Ashcroft gets ripped on race

Democrats attack the nominee on Ronnie White, voting rights and school desegregation while preparing for a loss; Norton is next on the firing line.

Published January 18, 2001 11:52AM (EST)

During the second day of confirmation hearings for Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee took the former Missouri senator to task for his stands on racially charged issues. Despite their ideological differences with the nominee, a handful of Democrats, many of whom think of him as a friend, are expected to vote to confirm Ashcroft. Which makes his confirmation, aside from filibuster threats, virtually unsinkable.

But that didn't keep the Cabinet wannabe from getting grilled on his record: fighting a school desegregation case as Missouri attorney general; vetoing a voter education initiative for St. Louis as Missouri governor; and the Bork-ing of Ronnie White, an African-American nominee to the federal bench, during Ashcroft's tenure in the Senate. White himself testifies Thursday morning.

Deleware's Joe Biden, Illinois' Dick Durbin and Massachusetts' Ted Kennedy were Ashcroft's principal inquisitors in these areas, while Democrats like California's Dianne Feinstein, New York's Charles Schumer and Washington's Maria Cantwell deconstructed Ashcroft's record on abortion rights, gun control and the environment.

All of the drama of the proceedings was orchestrated by the senators, though some giants of the political stage were waiting in the wings. Uber-feminist Gloria Steinem drifted in and out of hearing room during the morning, and rabble-rouser Al Sharpton stopped by on his way to a press conference about his protest plans on Inauguration Day.

The Congressional Black Caucus also made its voice heard in opposition to Ashcroft, holding an impromptu anti-Ashcroft news conference during a hearing recess. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., were the final witnesses of the day; they used temperate tones and wove their personal histories with discrimination into their remarks. The low-key display elicited an expression of empathy from the chief Ashcroft supporter on the panel, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, and his reassurances that the attorney general designate is no racist.

Afterward, Waters remained unconvinced by Hatch's words and Ashcroft's record that the charges of racism were misplaced. "Politicians have been discouraged from using the word 'racist' because they get accused of playing the race card," she said. "But sometimes that word fits. John Ashcroft's actions prove that he is a racist."

Gale Norton, George W. Bush's choice to head the Interior Department, won't face the kinds of accusations that Ashcroft has over racial issues, though she did catch heat in the press for a 1996 speech in which she praised the Confederacy. Her primary foes in confirmation hearings set to begin Thursday are a bevy of environmental activists who say she would scuttle natural resource protection in favor of boosting business.

Confirmation cakewalks are anticipated for Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, slated to lead Health and Human Services; former Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, the pick for the Energy Department; Agriculture Secretary-designate Ann Veneman; and Veterans Affairs Secretary-designate Anthony Prinicipi. Hearings for these nominees are slated to begin Thursday.

By Salon Staff

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