Democratic Groups Form Anti-Ashcroft Coalition

Two hundred Democratic-leaning organizations have formed a coalition against John Ashcroft, promising to fight tooth and nail against the confirmation of President-elect Bush’s nominee for attorney general.

When Bush made Ashcroft, a former senator from Missouri and one of the body’s most conservative members, his choice to head the Justice Department, he touched off a firestorm of protest from “pro-choice,” pro-gun control and other special interest groups. Today, those groups formed an alliance to challenge the nomination.

Ashcroft ‘Too Extreme,’ Opponents Say

“Simply put, John Ashcroft’s views on a range of issues that would be the subject of his work as attorney general are simply too extreme,” Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said as he announced the coalition at a press conference in Washington.

“John Ashcroft … will roll back decades of legal advances and public policy gains for women and their families,” the National Women’s Law Center said in a statement.

Ashcroft’s opponents are outraged by his fierce opposition to abortion rights, affirmative action and many gun control measures.

The NAACP points to Ashcroft’s effort to block the nomination of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, an African-American, to the federal bench. That half-million strong, predominantly African-American civil rights group helped mobilize get-out-the-vote efforts for Bush’s opponent, Vice President Al Gore. Now, the NAACP and other organizations in the coalition are mobilizing to get out the vote against Ashcroft’s confirmation in the Senate.

A number of the organizations are conducting opposition research against Ashcroft and preparing to release reports detailing his record and past controversial statements in an effort to pressure Senate Democrats to vote against his confirmation.

The Senate, now comprised of 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, is traditionally deferential to former members who are appointed to serve in the executive branch. But many leading Democrats are now sharply criticizing their former colleague.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that Ashcroft has been “on the fringe of a number of different issues that really challenge the … minority community that the president-elect is going to have to bring together.”

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said Ashcroft, who lost his re-election bid in November, now has the burden of convincing the Senate he “will vigorously pursue the civil rights laws that he has — with good reason, from his perspective — argued against for the past 20 years.”

“There’s only two places race can be resolved,” Biden added, “the courts and the justice system. I may oppose his nomination.”

Standing By Their Man

Republicans, however, are rushing to Ashcroft’s aid.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who resumes his post as Judiciary Committee chairman once Bush is sworn in, said Ashcroft is “a man of high quality.”

“I would personally resent any votes against him. I really think that it’s ridiculous, and I think we’ve gone way too far in this country just because you differ with somebody on abortion … or because you find some fault one side or the other and try to make a racial issue out of something that is not,” Hatch said on Fox News Sunday. “And I get a little sick and tired of that.”

Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said the attacks on Ashcroft were “outrageous,” and would ruin a bipartisan spirit Congress is trying to build.

“It’s appropriate to ask the attorney general nominee, ‘Will you enforce the laws properly?’ … But to create innuendo or insinuate that there are reasons to believe he won’t, I think, is inappropriate,” Kyl said on NBC.

And Bush, for his part, is standing by his attorney general-designate.

“I know there’s going to be some withering questions for some of the people that we’ve nominated for the positions,” the president-elect said Monday as he met with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders on defense issues in Austin, Texas. “But I’m convinced all of them will be able to withstand the withering questions.”

Ashcroft’s supporters point to a number of his actions as a public official to combat suggestions he harbors a racial bias. As Missouri governor from 1985 to 1993, for example, Ashcroft signed into law a state holiday honoring King; established musician Scott Joplin’s house as Missouri’s only historic site honoring a black individual; created an award honoring black educator George Washington Carver; named a black woman to a state judgeship; and led a fight to save Lincoln University, which was founded by black soldiers.

Ashcroft was elected to the Senate in 1994, but lost his re-election bid this year to the late Missouri governor, Mel Carnahan, whose wife Jean has been appointed to replace him for two years.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has not scheduled a hearing, but Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who is chairman until Bush takes office Jan. 20, has said he wants to begin before then and continue after inauguration.