will play out in fights over the federal budget, legislative initiatives, and conservative nominees to the federal courts and the executive branch. “I have never seen the grassroots come together so spontaneously,” says Nancy Zirkin, director of public policy at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a leader of the coalition. “It’s because this nominee is so far right, so ideological, and has shown a commitment to that ideology in enforcing the law. It was an unimaginable choice for a president who was elected without a clear mandate.” Liberal activists readily acknowledge that the Bork fight, which resulted in the defeat of the nominee, and the Thomas nomination struggle, which did not, have been models for the anti-Ashcroft planners. In fact, anti-Ashcroft activists like Neas, president of People for the American Way; Kate Michelman, president of NARAL; and Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice are all veterans of the Bork and Thomas days. The difference is that this one is the biggest and, in the Internet age, the fastest to get off the ground. “This is the broadest coalition ever mounted against an executive branch nominee,” says Neas. “Only Bork was perhaps its equal against a judicial nominee. And with Bork, we had two months. This was assembled in two to three weeks.” Conservatives agree that the liberals have assembled a nearly unprecedented array of troops and that they’ve had at least a temporary impact on public opinion and on the progress of the Senate hearings. But they say the Ashcroft opponents are dragging out the same tired ideological weapons that they brandish whenever they encounter a Republican nominee who’s a real conservative. “I’m familiar with this,” says Charles Cooper of Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal, a conservative who spent four days preparing Ashcroft for his hearings last week. “It’s the same coalition that organized itself against Brad Reynolds, Bill Rehnquist, Bob Bork, and Clarence Thomas. The field lieutenants are the same today as in those days.” In the Reagan era, William Bradford Reynolds’ proposed ascension to associate attorney general in 1985 was rejected because of concerns over his civil rights stands. Rehnquist’s 1986 nomination as chief justice drew liberal opposition, in part for alleged racial insensitivity. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and an Ashcroft backer, says the opposition represents merely “the standard mobilization of the left. It’s not targeted at moving middle America. It’s targeted at saying to Democratic senators, ‘Do what we tell you, or we’ll hurt you politically.’ These people are so angry with the outcome of the presidential race that the first thing they do under the Bush administration is cry havoc.” David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, says the liberal groups don’t hold out any legitimate hope of defeating Ashcroft and are merely firing a warning shot at the new president while looking ahead to the real battles of the Bush term, which will be over Supreme Court nominees. “Their aim is to weaken this nominee, to housebreak him as it were,” says Keene, “and then to cause the administration to appoint homogenized people in the future, [David] Souters rather than Clarence Thomases. But I don’t think it’s going to work. Bush has his back up.” ANGRY ABOUT ASHCROFT The liberal groups reply that public opinion is swinging their way on Ashcroft. They deny that they are being partisan or vindictive. Rather, they say, they have concluded after studying Ashcroft’s record that he’s well outside the American mainstream on issues like church-state separation, abortion rights, and freedom of speech. It’s basically the same argument that was used against Bork. “The position of attorney general is important to the life of every American,” says Michael Newman, national political representative of the Sierra Club. “And John Ashcroft is someone who has used his career in public office to serve his narrow and extreme interest.” Says Zirkin of the AAUW: “We expected the nomination of someone like [Oklahoma Gov.] Frank Keating. We would not have opposed Keating. We are not opposing [Health and Human Services nominee] Tommy Thompson, even though he is anti-choice. In fact, Ashcroft is the first Cabinet nominee that the AAUW has opposed in 120 years.” A group that made a similar anti-Ashcroft call is the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which, according to Executive Director Barbara Arnwine, is opposing an attorney general nominee for the first time in its 38-year history. Arnwine says lawyers from New York’s Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz prepared a lengthy briefing memo for her organization on Ashcroft’s record on racial issues. After weeks of study, the Lawyers Committee’s executive committee voted Jan. 16, with only one dissent, to come out against Ashcroft. “Our unique perspective on the nomination is, ‘Will Ashcroft exercise all the discretionary power within the purview of the attorney general to protect the rights of our most vulnerable citizens?’ ” says Arnwine. Even though her group had not yet taken a stand, Arnwine says she was very much a part of the frenzied phone calls and meetings among civil rights and liberal activists that began within minutes of the Dec. 22 announcement of Ashcroft’s nomination. “We engaged in strategizing even before we had the executive committee vote, but we made it clear that we were not yet taking a position,” Arnwine says. “Everyone thought Bush was going to pick [Montana Gov.] Marc Racicot or [former Missouri Sen.] Jack Danforth. There was shock and dismay at this nomination.” Neas, who tracked down Julian Bond in Arizona, says he was on the phone with Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, within minutes of the announcement. “During the Christmas and New Year’s period, even though many people were out of town, we were sharing strategy and information,” Neas says. This all led up to a Jan. 9 press conference that introduced the coalition. “We’re family,” says Neas, embracing all the metaphors he can think of. “We’re a team. We’re battle-tested veterans.” Neas and Arnwine point to a possibly long-lasting consequence of the new coalition’s breadth. Now that different groups are working together, they understand each other’s issues better. For example, civil rights groups have begun to get more involved in environmental issues. “No doubt about it,” says Arnwine. “There were people leaving the Ashcroft nomination and going to the [Gale] Norton room. These were people who never would have gone to the Norton hearing before.” Neas says People for the American Way is now “taking a look” at Norton’s nomination to secretary of the interior to see if the group should come out against it. “There is unquestionably a re-energized progressive coalition,” says Neas. “The Florida vote and the result at the Supreme Court level were part of it, as was the event of Dec. 22. Instead of being a uniter, George W. Bush came out with as divisive an attorney general nominee as possible.”

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