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National Perspective | UPDATE

Not Just Acting: Clinton Pick Guards Civil Rights With Low-Key Approach

July 14, 1998|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — "Nothing glamorous." Just the "nuts and bolts of law enforcement." Bill Lann Lee uses those phrases repeatedly in describing his job as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

And in case a listener misses the point, Lee finds yet another way to make it during his first full-scale interview since taking command of the Justice Department's Civil Rights division six months ago. "We're not really talking about things that are controversial or way out," he says.

Lee's low-key self-portrait conflicts with the picture sketched by his GOP foes on the Senate Judiciary Committee--that of an affirmative action zealot who interprets Supreme Court decisions limiting the controversial remedy for racial discrimination as leaving the door open for its use.

After Senate Republicans refused to confirm Lee for the post, President Clinton used the "acting" designation to put him in the job.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the Judiciary Committee chairman, considers the question of voting on Lee a closed matter, even though Clinton resubmitted Lee's nomination in January.

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Despite the emphasis on making no waves, Lee leaves no doubt that he is dedicated to the missions of the civil rights division, informed by what he distills as "this notion of opportunity and fairness" for all Americans.

Lee draws from his own life experience to illustrate his understanding of what it means to be denied equal opportunity and fairness.

He is the son of Chinese immigrant parents, who ran Lee's Hand Laundry in New York near Harlem. His late father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, but still found opportunity denied him when he returned to civilian life.

"He was called a 'dumb Chinaman' and worse" and returned to the laundry enterprise, Lee says. "To this day, I can vividly recall the smell, the stench . . . of the dirty laundry my parents took in."

Spurred on by his parents, Lee eventually won a scholarship to Yale University. Although his college wardrobe left a lot to be desired, he did have "an endless supply" of white shirts, drawn from those his father's customers had abandoned at the laundry. (He smiled when a visitor pointed out that Lee was wearing a stiffly starched white shirt that day.)

At a recent retreat for managers and supervisors in his division, Lee stressed "how he was like the rest of us--a career civil rights lawyer," one participant recalls.

This was not false humility, for Lee has spent all of his 23-year legal career in civil rights work, his last post as Western regional counsel for the NAACP Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles.

He takes pride in the work, telling his Justice Department subordinates: "We're all middle-age lawyers, and when we get up, we look forward to our day. We know people we went to law school with who don't" have the same outlook, although their work might pay much more.

Lee--who says his top three priorities for his division are combating hate crimes, and enforcing the laws for fair housing and lending, as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act--contends that failing to win Senate confirmation and serving in an acting capacity has not interfered with his ability to run the division. He concedes, however, that if he had been confirmed, "I'd feel a little better."

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On hate crimes, Lee notes, "Unfortunately, every couple of months something horrible happens to remind us that problems of race, ethnicity are just not behind us." Enforcement of the law against the "most brutal kind of incidents" must be certain, quick and positive to "make sure that the American people understand that some acts just cannot be tolerated."

Hate crimes "divide, demean and are intended to deprive Americans of hope," Lee says.

In seeking to end housing and lending discrimination, Lee says: "The American dream is out of reach for a lot of people."

Discussing the division's work to enforce the newest of the civil rights statutes, the Americans With Disabilities Act, Lee notes, "It's important to get people on board." And if this can be achieved by settling cases out of court or "compliance without litigation, so be it."

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