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Loss of 2nd candidate for rights post deals White House 'enormous setback'


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration's year-long search for someone to fill the key post of civil rights chief is open again, and no new candidates have emerged since the leading contender, John Payton, withdrew his name last week.

The job of assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights at the Justice Department has been more difficult for this administration to fill than almost any other major government position, and a senior White House official yesterday described the current situation as "sad."

In just a month's time, Mr. Payton's status as a candidate went from nearly a sure thing to a lost cause. Told of that last week by Justice Department officials who had been his main supporters, Mr. Payton, the top legal officer for the District of Columbia government, chose to withdraw his name.

In a brief and cordial letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Mr. Payton expressed his sadness over the loss of "an unparalleled opportunity to have an impact on some of the most critical and neglected issues in our society -- issues that I have cared about deeply all my life."

Mr. Payton declined to comment yesterday.

Six months ago, the nomination of President Clinton's first choice for the job, Philadelphia law professor Lani Guinier, was -- scuttled by the president after her views on minority legal rights were attacked as "radical" by conservatives.

The loss of a second contender for the post was "an enormous setback," Washington civil rights lawyer William L. Taylor said yesterday. "This is a major embarrassment that the administration cannot let go on. This is the chief policy position in civil rights for the federal government, not only for the Justice Department."

As a result, the administration will begin its second year without someone in a job that Mr. Clinton, as a candidate, promised to make a priority to energize federal civil rights enforcement. A Justice Department official said that a new nominee is expected to be chosen in time for Congress' return late next month.

At least six weeks will pass after a nomination, however, before any Senate hearings could begin because of the time it takes for FBI and Senate committee investigations.

Although government officials reportedly have settled on no list of potential new nominees, civil rights organizations here have begun to circulate names of individuals those groups would find acceptable, including Wade Henderson, chief lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Judy Winston, the top lawyer for the U.S. Education Department, and Thomas Williamson, the top lawyer for the Labor Department.

The Congressional Black Caucus, bitterly disappointed at the president's refusal to fight for Ms. Guinier's nomination, is expected to have a major advisory role when new potential nominees do begin to emerge. Caucus Chairman Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Maryland Democrat, was not available for comment yesterday, his office said.

Some members of the caucus were critical of Mr. Payton because of uncertainty over his devotion to voting rights and his own failure to vote in District of Columbia elections.

Last month, when Mr. Payton's nomination still seemed assured, he was seeking to win over Black Caucus skeptics in a series of one-on-one sessions with members.

It appeared yesterday that Mr. Payton was passed over within the administration after officials became convinced that he would not continue to have enthusiastic support from civil rights activists and would not get significant caucus backing.

He was told by Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell that support was not going to be available from the civil rights community.

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