By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009
To some staunch conservatives watching President Bush relinquish the reins of power to President-elect Barack Obama, a few too many ardent liberals are now crashing the gates.
Some well-known Democratic activists are advising Obama on how to steer federal agencies, including a few whom conservative Republicans fought hard to keep out of power in the Clinton administration. They include Roberta Achtenberg, a gay activist whose confirmation as an assistant housing secretary was famously held up by then-Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.), and Bill Lann Lee, who was hotly opposed by foes of affirmative action and temporarily blocked from the government's top civil rights job.
Conservatives fear that some of these Obama transition advisers are too far left on the political spectrum and are a sign of radical policies to come.
"It is disturbing," said Roger Clegg, a conservative opponent of Lee's appointment who is now watching the Obama advisers at the Justice Department. "The transition team as described to me was made up of nothing but people on the far left. Though Obama is more moderate, that makes you wonder what kind of advice the president is given, and what range of choices he'll be given when it comes time to make appointments."
But some government experts argue that in this particular transition, a wider-than-usual ideological gap separates the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama team and that both sides are likely to view the other as extreme.
"The incoming Bush people were all about stopping regulation. The Obama people will do their best to accelerate regulation that they think protects the environment, workers, airline safety, et cetera," said Paul Light, a New York University professor of government who has served as a consultant on the transition to The Washington Post. "That's not barbarians at the gate. It's a difference of philosophy."
Although some of Obama's transition advisers have lined up for key jobs, it is not clear whether either Achtenberg or Lee is under consideration. Sources close to the transition say that Obama and his senior advisers hope to stay focused on their agenda in the early part of the administration, and carefully avoid putting up controversial nominees that could drain energy and time from the fresh White House.
When President Bill Clinton nominated Achtenberg for assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993, she was the first openly gay political figure to win confirmation. But before she could get the job policing housing discrimination, Helms, a famed conservative, temporarily blocked her hearings. He said that he did so because she was a "damn lesbian" and also a "militant-activist-mean lesbian."
Another nomination battle arose in 1997, when Clinton proposed Lee, a Chinese American civil rights lawyer, to be the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights. Conservative opponents blocked Lee, a supporter of affirmative action, for a year. Lee, who is now a lawyer in private practice in San Francisco, served in the job as a presidential recess appointment and later won confirmation.
Clegg said he has some fears about a return to racial quotas, in part because Lee and Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, serve on the Obama transition team reviewing civil rights.
But Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor who was blocked for the same job before Lee's nomination, said she thinks the complaints of an ultra-left takeover by Obama advisers and nominees are manufactured hyperbole.
"The Bush administration people were often fighting against the very mission of the agencies they were supposed to be running," she said. "And their advocates were masters at name-calling and finger-pointing. No one involved in this work really thinks Bill Lee is on the radical fringe."
Besides Achtenberg and Lee, other transition advisers' past positions are sending off flares in the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party. None of them responded to requests for comment.
William V. Corr, a vocal tobacco-control activist at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, publicly attacked the Bush administration in 2006 for weakening the government's prosecution of tobacco companies and its chances for regulating tobacco. Now he is making recommendations for strengthening the Food and Drug Administration's regulation of millions of other grocery and drugstore products, though he has recused himself from discussing tobacco.
John Leshy, a longtime solicitor in Clinton's Interior Department, angered mining company executives in the 1990s with his push for more regulations of mining operations and strict interpretations of mining law. He is now on the transition team advising Obama on Interior.
Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association, said mining groups were anxious when they heard of Leshy's role, but later were comforted by news that moderate Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) was Obama's pick to head Interior.
"John Leshy is very nice, personally," Skaer said. "It's just his policies and interpretations of mining laws give us cause for heartburn. His interpretations are extreme and would shut down hard-rock mining operations in the United States."