- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

The Rev. Al Sharpton called on Republicans yesterday to "clarify themselves" on civil rights issues, and said he has had conversations with incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that he hopes will "be healthy in this post-Lott atmosphere."
Mr. Sharpton said he and Mr. Frist had a "cordial conversation" a few days before the Tennessee Republican was elected to replace Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi as majority leader. Mr. Lott was forced to step down after making comments that were seen by some as nostalgic for racial segregation.
Civil rights leaders, including the Congressional Black Caucus, will meet with Mr. Frist early next year to express their concerns about much of President Bush's agenda, Mr. Sharpton said. The coalition will oppose the president's more conservative nominees to the federal bench, making last year's income tax cuts "for the most wealthy" permanent, eliminating the estate tax, and its support for an immediate extension of unemployment benefits, which will expire for many at the end of this month.
"I told [Mr. Frist] that this could be an opportunity for the Republicans to clarify themselves," said Mr. Sharpton, who is considering running for president. "They should not take Senator Lott's decision to step aside as a sign that the concerns of the black community have stepped aside."
David Almasi, director of Project 21, a conservative black think tank, said he is encouraged that Mr. Frist has reached out to people such as Mr. Sharpton, but Republicans shouldn't let them dictate the agenda.
"Mr. Frist should go in there with the upper hand, and not the way Trent Lott did, with his hat in hand," Mr. Almasi said, referring to Mr. Lott's interview on Black Entertainment Television, which some conservatives criticized as a "sellout" of principled colorblind public policies.
"The way that the Bush administration has done things, the way that the Senate has operated, there's no pressing need for the civil rights community to make new demands," Mr. Almasi said. "They are just looking at this situation as an opportunity to demagogue and force [Republicans] to accept their agenda. Mr. Frist doesn't need to do that."
Before the public storm over his birthday toast to Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, Mr. Lott said he considered allowing a floor vote on five of the more contentious of the president's stymied judicial nominees Charles W. Pickering of Mississippi, Priscilla Owen of Texas, Carolyn Kuhl of California, Terrence Boyle of North Carolina, and Jeffrey Sutton of Ohio one of the first orders of business in the new Congress that begins Jan. 7.
It is not clear, however, whether Mr. Frist is as enthusiastic about backing judges that are now certain to be a target of attacks by liberal advocacy groups and black activists such as Mr. Sharpton.
"We are in the process of discussing the upcoming agenda for the Senate," said Nick Smith, spokesman for Mr. Frist. He declined to be specific. "Senator Frist is committed to keeping an open dialogue."
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, accused those five nominees of having "records of deep hostility to core civil rights principles."
Mr. Sharpton agreed. "[Republicans] can use this as an opportunity to show that there is a genuine attempt to address these concerns, or whether they were just trying to toss one guy over the side and let the ship sail in the same direction," Mr. Sharpton said.
Mr. Sharpton said he will watch Mr. Lott to see whether the "epiphany" he said he had on racial issues he declared in an interview on BET that he now supports affirmative action "across the board" was genuine.
"[Mr. Lott] could be an interesting advocate for affirmative action in the U.S. Senate," Mr. Sharpton said after a news conference in a Washington hotel yesterday.
Republican senators contend that support for school choice, Social Security reform, and cutting the estate tax something that Robert Johnson, the founder of BET has endorsed is an agenda that helps all Americans, including blacks. Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" last Sunday that he rejected the notion that "if you're not for the Democrats' liberal social agenda then you're a racist."
Mr. Sharpton said, "That's an arrogant response to people who have engaged in the civil rights struggle." But he hopes that an outreach that began with a "cordial conversation" with Mr. Frist will bear fruit and smooth relations between Republicans and traditional civil rights leaders.
"I'm encouraged [Mr. Frist] returned the call," Mr. Sharpton said. "It sets a new tenor and I hope we're not just dealing with photo ops but with equal ops equal opportunity."

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