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Civil Rights Coalition Speaks Out Against FEC Nominee

Von Spakovsky Draws Ire of Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

A coalition of prominent civil rights groups is making a last-ditch push to derail controversial Federal Election Commission nominee Hans von Spakovsky less than a week before he faces a crucial test in the Senate.

In a letter sent Thursday to Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said von Spakovsky’s documented track record of impeding minority electoral participation should disqualify the former Georgia election official from holding a seat on the commission.

“Mr. von Spakovsky is one of the architects of the Bush Administration’s voter suppression efforts targeting minority voters,” Henderson wrote in his letter. “From 2001 to 2005, as an official at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, von Spakovsky helped steer the federal government toward voting rights policies not seen before, imposing sweeping restrictions that would make it harder for poor and minority voters to cast ballots.”

The letter from the coalition — which has never before opposed an FEC nominee — represents the NAACP, League of Women Voters, National Council of La Raza, numerous union affiliates and hundreds of other advocacy groups and comes as the Rules panel is set to consider von Spakovsky’s nomination on Wednesday.

Along with three other commission nominees, von Spakovsky is serving a White House recess appointment and must be confirmed before 2008 by the full Senate to remain at the agency.

Of the two remaining commission posts, one GOP seat is vacant and the other is held by Democratic-nominated Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. Weintraub already has served a full term on the FEC but has pledged to remain there until her replacement is confirmed, or appointed during recess at year’s end.

Cyndi Bauerly, a top lawyer to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), is expected to replace Weintraub on the commission. Don McGahn, a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee, is the odds-on Republican choice to replace Michael Toner, who left the agency in the spring of 2006. Neither McGahn nor Bauerly have been formally nominated by the White House.

FEC commissioners typically go through the confirmation process in pairs — one Republican and one Democrat — an arrangement allowing maximum leverage of a veto threat: agree to our pick or we’ll block yours.

But in von Spakovsky’s case, coalition lawyer Julie Fernandes said his past DOJ sins simply are too egregious to ignore and that Democrats would be wise to back away from an alleged pass given to von Spakovsky in exchange for confirming former union lawyer Robert Lenhard or another Democratic nominee like Bauerly.

“I understand that people make political deals, but there are deals and there are ‘deals,’” she said. “This is a reward for Hans. There are just some deals that aren’t worth making.”

Recent statements by Feinstein’s office, in fact, suggest that any alleged deal may now be off. With the entire commission in play, Feinstein has pledged to address each nomination independently, suggesting that she may suspend the usual quid pro quo on commission nominees.

Such an approach would play to coalition’s benefit, likely isolating von Spakovsky and forcing Republicans — particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — to defend him in the early innings of what may become a difficult election year.

“Sen. Feinstein has very serious concerns about the Hans von Spakovsky nomination and she will detail those concerns at the Committee meeting on Wednesday,” Rules panel spokesman Howard Gantman told Roll Call on Friday.

McConnell and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the ranking member on Rules, declined to comment.

Campaign Legal Center President J. Gerald Hebert, a long-standing von Spakovsky critic, called the coalition’s pleas “a very big statement,” adding that the group typically reserves such demands for bigger fish. Also, he said that Senators from both parties may be wary of having to go on the record in support of a nominee accused of racially insensitive acts — and a hand-picked White House selection, to boot.

“You’ll see it maybe in a Supreme Court justice nominee, but a post on the Federal Election Commission?” Hebert asked. “I don’t know how any sitting Senator could ignore that.”

Fernandes also agreed that the group almost always stands on the sidelines during typically noncontroversial agency nominations. But von Spakovsky’s alleged infractions during his tenure at the Justice Department, she said, simply were too flagrant to ignore.

“He had an agenda: make it harder for African-Americans, Latinos, older Americans to vote,” she said. “This is the issue we hope will derail him.”

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