Obama and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) this week put a hold on Senate confirmation proceedings for FEC nominee Hans von Spakovsky, who has been accused of diluting minority voting power during his time as a Justice Department lawyer.
Though the Senate is expected to revisit the nominations when it returns from a one-week recess, the hold was an astute political play by Obama.
It could mute questions about his leadership on civil rights issues.
And it could help cement his status as the most reform-minded candidate for president, since advocates for stricter campaign finance guidelines accuse von Spakovsky of working to weaken the rules since joining the FEC as a temporary recess appointment.
The hold pleased civil rights leaders, whose support could be key to Obama’s courtship of black voters.
Though he’s the most viable African-American presidential candidate in U.S. history, polls show black voters favoring Clinton, a New York senator and the Democratic front-runner, by 25 percentage points or more.
Obama will need to cut into that margin if he hopes to overtake Clinton, and taking on von Spakovsky may help, said David A. Bositis, a pollster at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies who specializes in black politics and voting.
“If the von Spakovsky story stays out there, it’ll be something that will be a plus for Obama,” he said.
That’s because, he said, it’s a big deal among civil rights activists, yet it “is not something that’s going to hurt with white voters.”
In fact, he said, it can be cast as part of an existing narrative popular among Democrats about politicization of the Justice Department under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, rather than as a “black-identified” issue.
He argued that opposing von Spakovsky is a better use of Obama’s political capital than more actively protesting the treatment of the six black teenagers arrested in Jena, La. for beating a white student amid escalating racial tensions.
“White voters will not vote for a black candidate who they see as someone who is pursuing a black agenda,” he said.
Jesse Jackson, the most competitive black presidential candidate until Obama, has criticized Obama’s response to the Jena incident.
Last month he was quoted accusing Obama of “acting like he’s white.” Jackson, who months earlier endorsed Obama for president, quickly reaffirmed his support.
Though Obama had already issued statements condemning the handling of the incident (which, he pointed out, were crafted with input from Jackson’s son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois), days later he devoted a speech at Howard University to his civil rights agenda.
And he seemed to link the alleged injustices in Jena to the politicization of the Justice Department.
Without naming von Spakovsky, he said he will “rid the [Justice] Department of ideologues and political cronies. … And we'll have a Voting Rights Section that actually defends the right of every American to vote without deception or intimidation.”
For four years before his temporary appointment to the FEC in 2006, von Spakovsky was a top lawyer in the Department of Justice’s voting section.
There, he led efforts to approve a congressional redistricting plan in Texas that the U.S. Supreme Court found discriminated against Latino voters, and a law in his native Georgia requiring voters to show photo identification before casting their ballots.
That discriminated against black voters, who were less likely to have such ID, according to career DOJ attorneys, who were overruled by von Spakovsky and other higher-ranking DOJ officials.
Though bocking the nomination would please some black voters, that’s probably not behind Obama’s opposition, said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
“I don’t think that Sen. Obama’s expressed concern about Hans von Spakovsky should be seen as pandering to the civil rights community,” Henderson said. “I think it really is a matter of principle.”
His group urged the leaders of the Senate Rules Committee to reject the von Spakovsky nomination.
It accused him of pushing “policies that systematically block access to the franchise for the poor and minority voters.”
The committee moved the nomination to the Senate floor without recommendation.
Supporters of von Spakovsky assert he adequately addressed the concerns raised by Henderson’s group and other opponents, and say the work he did at the Justice Department is not relevant to the FEC nomination.
Obama’s opposition “is nothing more than fear-mongering with potential liberal voters,” said Todd Gaziano, who follows FEC issues for the conservative Heritage Foundation. He said Obama’s hold smacks of “desperation in his political campaign.”
Obama declined an interview request for this story, but he issued a statement saying “the FEC needs strong, impartial leadership that will promote integrity in our election system. Hans von Spakovsky is not the right person for this job.”