The Education Of Deval Patrick

Deval L. Patrick didn't see it coming. In one of his first major moves as chief of the Justice Dept.'s Civil Rights Div., Patrick forced Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank this summer to spend $11 million to open up branches and offer low-interest loans in black neighborhoods it had refused to service. Bankers were outraged because the thrift hadn't discriminated against any loan applicants. They denounced the case as extremist and complained that Justice was overstepping the law. "Patrick was surprised by our strong reaction," says industry official Kenneth A. Guenther.

To assuage his critics, the Civil Rights chief invited 10 top bankers to discuss the controversial case. A rare droll moment in the 21/2-hour meeting in mid-October came when a squeaky cart rolled by the meeting room. One of the executives joked that it was the body of another banker going by.

TREADING LIGHTLY. So goes the painful political education of Deval Patrick. And the 38-year-old former corporate lawyer is likely to face a lot more rough spots in the months ahead. At his post barely eight months, Patrick must delicately implement a civil-rights agenda without making the already vulnerable Clinton Administration look like it's bending over backwards for minorities. Upcoming issues are potentially explosive, such as one challenging college scholarships reserved for minorities (table). "Anything that can smack of quotas could get Patrick caught up in a tempest," notes John P. Relman, a public-interest civil-rights lawyer in Washington.

Patrick knows he has to tread lightly. But he's optimistic that civil rights can flourish, particularly in areas such as voting rights, lending discrimination, and bias against the disabled. "We view ourselves as a law-enforcement office, not a law-reform office," Patrick says. After the conservative sweep in November, Patrick sent his staff an inspirational E-mail message telling them not to despair. But some aides are worried. "[The Administration] doesn't want us to do anything that will turn into a bumper sticker in 1996," grumbles one Justice lawyer.

The political climate is so dicey that a watchdog of sorts is overseeing Patrick's office. Since this fall, Deputy White House Counsel Joel I. Klein has been reviewing significant affirmative-action cases now before the government. He says the Administration is trying to work out "a consistent, coherent view" of affirmative action that could distance the President from the dangerous "quota" label. Some controversial cases may reach the Supreme Court during the 1996 Presidential election campaign. "The line between quotas and forms of legitimate actions can be thin," says White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva. "It's important that they be separated out." Patrick declines comment on Klein's new watchdog role.

The Civil Rights chief is certainly viewed more moderately than Clinton's first choice for the civil-rights post, University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier. Her nomination in 1993 was dropped after conservatives labeled her a "quota queen" for her academic writings. With Patrick, who was sworn in in April, the Clintonites got a clean-cut, moderate-sounding Boston corporate lawyer with a compelling life story. He grew up poor on Chicago's South Side after his saxophone-player father ran off to join jazz musician Sun Ra when Patrick was just 4 years old. He went to the prestigious Milton Academy on scholarship and then to Harvard College and Law School. He worked a short stint as a civil-rights advocate at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund before joining Boston law firm Hill & Barlow.

"OUTRAGEOUS." But nothing in his background prepared him for the Washington limelight. GOP lawmakers already are calling for hearings on several of Patrick's decisions. Some of his moves "appear to be outrageous," railed incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) in a recent TV interview.

Exhibit No.1 for conservatives is Patrick's friend-of-the-court brief filed in an affirmative-action case at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Patrick reversed the Bush Administration's position in support of a white teacher who was fired by the Piscataway (N.J.) school board in favor of a black teacher who had the same seniority and qualifications. Patrick argued that employers should be free to use affirmative-action goals to determine which of two equal candidates to terminate. Otherwise, private employers could be prevented from voluntarily integrating their workforces. "Piscataway is not a quota case," says Patrick.

But the decision has set off a furor on the right. "It suggests this Administration is back to playing the numbers game in civil rights," charges Clint Bolick, vice-president of the conservative Institute for Justice. If the charge sticks, Patrick's moves could give conservatives more ammunition. According to a poll last spring by the National Opinion Research Center, 54% of Americans are against special treatment for minorities, while only 16% are clearly for it. Even though Clinton and Patrick both oppose quotas, the Republicans are still likely to try to score points on the issue.

BRAVE FACE. There already are signs that the Administration is getting more cautious. Two days after the election, it declined to support the University of Maryland's scholarship program for black students. The university wants a rehearing of an appellate court decision that ruled the program unconstitutional. Initially, the Education Dept. recommended siding with the university, says a Justice attorney. But the Administration hasn't backed up the university's request for a rehearing--a move that school advocates contend is aimed at pleasing middle-class voters. "If there was a decision not to pursue the case, it was a political one," says Janell M. Byrd, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Patrick declines comment on the case.

Despite Patrick's brave public face, friends say that he was stung by the fallout from the Piscataway case. But they insist that he can withstand the shifting political currents. Days after the election, Patrick called Hatch and joked that he had barely had time to congratulate the senator on his new committee chairmanship before the attacks against him began. Still, Patrick is keenly aware that he's in a hot spot. "Being a lightning rod takes getting used to," he concedes. "If I walked on water, certain of my critics would still say that Patrick can't swim." If he wants to avoid sinking, Patrick will have to keep not only the law but also politics foremost in his mind.

      MINORITY CONTRACTS The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the case of white-owned Adarand Constructors. Adarand contends that a federal program encouraging contractors to subcontract to minority-owned companies is unconstitutional.
      HIRING AND FIRING A district court ruled that the Piscataway (N.J.) education board acted inappropriately in 1989 when it laid off an equally qualified white teacher instead of an African American teacher. The Clinton Administration supports the board's action. An appeal will be heard in January.
      RACE-BASED SCHOLARSHIPS The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a white Hispanic student who was denied a scholarship for African Americans at the University of Maryland. The school is seeking a rehearing.
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