- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. As embroiled Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft prepares to be scrutinized by the Senate next week, the 58-year-old former senator is being vigorously defended by blacks who were members of his Cabinet when he was Missouri governor.
His defenders include a man who said the aggressive effort to thwart Mr. Ashcroft was led by those "who have no basis for their claim."
"They can offer nothing, no proof, that this man is a racist," said Jerry Hunter, who served as the director of the Missouri State Department of Labor from 1986 to 1989. Mr. Ashcroft served two terms as governor from 1985 to 1993.
"His opponents know that to label him as a racist is so repugnant that he can never recover," said Mr. Hunter, 48, a Republican lawyer who is now in private practice. He was Mr. Ashcroft's point man on black judicial appointments.
Added Donna White, a black woman whom Mr. Ashcroft appointed to succeed Mr. Hunter in 1989: "These are generalizations that are being put out there. But nobody can find any examples."
The support from black Cabinet members comes as Senate Democrats again came down harshly on Mr. Ashcroft yesterday.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Mr. Ashcroft's positions are "confrontational" and "divisive," while Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, labeled him an "extremist" on ABC's "This Week."
President-elect George W. Bush strongly defended his nominee yesterday. "John's a team player," Mr. Bush told NBC News. "He will not politicize the attorney general's office."
Most of Mr. Ashcroft's supporters noted that the effort to scuttle his appointment, which will be the subject of Senate hearings beginning tomorrow, comes from national, rather than regional, activists.
"The move to cast him as a racist is national," said Marie Glaze, a black NAACP member from Columbia and an Ashcroft appointee, serving as Boone County Public Administrator. "But people here, black and white, know John. He is no racist."
Mr. Ashcroft is under attack from civil-rights groups of various stripes. The concerns range from his refusal to approve a federal judgeship for Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, a black jurist, to the charge that his fervent pro-life stance would prevent him from enforcing laws that protect access to abortion clinics.
But it is the charges of racism that infuriate his supporters, both black and white, in his home state.
"In my experience with him, I found him to be more sensitive to racial issues than liberals," Mr. Hunter said.
The former governor, Mr. Hunter noted, was responsible for signing into law a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King after a 14-year effort.
"In 1986, he told the Legislature that he would support the bill. It was passed almost immediately," Mr. Hunter said.
Nonetheless, the coalition of liberal groups against Mr. Ashcroft stands on claims that the conservative former senator has views that are "simply too extreme," said Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
The formidable opposition is fashioning a noose out of Mr. Ashcroft's Bible Belt leanings. They are objecting to his religious bent, and they are seizing on any chink in his armor.
Churches sprout like trees in the small towns of Missouri, towns that understand Mr. Ashcroft's brand of politics and his deep faith.
Mr. Ashcroft was raised just outside Springfield city near the Oklahoma border. In nearby Lebanon, population 20,000, there are 45 churches.
For those growing up there, church is as American as baseball and cheerleading. Even in young people's hangouts like Taco Bell, a teen-ager is more likely to wear a "Crusade for Christ" T-shirt than a Kid Rock garment.
Jefferson City, the state capital, is similar, a parochial town built amid swirling hills. On downtown's High Street, a pool hall named Mike's Corner Pocket and Pub sits across from Divinity Religious Gift Shop, and state workers make up most of the pedestrians.
Rural Missouri is a large part of Mr. Ashcroft's legacy; he is a local icon and deeply religious Anglo-Southerner who moved seamlessly from the state's Attorney General's Office into the governorship and on to Washington.
Steve Stepp, chairman of the Greene County Democratic Committee in southern Missouri, said Mr. Ashcroft inspires something intense in everyone in this territory.
"Either you love him, or you know what he is up to," he said.
"He has worked very hard at that image as an upstanding, extremely moral citizen," said Mr. Stepp, 53, a lifelong Missourian. "But his actions don't always match his words."
Democrats were angered when Mr. Ashcroft, as governor, refused to support increases in public education funding, Mr. Stepp said.
Mr. Stepp produced a series of local newspaper articles from 1992, when Mr. Ashcroft's nephew was arrested for growing marijuana in a home. The youth was out on probation.
"Maybe this man isn't what he portrays himself to be," Mr. Stepp said.
John Hickey, a spokesman for the Missouri Citizen Education Fund, said Mr. Ashcroft has encouraged the support of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson has said holds "racist views."
"Mr. Ashcroft is playing the race card," Mr. Hickey said. In the corner of Mr. Hickey's St. Louis office lay a campaign sign supporting Mel Carnahan, the late Missouri governor and Senate candidate who posthumously defeated Mr. Ashcroft in November after being killed in a plane crash weeks earlier.
"He opposed Ronnie White for a reason, he went to Bob Jones University for a reason, and he did an interview with Southern Patriot for a reason: He gets the white vote in a state that is 10 percent black," Mr. Hickey said.
The state actually is 11.3 percent black. During his governorship, 11.4 percent of Mr. Ashcroft's judicial appointments were black.
Mrs. Boxer said last week that Mr. Ashcroft should not be attorney general because his views are "outside the mainstream."
Perhaps Mrs. Boxer's mainstream is not the same one that includes Missouri, said Jim Osborn, a Springfield pharmacist who has known Mr. Ashcroft for 40 years.
"Maybe she wants a different America than the rest of us."
Mr. Osborn, a stout, pensive man, shares the staunch religious views of his friend, a Pentecostal who does not drink or dance.
He said, though, that Mr. Ashcroft is still down for fun.
"He played the piano, the 'Missouri Waltz,' during his inauguration party, and everybody danced," Mr. Osborn recalled fondly.


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