Appeals nominee is ideal for GOP

Allen: The man at the center of the 4th Circuit flap is a staunchly conservative African-American.

November 27, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUEENS, N.Y. - Claude Allen was all charm when 65-year-old Meret Perez asked him to merengue.

Perez is a petite Estonian with gray hair who has Alzheimer's disease and badly wanted to dance. Allen, the Bush administration's deputy secretary of health and human services, was not about to deny her.

"She swept me off my feet," he said with a grin after the woman swung him and his pin-striped suit around Sunnyside Community Center.

Allen left behind hope and happiness on his recent visit to discuss health policy at this center for the needy, just across the river from Manhattan. He made people laugh. He listened as employees described gains and setbacks in trying to brighten the lives of those with dementia. Allen spoke of getting them more federal help.

At 43, Allen has been nominated by President Bush to become a federal appeals court judge. His supporters say the Senate, in deciding whether to confirm Allen, should consider what they call his sharp legal mind and especially his personal virtues: A sincere respect for people. Compassion and a patient willingness to listen.

Yet critics see a religious conservative committed to a hard-line Republican agenda who once described gays and lesbians as "queers." They see an opportunistic man with modest legal credentials, who has risen quickly through Republican ranks and might base his judgment on political calculation. They note that Allen has not only opposed abortion rights but has fought to limit them.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Allen next year. Once the panel sends his nomination to the full Senate, it could incite the next battle in a bruising conflict in Congress over whether Bush is trying to leave a deeply conservative imprint on the judiciary.

Two Democrats, Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, have said they will oppose Allen, a Virginian. The senators say the seat Allen would fill on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond - which handles cases from five states, including Maryland - has traditionally been filled by a Marylander.

The man Bush has picked for that seat is an African-American with views that Allen acknowledges are an "aberration." He is the son of Democrats and proud grandson of a sharecropper who lived to be 114 and was the first member of his family not born into slavery.

Yet Allen is a fervent Republican whose views were influenced by a former boss, ex-Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a combative conservative not known for reaching out to minorities.

Longtime friends have never fully understood Allen's politics. Some of them called him on an emotional day in 1983, as Helms was fighting the effort to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a federal holiday.

Allen, the first black Helms ever hired, stood by his boss, though he personally wrestled with the issue. He grew so frustrated with people calling to ask how in the world an African-American could work for Helms that he went home early.

Twenty years later, such questions are still flying. At Allen's confirmation hearings last month, senators pressed him about his stance on King's birthday. Allen replied delicately, calling King "a hero for me and my family - my generation." He said King deserved the honor. But he also said he shared Helms' concern that King might have been close to Communists.

Allen's views have made for an uneasy relationship with other blacks. When he worked for former Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, Allen sat through tense meetings with NAACP leaders who opposed the state's Confederate History month. At one session, Allen seemed to try to defuse the tension with a gift to King Salim Khalfani, state NAACP executive secretary.

Khalfani was appalled when he unrolled his present - a painting of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. Even if Allen was reaching for humor, Khalfani later told a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, he had shown "unmitigated gall."

But as a law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the only black in a group of 37, Allen grew close to that court's black conservative judge, Clarence Thomas, whom he called a mentor. When Thomas, nominated to be a Supreme Court justice, was rocked by charges of sexual harassment, Allen defended him.

"To see one of my mentors subjected to ad hominem attacks," he told the Legal Times then, "is in itself an attack on me and what I believe in."

Allen, an evangelical Christian, is married with three children who are home-schooled. Through a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department, he declined to discuss his nomination.

In public, he is soft-spoken, with a polite Southern accent and a gentle demeanor that makes him seem as much country pastor as federal bureaucrat.

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