In a victory for civil rights and women’s rights, Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) announced his decision today to step down from his position as Senate Majority Leader. However, he “will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate,” according to his statement published in the Washington Post. Lott’s resignation follows racist comments he made at a birthday celebration for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond, saying that the country would have been better off if Thurmond, a segregationist candidate, had become President in 1948. Calls for Lott’s resignation have run the political gamut, ranging from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) to conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan and the right-wing Family Research Council, which posted a statement commending Lott for resigning today.
Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) launched a campaign last night to oust Lott and take over his position, according to the Post. Frist, a retired heart surgeon, is close to President Bush and key presidential aides, including political strategist Karl Rove. Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund lists Frist as solidly anti-choice, voting against choice in eight key issues, including emergency contraception, the global gag rule, and sex education.
The controversy over Lott’s racially charged statements could impact upcoming Supreme Court cases challenging Michigan’s affirmative action policies. The Supreme Court asked the Bush Administration to weigh in on the cases, and Attorney General John Ashcroft had wanted the Administration to go on record opposing affirmative action in college admissions, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, administration officials are now worried about the heightened climate in matters of race, the Times reports. The Lott issue could also affect some of Bush’s hotly contested judicial nominees who have poor records on civil rights cases, such as Carolyn Kuhl, who as a Justice Department lawyer supported Bob Jones University in a 1981 suit charging that the school should not keep its tax-exempt status while prohibiting interracial dating. In addition, it was expected that Bush would re-nominate Charles Pickering, who was defeated in March. However, the Times reports that it is unlikely that he will be confirmed because of an incident in Pickering’s past, in which he argued federal prosecutors in a secret meeting to be lenient on a white man convicted of burning a cross outside of a black family’s home.