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On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft, the man whose nomination drew ferocious opposition from civil rights groups, took his formal oath of office in the great hall of the Justice Department surrounded by a black pastor and a black gospel chorus. “America needs more respect and honor and love between the races,” Ashcroft said that day. The master of ceremonies that afternoon was a St. Louis lawyer and friend of Ashcroft’s, Charles Polk. Polk, an African-American, sat beside Ashcroft during much of his bitter confirmation fight in the Senate in January. Fred McClure, an African-American lobbyist who helped prepare Ashcroft for the confirmation process, usually sat on the other side of the nominee. Since he won confirmation, Ashcroft has continued to flank himself with African-American lawyers. He drove the push to name Larry Thompson, a black lawyer from Atlanta, as the No. 2 official in the Justice Department. He selected Ralph Boyd, a black lawyer from Boston, as Civil Rights chief. And he endorsed Washington, D.C.’s Charles James, an African-American lawyer, to take over the department’s Antitrust Division. This embrace of black America comes a decade after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was savaged for his conservative views during his confirmation hearing. At the time, some opponents dismissed President George Bush’s nomination of Thomas as mere tokenism. With President George W. Bush receiving just a sliver of the African-American vote during the general election, some wonder whether his appointments mark a dedication to diversity, or are simply part of a cynical political calculus designed to make his administration appear more responsive to the needs of minority America than it truly is. McClure, who also helped shepherd Thomas through his confirmation, has no doubt. “This is the next generation of Republican leadership,” he says. The Bush White House appears to be on a mission to name as many African-Americans to Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions as possible. Along with those in the Justice Department, Bush has selected, among others, Colin Powell as secretary of state; Condoleezza Rice as his national security advisor; Texan Roderick Paige as his secretary of education; Virginia state official Claude Allen as the No. 2 man at the Department of Health and Human Services; Alphonso Jackson, a Texas lawyer, as deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Michael Powell as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “I’m impressed with the quality of people,” says Robert Woodson, director of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in D.C. “He has not picked them because they are high-profile political figures. They are people with solid experience, and he’s appointed them to nontraditional jobs — not just ‘black’ jobs like civil rights and health and human services.” Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is warier of the administration’s goals. “I don’t think they are a new wave,” Shelton says. “Most of the people are really a minority within the ethnic minority community.” BLANK SLATE While Ashcroft’s nomination produced some of the most rancorous moments in recent Senate history, the selections of Thompson, James, and Boyd have drawn a muted response from the advocacy groups who were determined to bring Ashcroft down. Boyd, in particular, would seem to present a natural target. The longtime Boston federal prosecutor has a wealth of experience with gun violence cases and other street crimes, but virtually no record in enforcing federal civil rights laws. In fact, his philosophy concerning such flashpoint issues as affirmative action and voting rights is virtually unknown. That has left advocacy groups like the NAACP and the People for the American Way with little to work with. As such, no one has come out against Boyd. “We’re looking at his record and we have found no reason to oppose him,” says the NAACP’s Shelton. “Except that he is an unknown quantity.” “We’re still looking into his background, but we’re disappointed that he doesn’t have more of a record on civil rights,” says Elliot Mincberg, vice president of People for the American Way. “But unlike Ashcroft, there are not extremely negative things in his background.” Ashcroft’s aides have said that some of the sub-Cabinet choices were made with the idea of quieting critics who charged that the attorney general was insensitive to racial issues, but they have stopped short of saying that the idea was to create bulletproof nominees. “Given the circumstances of the new Bush DOJ, it does make you wonder” if there is a strategy, says David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Center for Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal Washington think tank that focuses on African-American issues. The advocacy groups “were expecting someone with a bad reputation. Instead, it’s a black appointment. [Boyd is] someone who has a record. There aren’t people out there saying bad things about him.” It hasn’t been only with his personnel choices like Boyd and Thompson, or with the selection of conservative Vietnamese law professor Viet Dinh to head the DOJ policy office, that Ashcroft seems to have made a statement on civil rights issues. In the early weeks of his tenure, he has pledged to enforce voting rights laws and combat racial profiling. Supporters of the administration believe the opposition has been essentially neutralized. “These guys have overplayed their hand,” says Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a right-leaning African-American advocacy group. “They were so vicious with John Ashcroft that Bush only had to show he’s not a member of the KKK and he looks different than their portrayal of him. “They’ve put themselves in a bind. They know Ashcroft’s not a racist,” Innis says. “Their fear is that he is not going to be racist — that he might actually appeal to blacks, that he might solve the problem of racial profiling.” THE GODFATHER That there has been nary a discouraging word from the interest groups that lined up against Ashcroft stands in direct contrast to 10 years ago, when those same groups declared war on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, Thomas was viewed as something of an anomaly: an African-American who rose from a dirt-poor rural Georgia town to embrace conservative doctrine and denounce traditional black issues like affirmative action. Now, Thomas looms as something like a godfather to a whole new group of black conservatives who are assuming positions of influence in the Bush administration. “It would be impossible to overstate his importance as an inspiration to young black conservatives,” says Clint Bolick of the libertarian Institute for Justice. It was Thomas who administered Ashcroft’s first oath of office Feb. 1. Jackson, the HUD deputy secretary, is an old friend of Thomas’ and a former St. Louis public housing official who sat with Ashcroft on a commission on urban families under the senior President George Bush. Thomas and Larry Thompson are friends dating back to the time they worked in the legal department of the Monsanto Corp. in St. Louis. Thompson testified in support of Thomas at his confirmation hearing in 1991. “Black Americans,” Thompson testified then, “need not and should not all think alike.” The complaints a decade ago about Thomas’ apparent lack of professional qualifications don’t seem to apply to this group. They have the r�sum�s. Thompson, 55, spent four years as the U.S. attorney in Atlanta under President Ronald Reagan before becoming a partner with King & Spalding. James, 46, a partner with megafirm Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, worked under Reagan at the Federal Trade Commission and then in the Antitrust Division at Justice under President George Bush. The Harvard-educated Boyd, 44, spent eight years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. “Bush is committed to competence first and then equal opportunity. That’s the difference,” says CORE’s Innis. “You hope that you can have a Cabinet that is a reflection of the diversity in this country, but you’re not going to artificially manipulate it.” RALLYING POINT But will putting a black face on parts of the Bush Cabinet really make a difference to his party’s ability to reach black voters? Or are his selections simply the equivalent of the African-Americans who some felt were used as stage props during the Republican National Convention last summer? Certainly, that display of “diversity” didn’t help Bush in the general election, where he garnered what has become a rather infamous eight percent of the black vote nationwide. This week, a large number of black conservatives will be assembling in Colorado for what is billed as the first African-American Republican Leadership Summit. The goal is to attempt to help Bush gain greater support among the African-American community. One attendee will be Alvin Williams, executive director of BAMPAC, a political action committee dedicated to getting black Republicans elected across the country. “This administration and Republicans generally have a serious challenge on their hands,” Williams says, “to prove that this is an inclusive administration. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.” Williams, who says his seven-year-old organization has a racially mixed donor base of 107,000 contributors, believes it will take more than high-level Cabinet appointees to make that eight percent figure grow in upcoming elections. “It’s not going to be that simple,” he says. “But it’s a good start.” Bush’s experience as governor of Texas supports Williams’ contention. In much the same way he is doing now, Bush attempted to place minorities in high-level positions in Texas government. “He is acting no different here from his years as governor,” says Fred McClure, who was appointed to the Texas A&M board of regents by Bush. Bush’s outreach to the black community seemed to yield benefits in Texas when he received 27 percent of the black vote when he won his second term as governor in 1998. However, just two years later, during the presidential election, Bush earned just five percent of the black vote in Texas. “The pendulum still has a long way to swing to the center,” says Bositis. “The Republicans have a problem. They’ve been hurt in two election cycles in a row.” Those numbers have even the staunchest Republicans agreeing that a new approach is needed. “We’re starting over again,” says Virginia Gov. James Gilmore III, the newly installed chairman of the Republican National Committee. “It is clear that we have not successfully garnered a following in the African-American community. We need to and we want to.” Gilmore says Bush’s Cabinet choices “send a strong signal that the door is open, but what we’ve heard is that that is not going to be sufficient. We have to build bridges to people. We have to build relationships.” To that end, Gilmore has established a new grassroots campaign in the RNC with the idea of making contact with black community leaders nationwide. “We have to get to know these people,” he says. “We don’t know who they are.” One way that contact will be made, suggests CORE’s Innis, will be through Bush’s controversial faith-based initiative that will allow religious groups to apply for federal grants. MOVE TO THE MIDDLE The question remains whether people like Larry Thompson and Ralph Boyd represent a new breed of African-American leadership, one that heralds a shift in black political power toward the center from its traditional left-oriented, civil rights movement base. In January, many observers who watched Ashcroft survive the confirmation process viewed that as a sign of decline in the influence of traditional black advocacy groups like the NAACP. Robert Woodson, the D.C. community advocate who resists being labeled either a Republican or Democrat, believes the diversity in the Bush Cabinet signals movement away from the race-conscious politics of the last 30 years. “George Bush is playing a very pivotal role in moving that process along. The civil rights movement is bankrupt. They don’t have an agenda except for race,” Woodson says. “I frankly think they ought to take the NAACP and the Confederate flag and put them both in museums.” But groups like the NAACP say that Bush’s election, the voting dispute in Florida, and Ashcroft’s nomination make them more relevant than ever. “We are as strong or stronger than ever before,” says the NAACP’s Shelton. “We are growing and expanding.” “The Republicans are paying attention,” says Weldon Latham, an African-American who served in both the Ford and Carter administrations. “This was a record vote [in the last election], the largest African-American vote in history. They’re thriving. They’re interested.” People for the American Way’s Mincberg suggests that it was the strident opposition to Ashcroft that forced the Bush administration to treat racial issues seriously. “The Ashcroft opposition has had an effect,” he says, “not only on who he has nominated but some of his early pronouncements. Now, we have to evaluate whether it was window dressing or whether it’s real.”

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