Local minority leaders say they are baffled and dismayed by Sen. Orrin Hatch's campaign to keep a prominent Asian-American from becoming the nation's top enforcer of civil rights.
Hatch, who heads the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, has battled to squelch Bill Lann Lee's nomination to become assistant attorney general for civil rights.Hatch opposes Lee's nomination because Hatch thinks Lee will push a personal affirmative action agenda. But Lee's supporters say that isn't the case.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee last week blocked a vote on Lee's nomination which delayed the issue and prevented a vote that likely would have killed Lee's chances for the position.
"Sen. Hatch feels Mr. Lee is a fine individual, but he feels that Mr. Lee has a proven history that he will continue to pursue activism supporting one group's viewpoints," said Heather Barney, a spokeswoman for Hatch.
"Sen. Hatch believes the person in this position should enforce the laws, not enhance them for one group or another. It has nothing to do with whatever ethnic group the nominee is from, it has to do with how that person will perform in the position," Barney said.
In a statement to the Senate on Nov. 4, Hatch outlined several reasons why he doesn't want Lee for the job, including "a willingness to read the civil rights laws so narrowly - and to find exceptions so broad - as to undermine their very spirit, if not the letter," Hatch said.
Edward L. Lewis, the NAACP's Tri-state Conference president representing Utah, Idaho and Nevada, said he's perplexed by Hatch's opposition to Lee.
Lee, who is Chinese-American, has worked for the NAACP for more than 20 years.
"Bill Lann Lee's credentials as far as civil rights are impeccable. If we truly want to have civil rights enforced in this country - which we all claim to want - why would someone oppose an individual who has a record of enforcing civil rights?" Lewis asked. "It just doesn't make any sense to us and we're going to speak out."
Lewis said this also is noteworthy in view of a recent report by the Utah Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that shows that the Utah Anti-Discrimination Division has a bad record of enforcing civil rights. (See accompanying story)
"It seems ironic that the senator from a state with such a poor enforcement record would be against someone who truly would enforce civil rights," Lewis said.
Local Asians also are upset, according to Yasuo G. Tokita, governor of the Intermountain District Council of the Japanese American Citizens League.
"I am so dismayed," said Tokita, who owns a Salt Lake travel agency and is a self-described moderate Republican.
"Sen. Hatch is on record as saying Bill Lann Lee is eminently qualified, but because he (Lee) opposed Prop 209, he will push his own agenda for affirmative action, which is completely off base," Tokita said.
California's Proposition 209 would have eliminated preferences based on race for certain state programs. A majority of voters wanted to get rid of affirmative action, and approved the measure. The Supreme Court later ruled that affirmative action would stay. Lee, as a lawyer for the NAACP, helped lead the court fight to save affirmative action.
Tokita doesn't accuse Hatch of being racially motivated in his opposition to Lee. In fact, Tokita shuns the phrase "racially motivated," terming it "inflammatory."
"Sen. Hatch has been good to Japanese-Americans. He voted for the ($1.2 billion Reparations Act) in 1988 that President Reagan signed into law that compensated Japanese-Americans for being incarcerated during World War II. We're still very grateful," Tokita said.
"I think Orrin Hatch has been the subject of very bad staff work as has (House Speaker) Newt Gingrich," Tokita said.