Fresh from alienating black voters over the Ronnie White fiasco, will Sen. John Ashcroft take on Catholics in his drive to defeat Senate rival Gov. Mel Carnahan?

Oct 13, 1999 at 4:00 am
When Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was shot down during a full vote by the Senate in 1987, the action gave birth to a new political phrase. Candidates scuttled because of their conservative views or activism were said by politicos to have been "Borked." Twelve years later, St. Louis' own Ronnie White became the next federal judicial nominee to lose a full vote on the Senate floor. Is it possible that from now on, when judicial nominees are rejected because they have the dual liability of not being white or conservative, pundits will say they were "Whited"? Perhaps the phrase isn't catchy enough, but it has irony on its side.

Call it by any name you want, it smells the same. Anybody with any sense knows that what happened to Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White had nada to do with his judicial record and mucho to do with the upcoming U.S. Senate election.

Did race have anything to do with it? Would Sen. John Ashcroft have sabotaged a conservative African-American's candidacy? Probably not, but there wasn't one around. The fact that White is black just provided Ashcroft with one-stop shopping -- in one self-aggrandizing move, he shot down a judge who was both moderate and black. Given that Ashcroft is being challenged in his re-election bid next year by Gov. Mel Carnahan, his bushwhacking Carnahan's nominee will appeal to two somewhat similar audiences: the righteous right, who will believe, wrongly, that White was soft on crime; and the bigots, who will like the fact the judicial hierarchy retains a paler pigmentation. And believe it -- there are bigots in Missouri. Big-time.

But the real villain in this piece may not be Ashcroft. He was just being, well, Ashcroft. After all, would you expect Ashcroft to support a moderate black judicial opponent nominated by a Democratic governor who's trying to take Ashcroft's job away? Clearly it was Sen. Kit Bond who made this ambush possible. What makes his duplicitous actions even more despicable is that Bond flirted with African-American voters before his re-election last year after his opponent, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, irritated many black leaders with his strident efforts to end the area's school-desegregation program.

One of those who personally supported Bond over Nixon was Dr. James DeClue, who was the point man on the desegregation case for the local chapter of the NAACP. Charles Mischeaux, then head of the NAACP chapter, did radio spots for Bond. Because the NAACP is not supposed to endorse candidates, the national organization later made it clear that no endorsement had been made and let it be known that they were not thrilled with Mischeaux's public posturing.

DeClue now says that even in light of the White fiasco, he doesn't regret opposing Nixon, because a message had to be sent to the Nixons of the world that the Democratic Party can't take the African-American vote for granted. It had more to do with getting back at Nixon than with believing Bond was enlightened. "I do believe we did the right thing with the Bond-Jay Nixon issue," says DeClue. "We took a chance on a guy and he bombed out on us, that's all."

What galls DeClue most is that Bond did nothing to give anybody black the impression that he had misgivings about White. Then, when Bond introduced White to the Senate Judiciary Committee this summer, Bond said he wanted to "urge that this committee act favorably" on the nomination. Three Republicans on that committee voted for White: Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter and Strom Thurmond. That's Strom Thurmond, the guy who's been senator from South Carolina since it fired on Fort Sumter. Then, once White was out of committee, Bond did his Quisling thing.

Whether Ashcroft and Bond had this all plotted out beforehand or Bond really changed his mind after the committee hearing, only Ashcroft, Bond and Allah know for sure. And the only one of those three you can trust isn't talking. DeClue, for one, thinks Ashcroft is less than admirable.

"What Ashcroft really did with this deal, which was unconscionable, is to make sure it was voted out of committee to get it to the full Senate so they could vote him down once he could convince Bond to come over with him," he says. "You got the two senators from the home state against a candidate for confirmation. Out of senatorial courtesy, they vote it down."

From a strictly pragmatic perspective, Ashcroft's maneuver appears deft. But what if Ashcroft was too Ashcroft? In his effort to create a Willie Horton in a robe, has he pissed off African-Americans enough for them to really register and turn out against him? Has he irritated the middle-of-the-roaders to the point that they'll opt for the pride of Rolla, Mel Carnahan? Where is George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism?

On the steps of the Old Court House last week, the Rev. B.T. Rice, the Rev. Earl Nance, St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., Comptroller Darlene Green, Assistant Attorney General Marvin Teer and even mayoral candidate and Aldermanic President Francis Slay spoke out against what Ashcroft did to White. Nance said two lessons were learned from the flirtation with Bond and the Republicans.

First, the "cost of getting even" with Nixon was too high: "It cost us a federal judge."

"The second lesson," Nance said from the Court House steps, "is that when you lay down with snakes, you're going to get bit."

In the end, Ashcroft has to be careful that next year's senatorial race doesn't mutate into a holy war, the born-agains vs. the mackerel-snappers. In Ashcroft's attempt to paint Carnahan as soft on crime, he will directly point, or allude, to Carnahan's granting the request of Pope John Paul II to not execute convicted killer Darrell Mease. Only in Missouri would a Baptist from Rolla be painted as a papist sympathizer by an Assemblies of God member from Springfield.