WASHINGTON -- The Congressional Black Caucus, the group that vetoed one of President Clinton's earlier choices for the government's top civil rights post, unanimously endorsed yesterday the current choice: Boston lawyer Deval Patrick.
"The caucus stands united in our absolute and total support," Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the caucus chairman, told reporters a few minutes after phoning Mr. Clinton to assure him the group's 38 members would do all they could to ease Mr. Patrick's Senate approval for the position of assistant attorney general.
The announcement came after caucus members quizzed Mr. Patrick about his background as a private attorney, which includes active efforts to promote minorities' rights, and told him their own demands for strong civil rights enforcement.
The caucus' warm embrace was in marked contrast to its lack of enthusiasm for -- and, among some members, open hostility to -- District of Columbia Corporation Counsel John Payton, who was expected to be picked for the post late last year. After caucus members found that Mr. Payton had not voted regularly while living in Washington and did not seem to them to be well-versed on key civil rights questions, his chances faded rapidly, and he ultimately withdrew.
The key civil rights position at the Justice Department has never been filled by Mr. Clinton. The president withdrew his first nominee, Lani Guinier, a Philadelphia law professor, last June because of sharp criticism of her writings.
Confirmation hearings for Mr. Patrick before the Senate Judiciary Committee have not yet been scheduled and no opposition within the Senate has surfaced as yet.
But a spokesman for Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a leading Republican on the committee, said it was too soon to rule out opposition. The conservative research group Institute for Justice, which played a key role in scuttling Ms. Guinier's nomination, has said that Mr. Patrick "appears to be a 'stealth Guinier' " and has urged close committee scrutiny of his background.
Mr. Patrick's endorsement by the Black Caucus, Representative Mfume said, was based largely on the nominee's view that the nation needs "tough and equal enforcement of civil rights laws." The Baltimore Democrat said the group also was impressed by Mr. Patrick's background, which includes service on the legal staff of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.