WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday moved to replace Mary Frances Berry (search), the outspoken chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (search) who has argued with every president since Jimmy Carter appointed her to the panel a quarter century ago.
But Berry balked at leaving now, arguing through a spokesman that she and vice chairman Cruz Reynoso, who also is being replaced, have terms that run until midnight Jan. 21, 2005. The White House maintained that their six-year terms expired Sunday and that Berry and Reynoso had been replaced.
The eight-member panel investigates civil rights complaints and publicizes its findings. It has no enforcement power. Four years ago, Berry and the commission were heavily critical of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for his administration's handling of the disputed presidential election won by his brother.
The newly named commissioners are Gerald A. Reynolds (search), former assistant secretary for the office of civil rights in the Education Department, and attorney Ashley L. Taylor of Richmond, Va. Bush intends to designate Reynolds the commission chairman, succeeding Berry, and to name Abigail Thernstrom (search), already a commission member, as vice chairperson.
Berry, a civil rights history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is no stranger to controversy.
"If we don't have people irritated, we're not doing our job," Berry said in an Associated Press interview in 2001. "We're the gadfly. We're the watchdog that bites you on the leg, keeps tugging at you and says, `How about this?'"
Considered a hero of the civil rights community by some people, Berry is viewed by others as too opinionated and divisive to accomplish much. "I'm not trying to curry favor with anyone," she said in the interview.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said the administration considered the matter closed.
"We thank the commission members for their service," she said. "Their terms have expired and we have appointed new commission members."
Reynolds is assistant general counsel for Great Plains Energy Inc. (search) in Kansas City, Mo. In addition to serving in the Education Department under Bush, Reynolds was deputy associate attorney general providing legal advice for civil litigation matters.
Berry has criticized every president since Carter, who appointed her and later drew pressure from her over the levels of financial aid for the poor. President Reagan fired her but had to reinstate her after a lawsuit. Former Presidents Bush and Clinton weren't spared her criticism, either.
Bush also replaced the commission's staff director, Les Jin (search), with Kenneth Marcus of Virginia. Jin said Berry's and Reynoso's tenure dispute stems from a disagreement with the White House about when they began serving their six-year terms.
"The commission has had a long history of independence and of trying to protect civil rights," Jin said. "And it just seems like we would have been much better served if they (the White House) had tried to take the initiative to engage in a conversation about a smooth transition rather than try to heighten a battle over six weeks."