White House Rides Herd on Diverse and Zealous Group of Sotomayor Supporters

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

Word went out from the White House even before the first rhetorical shots had been taken at Sonia Sotomayor: Keep your powder dry.

The last thing the administration needed, senior aides to President Obama made clear to their liberal allies both publicly and privately, was a war with conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich over whether the judge is a racist. Stay on message, they counseled, and we will offer a clear case about her credentials and legal experience.

With less than a month before congressional hearings begin on Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, the White House is trying to quietly guide what staffers describe as an unusually broad network of law enforcement organizations, liberal allies, legal officials, Latino groups and women's organizations that want to see her confirmed.

Many of the groups have been biding their time for eight years, champing at the bit as they watched their conservative counterparts usher candidates into seats on the court. That makes the challenge of maintaining message discipline even more difficult for an Obama team that campaigned for the presidency with supreme confidence in its tightly controlled operations.

"Support for Judge Sotomayor has been remarkably organic," said Stephanie Cutter, a White House adviser charged with guiding Sotomayor to confirmation. "Much of what we're seeing is happening on its own."

Cutter is the gatekeeper for interviews with family members and friends, but efforts to reach out and work with the groups on behalf of the White House are being orchestrated in part by Ricki Seidman, a veteran of the 2008 campaign and the Clinton presidency who has remained outside the administration. As liaison to the progressive groups and a strategic adviser, Seidman has organized conference calls and several White House meetings since Sotomayor was nominated on May 26.

On Tuesday, she hovered at the back of Room 350 in the Old Executive Office Building as the leaders of several law enforcement groups stood with Vice President Biden to endorse Sotomayor in an event that was arranged, directed and publicized by the White House communication staff. After the event, New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, Sotomayor's friend and former boss, and others were led to microphones just steps from the West Wing to speak with White House reporters.

"President Obama rightly wants this nomination to be debated on the qualifications over this nominee rather than to get bogged down in a battle between interest groups on the right or the left," said Doug Kendall, the director of a progressive constitutional law group who has attended White House meetings.

"What he wants, and what I think the progressive community has done pretty well, is to stand back a bit and let the president and Judge Sotomayor present their case and explain for themselves," Kendall said.

Obama's presidential campaign did not rely much on outside groups to carry his message to voters last year. His communications team had little faith in the outside organizations that popped up to advocate his candidacy or defend him against his rivals. Communication, especially during crisis, was handled internally.

Senior White House officials acknowledge that governing is different. Advisers leading the Sotomayor effort are in frequent contact with established progressive groups such as People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and an umbrella group called the Coalition for Constitutional Values.

Conservative critics say the White House is overmanaging the Sotomayor rollout and accuse Obama of exceeding propriety in his overt promotion of the judge.

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