Firefighter Frank Ricci has the stuff to emerge from nowhere as an icon in conservative circles.
As the lead plaintiff in Ricci v. DeStefano – which has emerged as the most discussed case decided by President Barack Obama's first nominee for the high court – he's a wanted media commodity. And for a time, he seemed to embrace the spotlight.
He performed well in numerous cable-television appearances, frequently accompanied by his lawyer and some of his fellow plaintiffs, after the Supreme Court agreed to review Judge Sotomayor's discision in the case in April. He and the rest of the firefighters who sued the New Haven, Connecticut fire department after it scrapped a full class of promotions when too few minorities passed the test even set up a website to post their latest media appearances, raise funds for their legal defense and sell hats and t-shirts.
In 2003, Ricci and nineteen other firefighters, including one Hispanic firefighter, qualified for promotions after passing a city issued test. But after none of the firefighters received a promotion, they sued the city's mayor, John DeStefano Jr.. After a federal district judge ruled for the city, the firefighters appealed to a three judge panel on Second Circuit Court of Appeals, on which Sotomayor sat. In February 2008, the circuit court affirmed the lower court's finding in a one-paragraph, unauthored opinion that the Supreme Court is now reviewing.
Groups lining up to oppose Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination would love to see Ricci stand up as the personification of one of the emerging conservative criticisms of Sotomayor — that she'll show empathy as long as you're not a white male.
It's a role previously played by Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher, who found himself a national icon after footage of Obama answering a question he asked was held up by Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign as a symbol of the Democrat's purportedly socialist tax plan.
But now, with both his case and the fate of the Sotomayor's appointment looming, Ricci has gone quiet — and it isn't because the media stopped calling.
"It's one thing to be able to point to a case, but it's better to be able to point to a human being," said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice. Ricci has a "very compelling personal story," Levey added, noting that Ricci, who overcame his dyslexia to score highly on the text, is "very effective at telling his story."
Levey said he communicated with Ricci soon after Justice David Souter announced that he would retire and that Ricci understood that the coming Supreme Court nomination fight would more likely "come down to personalities on the courts rather than legal arguments."
Levey would like to see Ricci step up and oppose Sotomayor, but he speculated that Ricci is holding back for fear that his activism may negatively impact the outcome of his case.
Wendy Long, counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, agreed that Ricci would be an effective advocate, but said she "wouldn't use the word advocate" to describe Ricci.
"All he is asking for is justice and fairness and he is appealing to the law," she said. "He is not asking to be an advocate."
"He really just wants to get the promotion that he earned and has now waited five and one half years for, and his sentiment is shared by the entire group," Ricci's attorney Karen Torre said in a statement.
Torre appeared on Fox News' Neil Cavuto with two of the cases other plaintiffs last Friday, but Ricci himself, who declined to comment for this story, was a no-show.
Prior to issuing the statement, Torre told POLITICO that both she and her client felt that print outlets had distorted the facts of the case – though she did not specify which outlets had done so, or when — and that Ricci would not answer questions related to Sotomayor's nomination.
"We're not giving interviews regarding anything other than our case, we're not entertaining questions about anything my client thinks or I think about the nomination," she said.
Asked why both she and Ricci seemed willing to appear on television but not speak to a reporter over the phone, Torre responded: "Because when we're on television no one can misquote us."
Soon after the case was heard, Ricci was a frequent guest on both CNN and MSNBC, holding his own against the networks more contentious hosts, including MSNBC's Chris Matthews.
Midway through an eight-minute appearance on "Hardball," Matthews asked Ricci, "When the results came out did you get to talk to any of your fellow firefighters who are African-American or Latino and did they individually express anger, or did it only come from the organized groups?"
"No, and the anger might surprise you. The anger came from the test being thrown out," Ricci responded. "I hate the black and the white and the Hispanic – we're all firefighters."
But while Ricci himself has gone off the air, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee and conservative pundits retell the firefighter's story.
"She ruled against the white firefighter, Ricci, and other white firefighters, just on the basis that she thought women and minorities should be given a preference because of their skin color and because of the history of discrimination in the past. The law was totally disregarded," conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said as part of his justification for dubbing Sotomayor a "reverse racist."
"Sonia Sotomayor has a classic American story. So does Frank Ricci," added Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.
Ricci just may be able to hide from his public image, but he likely can't outrun the remarkable timing of the Supreme Court deciding his case in June, just before the Senate takes up Sotomayor's nomination in July.
"It will be a big issue. No matter what the opinions on the Supreme Court are," promised Long. "The decision will be a natural point to refocus on him."
"The Ricci case is a great opportunity to debate affirmative action and its absurdity so the more it's talked about the better," added Thomas Fitton, president of the conservative legal group Judicial Watch. "It would be helpful to have him out there talking about it."