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Fighting words

If you're on the opposite side of a fight with Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, he'll let you and just about anyone within hearing distance know.

Last year, the African-American lawmaker and senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee chastised a departing black, Republican colleague for opposing affirmative action and other traditional civil rights remedies. He called former Rep. Gary A. Franks of Connecticut "a Negro Dr. Kevorkian, a pariah, who gleefully assists in suicidal conduct to destroy his own race." ("'Dishonorable' Discharge," Dec. 4, 1996.)

The current object of Mr. Clay's ire is a fellow Democrat: Jeremiah W. "Jay" Nixon, his state's attorney general and a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1998. The seat is now held by Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Republican.

The attorney general, who is white, is undermining a desegregation order that allows black students in St. Louis to attend surrounding county schools while white students from outlying areas are bused to the city's magnet schools, Mr. Clay says. That stance is part of a political strategy to lure white voters who want desegregation dismantled, Mr. Clay asserts.

In an Oct. 3 letter to President Clinton, Mr. Clay appealed to the chief executive to cancel plans to attend a $1,000-a-plate luncheon for Mr. Nixon on Nov. 7. "Jay Nixon's political maneuvering is a living rebuke to your efforts, Mr. President, to enlarge opportunity for all children and to bring about racial reconciliation," Mr. Clay wrote.

Mr. Nixon responds that he is simply keeping a 1992 campaign promise to settle outstanding desegregation cases, something he has already done in Kansas City. "I believe that transportation for the sake of transportation is not the best educational objective for our children," the attorney general wrote Mr. Clay on Oct. 6. "Contrary to the assertion of many, this does not mean giving up on integration."

What's more, Mr. Nixon's aides say, he is not trying to pit blacks against whites in preparation for next year's campaign. "If we want to score political points, there are a lot better issues we could talk about," said Chuck Hatfield, the attorney general's campaign manager.

Last week, Mr. Clay had not heard from the White House. Mr. Hatfield said the president is still scheduled to attend the fund-raising luncheon.

--DAVID J. HOFF [email protected]

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