Interest Groups Seek to 'Score Points' by Criticizing Ashcroft

By Cheryl K. Chumley | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - President-elect George W. Bush's preference for attorney general is not likely to cause the stir special interest groups are anticipating, analysts say. Abortion and civil rights activists, however, are condemning John Ashcroft for what they call his right-wing agenda.

"Our activists will oppose the nomination of this anti-choice extremist and will do everything in their power to prevent the approval of his appointment," said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a written statement about Ashcroft.

But the outcry is unfounded, said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, because Ashcroft will probably maintain a centrist policy attitude if confirmed to the Justice Department's lead position.

"Ultimately, the Bush administration is not going to pursue any issues that have a hard edge for them," Wittmann said. "[This outcry] is more a case of the interest groups looking to score some points than it is about derailing a nominee."

Some of the special interest groups are focused on Ashcroft's opposition to abortion. The National Urban League, a nonprofit organization that advocates "policy reforms that empower African-Americans to achieve economic, academic, and racial equality," is also prepared to fight Ashcroft.

NUL officials did not return a telephone call for comment, but a publication posted on the group's Internet site depicted Ashcroft as an unsatisfactory candidate as far as minority rights are concerned.

As a U.S. senator, Ashcroft received a rating of "unfavorable" from the NUL for his voting record in 10 areas deemed legislatively important to the organization. Among the bills supported by the Urban League and considered priorities, one required states to further "address the problem of disproportionate confinement of minority children in America's jails." Another bill, which the NUL opposed, designated budget surpluses to be used for tax cuts.

Planned Parenthood is concerned Ashcroft, as attorney general, will refuse to enforce such federal laws as the Freedom of Access to Clinical Entrances Act. Abortion advocates believe that law curtails "violence at clinics that provide abortion services" by requiring protestors to remain a certain distance from the facilities.

But David Almasi, director of Project 21, a program of The National Center for Public Policy Research, said he "didn't see that happening at all.

"I don't see Ashcroft being as much of an activist as Janet Reno has been. I see him obeying the laws that were already [established]," he continued.

Ashcroft's nomination has also upset homosexual organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, whose members have criticized the former senator's "Charitable Choice" proposal that would allow religious organizations more flexibility to spend tax dollars to develop faith-based programs for the poor.

Charitable Choice would permit, for example, churches that receive federal funding for such programs as substance abuse counseling and aid to the homeless to require staffers to possess a specific religious background. As a result, homosexual activist groups fear they would be subject to discrimination by Ashcroft's Justice Department and its enforcement activities.

Special interest groups are backed up by labor union officials and civil rights activists - most notably, Rev. Jesse Jackson - who have reportedly demanded that Democratic senators disregard their standard practice of supporting former colleagues and vote against Ashcroft.

But the furor over Ashcroft's nomination is baseless, Wittmann said, pointing to Ashcroft's record as governor of Missouri, when he approved such measures a Martin Luther King state holiday.

"How he served as governor is distinctly as a centrist," Wittmann said. "He will likely be a team player [as attorney general]. He will not go out looking for controversy. The only question I can see would come over unexpected issues, like during the selection of judicial nominees."