OCR Choice Renews Debate on Credentials Needed for Job

By Mark Walsh — September 12, 2001 8 min read
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President Bush’s selection of Gerald A. Reynolds to head the Department of Education’s office for civil rights is sparking a debate over the credentials the job requires.

Since the creation of the Education Department in 1980, the two Democratic presidents to serve in that time have appointed lawyers with long experience in civil rights litigation or enforcement to fill the important position of assistant secretary for civil rights. The three Republican presidents, meanwhile, have tended to nominate lawyers with solid conservative political credentials, including a young Clarence Thomas, but without extensive experience in civil rights law.

That has led critics to charge that Republican administrations are not as committed to enforcing civil rights laws in the nation’s schools.

The Republican record “suggests to me a lack of seriousness about the mission of the office for civil rights, which is to enthusiastically, vigorously, and completely enforce the civil rights laws in the area of education,” said Dianne Piche, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington watchdog group that was formed in 1982 by critics of the Reagan administration’s approach to such issues.

But defenders of the Republican choices say it is unrealistic to expect that a conservative president would tap a liberal civil rights advocate for a position such as the top OCR job. They argue that Mr. Reynolds, 38, a corporate lawyer and former official in groups such as the Center for New Black Leadership and the Center for Equal Opportunity, will be as committed to enforcing the law as Democratic picks.

“Jerry is not an extremist,” said Roger Clegg, who replaced Mr. Reynolds as the general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. The Washington think tank is led by Linda Chavez, who was the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan.

Mr. Reynolds, whose appointment requires Senate confirmation, has already drawn fire from the left and from liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill for his criticism of racial preferences, among other positions.

‘Discouraging’ Effect?

In comments and writings when he worked with the Center for New Black Leadership and the Center for Equal Opportunity, Mr. Reynolds has argued that racial preferences in college admissions and government contracting are exacerbating racial tensions and “discouraging rather than promoting the achievement of minorities.”

In a 1999 article in The World & I magazine, Mr. Reynolds wrote that traditional civil rights groups “promote policies that lower the bar for blacks.”

But “unless blacks have the values and skills needed to acquire material benefits without government intervention,” he wrote, “they will forever depend on the kindness of strangers.”

Since he was tapped for the OCR job in June, Mr. Reynolds has suggested that his views about affirmative action are more nuanced than his critics would suggest. “I don’t oppose all affirmative action programs,” he said in a brief interview with Education Week this summer. “I would love to have a conversation about this, but I can’t.”

A spokesman for the Education Department, where Mr. Reynolds is keeping an office, said last week that there would be no further comment from him, pending his confirmation proceedings.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in July that he had concerns about Mr. Reynolds.

“He raises serious questions with regards to his record on civil rights and on women’s issues,” the senator said on July 21 during an interview on CNN. “I think there’s going to be a thorough review of his record. I think there are serious kinds of questions, and I don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

The Senate committee has not yet received formal nomination papers for Mr. Reynolds, and no hearing has been scheduled.

‘Uniquely Sensitive’

Mr. Reynolds, if confirmed, would join a list of past Republican OCR appointees that includes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thomas, President Reagan’s first assistant secretary for civil rights, and former President George Bush’s nominee, Michael L. Williams, who touched off a dispute over race-based scholarships.

Counting Mr. Reynolds, all five OCR chiefs nominated by Republican presidents since the creation of the Education Department have been African-Americans without substantial ties to traditional civil rights groups.

Democratic presidents have had the chance to nominate only two people to the office. President Carter nominated Cynthia Brown, who is white and had worked as a deputy in the civil rights office of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, to be the new Education Department’s first OCR chief in 1980.

President Clinton’s OCR chief, Norma V. Cantu, a lawyer, was a longtime civil rights litigator with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Appointments in the civil rights arena are uniquely sensitive,” Mr. Clegg said. “It is very tempting for administrations to nominate individuals who are members of minorities or ethnic groups.”

The hope is that such nominations will show a commitment to civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities, he said.

But the most prominent of the former OCR heads has said he was a reluctant appointee.

Justice Thomas, in a 1987 speech while he was the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, recalled that he had initially declined the position of assistant secretary for civil rights because his career had not been in civil rights enforcement.

“In fact, I was insulted about the initial contact about the position,” he said in the speech. “I always found it curious that even though my background was in energy, taxation, and general corporate regulatory matters, I was not seriously sought after to move into one of those areas” in the Reagan administration.

“But be that as it may,” he said, “I was excited about the prospects of influencing change.” He served only about 10 months at the Education Department before being named to the EEOC.

Justice Thomas generally does not grant press interviews, and a Supreme Court spokesman said last week that the justice would not depart from that policy to comment on the OCR.

Fiesta Bowl Flap

At the OCR, Justice Thomas’ replacement was Harry M. Singleton, a lawyer who had been a classmate of his at Yale Law School and who, like Mr. Thomas, was introduced to the possibility of a job in the Reagan administration at a late 1980 meeting of black conservatives in San Francisco.

By most accounts, Mr. Singleton had a combative tenure as assistant secretary from 1982 to 1985, with criticism from Democrats in Congress over the agency’s alleged lack of zeal in civil rights enforcement. However, both Mr. Singleton and his late boss, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, have suggested that they fought Department of Justice lawyers who sought to tone down desegregation efforts in higher education.

Mr. Singleton, who could not be reached for comment, was replaced in the final years of the Reagan administration by LeGree S. Daniels. She had served in the Pennsylvania state government and had led a national group of black Republicans.

When the first President Bush took office, he nominated Mr. Williams, a Texas native who had prosecuted white supremacists in President Reagan’s Justice Department. His tenure as assistant secretary for civil rights seemed to be going smoothly until the 1990 Fiesta Bowl football game.

The organizers of the college game had promised to contribute $200,000 in scholarships for minority students at the two competing universities. Mr. Williams used the occasion to advise the bowl game and the schools about a new interpretation of federal law: Colleges receiving federal funds could no longer award race-exclusive scholarships.

That announcement ignited a political firestorm in Washington and created confusion in the higher education community. Neither Mr. Williams nor anyone else in the Education Department had cleared the policy change with the White House, which ordered a retreat.

Mr. Williams said at the time that his position was “legally correct” but “politically naive.” Later, Lamar Alexander took over as secretary of the department and shelved the policy altogether.

Mr. Williams, now an elected member of the Texas Railroad Commission, declined to comment about his OCR tenure.

Aggressive Enforcement?

The two OCR chiefs confirmed under Democratic presidents said in interviews that they were not familiar enough with Mr. Reynolds to comment about the current Bush administration’s choice.

Ms. Brown, now the director of the Resource Center on Educational Equity at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said a conservative administration naturally takes a conservative approach to civil rights enforcement. But a civil rights enforcer can still be aggressive in areas where the law is settled, she said.

“There are many areas in civil rights where the law is clear on what discrimination is,” she said. “I hope [Mr. Reynolds] moves forward aggressively.”

Ms. Cantu said she had an easy confirmation at a time when Lani Guinier, President Clinton’s first choice to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, faced intense opposition. But Ms. Cantu herself was often the center of controversy at the OCR. (“In the Line of Fire,” Dec. 3, 1997.)

The Republican Party “has to do better than it has in the past” in civil rights enforcement, Ms. Cantu said.

“I don’t want to make a partisan statement, but judging from objective data, such as how long the delays were in enforcement, the Republican Party has not been successful in enforcing civil rights laws,” she said.

Cherylyn Harley, a senior fellow at the Center for New Black Leadership, said Mr. Reynolds deserves a chance to be evaluated based on his skills and background.

“If you think a nominee must have led a civil rights organization, then you have seen a job description for OCR that I have not,” she said. “He is a qualified lawyer. He has had a number of experiences in Washington, and he understands educational issues. That is what should be important.”


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