Strategies take shape in battle over Thomas Senate hearings begin next week

September 04, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- One side is applauding the man. The other side is criticizing his record. And both sides are aiming at the folks back home.

Thus the battle lines have been drawn in the struggle over Senate confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas, President Bush's nominee to become a justice of the Supreme Court.

With sides chosen and all issues apparently on the table, the strategies of the coming fight are unfolding.

Supporters of the nominee's confirmation are organizing their campaign around his personal attributes and history -- the Clarence Thomas who rose out of poverty in Pin Point, Ga., overcame the racial barriers of the South to become a federal appeals court judge and who is now, at 43, the president's choice to succeed to the Supreme Court seat of the legendary Justice Thurgood Marshall.

"Our biggest asset is Judge Thomas himself," said conservative activist Gary Bauer, once a domestic affairs adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Bauer is coordinating the efforts of a quickly set up network of organizations called Concerned Citizens to Confirm Clarence Thomas.

CCCCT is one of several pro-Thomas networks that have the support and power of the White House. A number of Bush aides are coordinating the overall campaign on behalf of the president's nominee.

The anti-Thomas side is bombarding Judge Thomas' record. It is accusing him of failing, as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and earlier as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, to enforce the nation's laws against racial and gender discrimination. Further, he is accused of holding judicial views that would turn back the clock of the nation's policies ranging from anti-discrimination to abortion.

Judge Thomas has "too often allowed his personal opinions to interfere with his constitutional and statutory responsibilities to enforce civil rights laws," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The lobbying coalition of 185 organizations led the spectacularly successful campaign to deny a Supreme Court seat to Robert H. Bork in 1987.

The anti-Thomas effort is organized in much the same manner as the Leadership Conference's campaign against Mr. Bork and includes many veterans of that campaign. It's all spelled out in "People Rising," a book by two admirers of the anti-Bork campaign that amounts to a virtual how-to manual on defeating nominees for the Supreme Court.

The anti-Thomas strategy was conceived in Washington and is being directed from here, but it is aimed primarily at the constituencies of members of the U.S. Senate. As in the Bork campaign, Mr. Neas believes that senators -- particularly those whose margins of victory rely on black voters -- will vote on the Thomas confirmation with their ears cocked to what constituents have to say about the judge.

In "People Rising," Mr. Neas was quoted as saying:

"We made a commitment that the grass-roots effort would be the centerpiece effort of the entire campaign, and we went out and got money to finance it from [Leadership Conference] member organizations. Eventually, we had operations in 43 of 50 states."

Mr. Neas generally is reticent about his organization's strategies this time -- "Why give anything away to the other side?" -- but admits that once again a grass-roots effort will be the Leadership Conference's top priority.

This time he may have a problem. There is distinctly less unanimity of opposition to Judge Thomas among black and civil rights organizations within the Leadership Conference -- and in the black community in general -- than there was to Judge Bork. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is opposing Judge Thomas' confirmation, but only after considerable debate and turmoil within its board of directors.

At least three major black-affairs organizations have decided to withhold any stance on Judge Thomas until he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee at hearings scheduled to begin Sept. 10. Those organizations are the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Council of Negro Women -- all members of the Leadership Conference's executive council.

Meanwhile, Robert Woodson, a black conservative maverick who has created a pro-Thomas network of predominantly black organizations -- Americans for Self-Reliance -- cites with glee polls showing that 57 percent or more of the nation's blacks favor Judge Thomas' confirmation, while less than 20 percent oppose him.

In the Thomas confirmation battle, one civil rights leader said, "race has complicated the equation."

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