WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday tapped a relatively unknown lawyer from Boston as the nation's top enforcer of civil rights at the Justice Department, worrying minority advocates who accuse Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft of being insensitive to racial issues.
The nomination of former prosecutor Ralph F. Boyd Jr. as assistant attorney general for civil rights--the third African American nominated for a top Justice Department post--signals the Bush administration's clear effort to reach out to minorities who mobilized against Ashcroft.
"I think Ralph will try to mend fences," said Roberto Braceras, a close friend of Boyd and a lawyer at the Boston firm where Boyd, 43, is a partner.
But civil rights leaders were skeptical. They said Boyd's track record on civil rights is so thin that it is difficult to predict what actions he would take on fair housing, workplace discrimination, police corruption and other civil rights issues that he would oversee if confirmed by the Senate.
"As we look at his record, the thing that stands out the most is that he's an unknown quantity," said Hilary Shelton, head of the Washington office of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"The things that we know about him are things that have absolutely nothing to do with civil rights," Shelton said. "It's confounding, because we need someone in that position who will vigorously enforce the nation's civil rights laws. This has us very concerned."
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in an interview that Boyd "is a strong advocate for civil rights." He noted that Boyd's father founded the NAACP chapter in Schenectady, N.Y., and that Boyd was editor of a civil rights journal at Harvard Law School and serves on a governor's panel on diversity in Massachusetts.
Efforts to reach Boyd for comment were unsuccessful.
In recent years, the civil rights post has been a lightning rod for controversy.
Former President Clinton failed to win Senate confirmation for two of his nominees for the position. Republican senators derided law professor C. Lani Guinier as a "quota queen" and criticized Bill Lann Lee for his views on affirmative action.
Observers say the ongoing sensitivity surrounding the job may have scared away some of President Bush's potential nominees. And the controversy over Ashcroft's attitudes on racial issues has only fueled the volatility surrounding the civil rights job.
During a bitter Senate fight that ended with his narrow confirmation, Ashcroft pledged to aggressively enforce civil rights laws.
But Democrats blasted his opposition to school desegregation plans and voting rights measures in Missouri and his blocking of the nomination of an African American judge to the federal bench. Civil rights leaders also criticized Ashcroft for an interview in which he praised the Southern "patriots" of the Civil War and for his appearance at Bob Jones University at a time when the school banned interracial dating.
These and other issues raise questions about Ashcroft's commitment to civil rights and will ensure a tough examination of Boyd, Democrats and liberal groups said.
"The civil rights division [at the Justice Department] tends to go through periods where the lights are on but there's not much activity really happening in enforcing civil rights," said David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. Leahy is the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on Boyd's nomination.
"What we'll want to see is what the style and substance of the division's activity will be under Atty. Gen. Ashcroft and under Assistant Atty. Gen. Boyd," he said.
People for the American Way, the liberal group that led the fight against Ashcroft's confirmation, will look closely at Boyd's record to gauge his commitment to civil rights, said President Ralph Neas. "You would think a new administration would want someone with a proven record in civil rights. To my knowledge, that has not been shown here," he said.
Boyd made his mark as an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston from 1991 to 1997 prosecuting gun crime and gang cases. He was known for his 16-hour workdays, and he proved adept at fostering cooperation between federal and state authorities on gun cases, which helped to spur a huge downturn in gun crimes in Boston, co-workers said.
Braceras, the nominee's friend and law firm associate, said that while civil rights has not been a particular specialty of Boyd's, he has handled at least four big cases in that area in recent years. His biggest victory came on behalf of several dozen tenants who sued their landlord over slum living conditions.