Civil Rights Groups Want Frist's Support On Racial Issues

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - A coalition of more than 180 civil rights organizations wants a meeting with Bill Frist, the next majority leader of the U.S. Senate, to get assurances that Republican Party pledges of racial inclusiveness translate into policy changes.

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said his group wants to meet with Frist, "to give him an opportunity to make a fresh start" after the controversy involving Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned as Senate GOP leader after making racially insensitive remarks at a birthday party.

According to its website, the conference wants Frist to oppose five of President Bush's 15 federal judicial nominees that are still awaiting Senate confirmation. They are Charles Pickering of Mississippi, Priscilla Owen of Texas, Carolyn Kuhl of California, Terrence Boyle of North Carolina and Jeffrey Sutton of Ohio.

"They have records of deep hostility to core civil rights principles," the conference contends.

Last September, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Owen's nomination to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She was rejected by all ten Democrats on the panel, despite the fact that she was rated "well qualified" by the American Bar Association.

In responding to the vote, President Bush blamed the Democrats for "shameful" behavior, "even by Washington standards."

"They have distorted her record and misconstrued her opinions. They have determined that a nominee's experience, academic credentials, and character are inconsequential," the president said. "It has harmed a good person, harmed our courts, and harmed the American people."

The Conference on Civil Rights also wants Frist to support legislation that would encourage federal investigations and prosecutions of so-called "hate crimes" and support more federal government funding for the improvement of voting procedures in the states.

Frist was unavailable Friday for further comment on this story. His spokesman, Nick Smith told , "Senator Frist will maintain an open dialogue with all individuals."

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said recently the incidents precipitating Lott's resignation would not change the party's Senate priorities. "It will not alter the agenda," he said.

Many conservatives think their emphasis on less government and more individual achievement benefits all Americans.

Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the GOP's only African-American member of Congress, told reporters the party does not "have to agree with the Congressional Black Caucus or Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or the NAACP. It's about understanding that there are issues that are American issues but that particularly affect black Americans."

Frist was widely regarded as the most moderate of the four Republican contenders for Lott's post, but is considered too conservative by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Frist's civil rights voting record is only a few percentage points higher than Lott's on the organization's civil rights scorecard. The NAACP reported that Frist voted with the group's liberal agenda only 15 percent of the time compared with 12 percent for Lott.

Some political observers believe Republicans can attract minority voters without supporting race-based affirmative action or other ideas supported primarily by liberal civil rights leaders.

Merle Black, a Georgia-based expert on southern politics, told Knight-Ridder newspapers, "So the Republicans aren't liberal, so what? Bush happens to believe you can approach civil rights from a different philosophy. Bill Frist is from Tennessee, he doesn't have any Deep South associations, or any ties to segregationists."

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