Ralph Neas gears up for another try at gaining enactment of civil rights bill

January 20, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Ralph Neas is something of an anomaly in Washington. White and Republican, he is the town's top lobbyist for civil rights, an issue that often is regarded as primarily the concern of blacks and Democrats.

Right now, with a war on, the nation officially in a recession and the federal government's budget crisis lurching ahead, Mr. Neas will not be deterred; he is gearing up once again to press for the enactment of a major civil rights bill.

For nine years, Mr. Neas has been executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of about 180 organizations ranging from Actors Equity to Zeta Phi Beta, a black sorority.

Mr. Neas' color and political affiliation bothered some members of the coalition when he was being considered for the executive director's job in 1981. Moreover, he would succeed the late and legendary Clarence Mitchell Jr., who was looked upon with awe by the legions of the civil rights establishment -- white and black.

In those days, the executive director's job was non-paying; Mr. Mitchell's paid post was as chief lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

For 20 years, while his color barred him from the Senate's reception rooms, his lobbying abilities had earned him the unofficial title of "101st senator."

When Mr. Mitchell decided to retire and the matter of his successor at the Leadership Conference arose -- it was now to be a paid post -- he was quoted as saying, "I wanted the best man for the job, and Ralph was the best man."

Mr. Neas had been chief legislative assistant to Sen. Edward W. Brooke, D-Mass., the first black in the Senate since Reconstruction -- and to this day the only one.

"My experience on Capitol Hill -- knowing the legislative process, knowing the players -- was important," Mr. Neas said in a recent interview. But he thinks that his color and his political affiliation actually may have helped him get the Leadership Conference post. "I wouldn't be surprised that my Republican connections, especially at a time when Ronald Reagan was about to become president, weighed in heavily," he said.

Once hired, he set about doing what has become the mark of his lobbying successes: building a consensus. Within the Leadership Conference, he said, "consensus became ever more important when you had a rookie like me as executive director."

Achieving a consensus in the conference has become "a lot more difficult" as its membership has become more diverse, Mr. Neas said.

Created 40 years ago as a coalition of about 40 civil rights, labor and religious groups, its 180 members now include, among others, the Epilepsy Foundation of America, the Japanese-American Citizens League, the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, Jewish War Veterans, Rural America and both the YMCA and YWCA.

"Civil rights is not only a matter of the rights of blacks," he said. "It's a matter of the rights of women, of the disabled, of other minorities."

Once again, it's consensus-building time, particularly on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Neas' efforts last year resulted in congressional approval of the so-called Civil Rights Act of 1990 by large majorities in both houses. But President Bush vetoed the measure, calling it a "quota bill," although his veto was barely sustained by the House.

The bill that Mr. Neas is lobbying for this year is almost identical to last year's. Its aim remains to renew the strength of civil rights laws diluted by the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1988.

"Ralph's best quality is his persistence," says Clint Bolick, executive director of the Landmark Center for Civil Rights and probably the conservatives' most adept lobbyist on the issue. "He's a bulldog."

Mr. Bolick is, at one and the same time, one of Mr. Neas' strongest opponents and admirers. The two have engaged in public debates so often that National Journal, the Washington-based magazine of government and politics, has dubbed them "the odd couple of civil rights."

Mr. Neas' sense of determination first surfaced under circumstances which had nothing to do with civil rights. In 1979, he contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurologic disturbance of unknown cause. It rendered him totally paralyzed, living on a respirator, for about 100 days. He recovered completely, but only after months of intensive physical therapy.

Lobbying is not what Mr. Neas always intended to do.

At dinner the other night, he recalled that back in 1975, he told Senator Brooke: "Senator, I couldn't be happier. I love you. I love working in the Senate. It's the realization of a lifelong dream.

"But there is one dream that took precedence over this -- playing third base for the Boston Red Sox. That's what I really wanted to do."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.