Over the past three years, Mary Frances Berry and Cruz Reynoso presided over U.S. Civil Rights Commission meetings that were so frigid that members would sometimes snap at one another or sit back and stare coldly.
But after Berry, the liberal chairman, who is black, and Reynoso, the liberal vice chairman, who is Latino, stepped down Tuesday, the composition of the commission changed. President Bush appointed a black Republican, Gerald A. Reynolds, to replace Berry as chairman, and another black Republican, Ashley L. Taylor, to replace Reynoso as a member. Abigail Thernstrom, an independent who is conservative and white, became the new vice chairman.
Thus the commission went from a 5 to 3 liberal majority to a 6 to 2 conservative majority.
"It is a new day at the commission, no doubt about it," said Peter N. Kirsanow, a black conservative commissioner. "Mary was there for 25 years. She's been there for half the commission's life. It will be different."
Liberals are wondering how conservatives -- some of whom have said that the commission has lost its relevance and many of whom oppose programs such as affirmative action -- will fulfill the commission's role as the conscience of the federal government, as it has been called.
"The issue isn't whether they are Democrat or Republican. It's whether they will continue to advance the mission of civil rights," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. "The commission came out of the civil rights movement, and its mission was to advance ways of fully integrating the diversity of American citizens."
Reynolds said that work is a concern, but the first order of business at the commission will be fiscal: "One of the first things we're going to do is have an audit," he said.
"There have been allegations of mismanagement by" the Government Accountability Office, said Reynolds, a Brooklyn native who was assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department under Bush. "We want to operate the commission in a fashion that brings honor to the commission and individuals who work at the commission."
In October of last year, the GAO said the commission flouted federal guidelines while managing a $9 million budget, particularly when awarding contracts.
Staff director Les Jin, who took issue with the report, was released Tuesday. He will likely be replaced by Kenneth L. Marcus, who worked with Reynolds at the Education Department, several commission officials said.
Berry in particular frustrated Bush, first by launching an investigation into reports of intimidation of black voters in Florida at the height of the recount during the 2000 presidential election. Later, she refused to seat Kirsanow when Bush appointed him to replace a liberal commissioner whose term had expired. Bush secured a judge's order to have him seated.
Berry did not return several telephone calls placed to her through the public relations firm McKinney & Associates Inc., which contacted her on behalf of reporters while she was at the commission.
In her early years on the panel, she fought with former conservative chairman Clarence Pendleton and fought battles against Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in later years. Those partisan wars seemed to set the tone for the way that Berry, a political independent, ran the commission, conservatives said.
"To some extent she was so partisan and so intent on squelching voices that she was less effective than she could be," said Thernstrom, who, unlike Berry, does not support affirmative action. "I think she was both articulate and knowledgeable. But her lack of respect for voices that differed from hers meant that the commission's work was impoverished."
Shelton, the NAACP's Washington bureau chief, said he has concerns about Reynolds. The two have appeared together at debates where, Shelton said, Reynolds opposed affirmative action in education, saying it is no longer needed.
"Affirmative action is a tool that was brought about by the civil rights movement," Shelton said.
Reynolds said he is more concerned with carrying on the conversation about the president's No Child Left Behind initiative.
"That's a conversation we need to have in many of our communities, especially in many of our black and Hispanic communities," he said.
But the new chairman said he should hold his tongue before consulting with those already on the commission. "I haven't set foot in the building yet," he said. "It's important that I get lots of input from my fellow commissioners."