New White House Picks (Almost) Rebalance Civil Rights Commission

January 27, 2011 6:45 a.m.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday appointed two new commissioners to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a federal agency best know recently for its partisan focus on investigating the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case. The White House’s move will rebalance what was intended to be a bipartisan panel which came under conservative control thanks to a move during the Bush administration to “game” the system.Obama’s appointees to the Commission are Roberta Achtenberg, a former Clinton administration official and a co-founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Marty R. Castro, the president of a strategic planning company who chairs the Illinois Human Rights Commission and sits on several human rights organizations.

Achtenberg was the first openly gay federal public official whose appointment was confirmed by the United States Senate. Former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) famously referred to Achtenberg as “a damn lesbian” before her confirmation.

Right now, the balance on the commission is three Democratic appointees versus four essentially Republican appointees (two of whom are actually “independents”), with another position unfilled. Once House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) formally reappoints Commissioner Michael Yaki, the even balance will be restored. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sent Yaki’s papers to Boehner’s office in early January, but Boehner’s office didn’t immediately say when Yaki would be reappointed.

The Bush administration stacked the commission with conservatives by having two of the commissioners switch their affiliation from Republican to independent. The move, said the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, was legal. But it was also, as former Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds (a Republican appointee) acknowledged, intended to “game” the system. The scheme unfolded in 2004, and the panel has since focused on racism against white people and claimed that measures intended to aid minority groups are discriminatory. More recently, they’ve opened up debate on their existence.

So does Achtenberg’s appointment mean the Commission could address LGBT issues, a topic beyond the scope of its original 1957 mandate to handle issues of racial conflict? Yaki hopes so.

“The Commission’s history shows that under its provisions for equal treatment in the administration of justice it has looked at the issues of domestic abuse, and, perhaps most importantly, the rights of the disabled pre-ADA,” Yaki said.

“I stated throughout the previous Commission’s dismal obsession with Beltway politics that we were ignoring important issues affecting communities throughout our country, whether bullying of LGTB children, backlash against our Hispanic population as a consequence of the immigration debate, and the ongoing threats faced by members of the American Islamic community as a result of terrorism,” he told TPM. “I hope this Commission can proceed in a bipartisan fashion to tackle these and other issues in the future.”

The the White House’s biographies of their two appointees are reprinted below.

Roberta Achtenberg, Appointee for Commissioner, United States Commission on Civil Rights
Roberta Achtenberg is a corporate advisor in economic and workforce development policy, with more than 30 years of senior-level leadership experience in business, government and law. Ms. Achtenberg also held senior-policy making roles with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco Center for Economic Development from 1997 to 2004. During the Clinton Administration, she served as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and later as Senior Advisor to the Secretary of HUD. She is currently a member and past Chair of the California State University Board of Trustees and serves as Vice Chair of the Board of the Bank of San Francisco. Previously, Ms. Achtenberg was a member of the Board of Supervisors for the City and County of San Francisco and represented San Francisco as a Director of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Before becoming a public official, she worked for more than 15 years as a civil rights attorney, nonprofit director and legal educator. Ms. Achtenberg is the co-founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national nonprofit serving the needs of the LGBT community. She holds a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley and a J.D. from the University of Utah.

Marty R. Castro, Appointee for Commissioner, United States Commission on Civil Rights
Marty Castro is currently the President of Castro Synergies, LLC, which provides strategic consulting services to corporations, entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations. Prior to founding his consulting company, Mr. Castro was Vice President of External Affairs, Head of Strategic Business Development at Aetna, Inc. in Chicago. He also held partner positions at Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, LLP, Seyfarth Shaw, LLP, Baker & McKenzie, and Castro, Gomez, Durbin & De Jesus, LLC, where his work included corporate law, commercial litigation, diversity consulting and government affairs. In 2009, Mr. Castro was appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to chair the Illinois Human Rights Commission. He also served as chair of the Judicial Nominations Commission for the Northern District of Illinois. Mr. Castro has been a member of various humanitarian, philanthropic and civil rights boards, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Chicago Area Foundation for Legal Services, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Hispanic Advisory Council, the Executive Committee of the Chicago Community Trust, the Hispanic Lawyers’ Scholarship Fund of Illinois, and the National Museum of Mexican Art. Mr. Castro holds a B.A. from DePaul University and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.

[Ed. Note: Helms was a Senator from North Carolina, not South Carolina as originally stated.]

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