- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

Mary Frances Berry, the longtime chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has been called everything from "uncompromising" and "fiercely independent" to "defiant," "ferociously partisan" and "deeply polarizing."
The 63-year-old black avowed liberal, who is now refusing a commission vote to one of President Bush's appointees, is known for her radical views and is revered as an icon of the civil rights movement.
"Mary Frances Berry is one of the consciences of the civil rights movement. She is uncompromising in her commitment to equality and justice and enjoys enormous respect in the field," said Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League.
Others, however, see her as a high-profile obstructionist who actually has thwarted progress in race relations as a result of what she herself describes as her "take no prisoners" views.
Michael Horowitz, who sparred with Miss Berry when he served as general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan administration, described her as "one of the shrewdest operatives in Washington.
"I've never seen a person with a more unacceptably radical set of views manage to gain credibility in public life," said Mr. Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. He describes Miss Berry as an idealogue who is "10 degrees left of the extreme left."
"The tragedy is that she has been an instrumental figure standing in the way of serious debate on racial issues," he said.
First appointed to the commission in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, Miss Berry has been a fixture on it for most of the past 21 years. In the fall of 1983, President Reagan fired Miss Berry for criticizing his civil rights policies, but she sued him and won reinstatement in federal district court.
"The firing took place on the day of the invasion of Grenada," said Mr. Horowitz. "Some of us joked we had to invade Grenada to give us cover to fire Mary Frances Berry who was so politically deft."
President Bill Clinton appointed her chairman of the commission in 1993 and reappointed her to that position in 1999. Because panel members serve six-year terms, she will be on it at least another four years.
It's generally assumed Miss Berry is a Democrat, but that's not the case. "She's a registered independent and the most independent person I've ever met," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, who says he's known her for 20 years.
Mr. Neas dismisses claims that partisan politics drives Miss Berry's leadership of the panel. "She had the spunk to take on all four presidents since she's been on board," he said in a telephone interview from Chicago.
Miss Berry "issued a report President Clinton didn't like that said he had not worked hard enough to end racial profiling," Mr. Neas said, and that he should have provided more funding to civil rights agencies.
But her detractors point out that Miss Berry has contributed about $25,000 to Democratic candidates over the years and that under her stewardship, the commission dominated by Democrats repeatedly has generated politically motivated reports. They include:
cReleasing a report in June that concluded blacks and other minorities in Florida were deprived of their right to vote in the 2000 presidential election.
Charles Canady, chief counsel for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, charged that both the leaking and the report itself were "consistent with the substantive bias and procedural unfairness that have been the commission's trademark throughout the investigation of the November 2000 election."
cLeaking a report in April 2000 that harshly criticized the New York Police Department after the police slaying of a black immigrant and the torture of a second. The draft report was leaked as Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was preparing to make a U.S. Senate bid against then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Miss Berry contributed $1,250 to the Clinton campaign.
Also leaking reports in 2000 that attacked the affirmative-action records of both Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and his brother, the Florida governor.
Miss Berry now is in a pitched battle with the White House over her refusal to seat Bush appointee Peter Kirsanow, a conservative black, as a panel member.
The seat is key because, if it goes to Mr. Kirsanow, the eight commissioners will be split 4-4 along party lines. Miss Berry has warned the White House it would need federal marshals to seat Mr. Kirsanow, whom she kept referring to as a "member of the audience" at a commission meeting Friday.
A Nashville native, Miss Berry was forced as a toddler to spend a year-and-half in an orphanage after her father abandoned the family. Her mother reclaimed both her and her younger brother and raised them by working as a beautician.
A professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Miss Berry has had a long career in higher education, having served as provost at the University of Maryland College Park and chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She also served briefly as acting U.S. Commissioner on Education.
"She's a Renaissance woman from Tennessee, who got a bachelor's and a master's degree from Howard University and two doctorates from the University of Michigan," said Mr. Neas. She took a commission that had become "totally discredited" by White House interference and made it independent, he said.
But Mr. Horowitz recalls a commission with a noble history. "To go from that history to making the institution vaudeville is Mary Frances Berry's contribution to civil rights," he said.

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