WASHINGTON — In an ironic collision of symbolism and substance, the White House has left unfilled a key civil rights job for over a year while searching for a nominee that sends the right signal of racial diversity.
The delay in naming a chairman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has confounded and divided civil rights activists, and raised questions about whether the White House has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the fair employment laws by effectively limiting its search to Latino candidates.
Over the past year, the White House has floated the names of three prospective Latino nominees. But each has been shot down by civil rights groups who felt they lacked sufficient experience in fair-employment law.
The civil rights community and the Administration itself are now split around a pointed question: Is the symbolism of naming a Latino to the job more important than the impact of leaving leaderless the agency charged with enforcing laws prohibiting hiring discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age or physical disability?
Critics say the absence of a permanent chairman, a post traditionally held by a minority, has left the agency foundering as it struggles to dig out from a massive backlog of more than 80,000 pending discrimination complaints.
Latino advocacy groups are still pushing for a Latino appointment, though others in the civil rights community say the Administration can no longer afford to place such a premium on the nominee's ethnic background.
"My feeling is: Get someone in there, whether a he or she, whether Hispanic or African American or Asian American, no matter what their background is," said Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees the EEOC.
"The Administration in this case has been unduly absorbed with some kind of a balancing process in affirmative action and that seems to have hampered their acting rapidly," said William Taylor, vice-chairman of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a liberal advocacy group. "It is a misapprehension of the general goal of diversity to pinpoint particular positions for particular people."
Former President George Bush's appointee as EEOC chairman, Evan J. Kemp Jr., resigned in April, 1993. Since then, the commission has been under an acting chairman: Tony E. Gallegos, a Latino Democrat first appointed to the EEOC by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
Clinton also hasn't chosen anyone to fill the commission's general counsel position, which has been vacant since last June, and only recently announced his intention to nominate candidates for two other vacant positions on the five-member board.
Sources said the appointment process was delayed while Clinton sought to assemble a diverse slate of candidates. One of the two nominees to the commission is disabled, the other is Asian.
Since Gallegos can only serve on the commission for a 60-day grace period after his term expires at the beginning of July, if none of Clinton's nominees receives Senate confirmation by Aug. 29, the commission will lack a quorum to conduct business.
Gallegos said that even with only three commissioners the agency is running at full steam. "Cases are moving through," he said. "Nothing is delayed." But civil rights groups said the commission has been drifting.
"It is just a leaderless group over there," said Pat Wright, director of government affairs at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
For conservatives all this stands as a parable on the perils of rigid insistence on racial diversity in hiring decisions.
"It's a question of sacrificing civil rights enforcement on the altar of (appointment) quotas, and it seems to me that's what is happening," said Linda Chavez, executive director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under Reagan.
Publicly, White House officials say they have considered candidates of all races for chairman, and note that they have interviewed some white candidates.
"We have looked at a very broad spectrum of people for this position," said Veronica Biggins, who was named White House personnel director last January. "Our preference is that it would be an Hispanic, but in the same breath it is most important to have the right person in this position."
But privately, several White House sources acknowledge that the Administration has sought a Latino, virtually to the exclusion of candidates of any other background.
One official involved in the process said finding a Latino chairman became imperative after African Americans were named to the two other high-profile civil rights jobs: Deval Patrick as assistant attorney general for civil rights and Mary Frances Berry as chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
A second White House official concurred. "There was a general consensus on behalf of everyone who was involved . . . that if the civil rights division and some of the other significant positions (went to blacks), there had to be balance and it made sense to be an Hispanic chair" at EEOC.