Choice for key civil rights post scrutinized by Congressional Black Caucus

November 16, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The most important civil rights post in the government, still empty five months after President Clinton stirred the wrath of black activists by casting aside his first nominee, is likely to go to 46-year-old black lawyer John Payton -- assuming he converts skeptics in the Congressional Black Caucus.

An unusual political minuet, with black politicians, administration officials and civil rights lobbyists warily maneuvering around Mr. Payton in public and in private, has slowed the pace of his formal nomination.

Mr. Payton, the top legal officer of the District of Columbia government, is not being pushed off into the wings, though. In fact, a series of face-to-face encounters with the skeptics in the Black Caucus may be succeeding in easing their doubts about his commitment to voting rights, according to a variety of sources in and out of the government.

Even so, Mr. Payton could not go to work in the key Justice Department post until late winter at the earliest. That could mean that an entire year or more could pass with no leader of the department's Civil Rights Division -- one of the main arms of the department that was weakened by dissension during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Mr. Clinton originally picked a longtime friend, Philadelphia law professor Lani Guinier, until conservatives' criticism of her views on the political rights of minorities led the president to withdraw the nomination.

After Ms. Guinier was abandoned, the White House and Justice Department let time pass to let passions cool. Then, during the summer, they began an unusually cautious process of selection, anxious to avoid another Guinier episode.

That process finally led to Mr. Payton. He is strenuously promoted by his friends as a strong civil rights advocate, based on a record of activism going back to his student days at Pomona College in California.

Some two weeks ago, government aides and some leaders of civil rights organizations privately expected Mr. Clinton to proceed with his nomination.

Plenty of endorsements

If endorsements were all that were needed, Mr. Payton appeared to be a sure thing at that point: His chief defender in the administration is Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, a longtime Arkansas confidant of both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton; he was given unstinting praise by Elaine Jones, who holds the most conspicuous legal job in the civil rights movement -- general counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and he has the full embrace of some of Washington's leading power-broker lawyers in the blue-chip firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, where he had been a partner.

Ms. Jones, herself a highly respected activist in civil rights causes, praised Mr. Payton's "strong record of active commitment to civil rights enforcement," and argued that he is "extremely well qualified" for the job.

Now, there no longer is a timetable for him to be named, according to a Justice Department spokesman. One of the stormiest positions in government service is again being buffeted by crosswinds of controversy, though not as intense or yet as threatening as those that overwhelmed Ms. Guinier.

Officially, the Justice Department's stance on Mr. Payton, a spokesman said, is that "he's the leading contender; he is still continuing to touch a lot of bases in this process." The White House press office calls him "the front-runner."

A source close to the continuing negotiations over the nomination, who refused to be identified, said Mr. Payton and his associates have no doubt that he will be chosen -- when the time comes.

But with no likelihood of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings before February, government aides and lobbyists working for Mr. Payton concede frankly that they do not want his nomination to be left dangling as a visible target for weeks.

Mr. Payton's office said he would not comment on the situation "at this time." One of his aides, Anne Blackburn, remarked: "It is a little premature; he is not the nominee."

Lightning rod position'

What administration officials now are realizing anew, according to a Justice Department aide who declined to be quoted by name, is that "the Lani Guinier nomination certainly has elevated this post to another level of scrutiny; it is sort of a lightning rod position -- no matter who the nominee is."

The "lightning" Mr. Payton's nomination has attracted has not come from the the conservative activists, who spearheaded Ms. Guinier's downfall. Instead, it has come from the opposite and potentially more sensitive direction: the Congressional Black Caucus. Led by Maryland Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Black Caucus's members were among Ms. Guinier's principal defenders.

White House snubbed

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