Daley: A Behind-the-Scenes Operative
By Edward Walsh
William Daley was introduced to the world of high-powered Washington politics in the 1960s, when he was a teenager. Occasionally, when he picked up the phone in his family's home in the working-class Bridgeport neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, the caller would be President Lyndon B. Johnson or a congressional leader asking to talk to his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley.
William Daley's many friends and admirers in his hometown today cited this lifetime immersion in the family business of politics and government as a key strength the 48-year-old lawyer and political operative will bring to Washington if he is confirmed as President Clinton's next commerce secretary.
"He knows the system well," said John Schmidt, a Daley family ally and outgoing associate attorney general. "He's been relating to congressional leaders since he was a kid. He doesn't come to Washington with a sense of awe."
"He's a very shrewd and effective politician," added Rich Williamson, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan and a partner with Daley in a major law firm here. I suspect the president wanted a politician he could trust and rely on at Commerce, and that's what he's got."
The youngest of seven children in a political dynasty his father established, the brother and closest adviser to Chicago's current mayor, Richard M. Daley, William Daley has never run for public office but also has never been far from the center of political action, locally and nationally.
He was sometimes referred to here as "the smart Daley," a compliment to him but an insult to his brother, the mayor. But, said David Axelrod, a Chicago political consultant who has worked for the Daleys, it has become clear that it is Richard Daley who is the "policy wonk" of the family, mastering arcane details of government, while William Daley is "a much more sophisticated student of politics," another way of saying he is a consummate, behind-the-scenes political operative.
"Commerce secretary is uniquely suited to Bill's skills," Axelrod said. "A fundamental mission of the commerce secretary is to open markets and lower [trade] barriers. Essentially, a commerce secretary is a deal maker. I can't think of anyone better to sit across the table from international negotiators than Bill Daley. He knows how to get the deal done."
Daley demonstrated those skills on the Washington stage in 1993 when, at Clinton's request, he coordinated the successful campaign to win congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The assignment strained some of Daley's relationships with Democratic allies, including organized labor, but he won widespread praise for his key role in rescuing what had appeared to be a doomed initiative.
It didn't matter, said a Daley associate who asked not to be identified, that "he had little knowledge of what was in NAFTA. He got it through."
Williamson said Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), a leading GOP supporter of the treaty, told him that after the NAFTA fight the "only person [in the administration] he heard from was a handwritten note from Bill Daley. Bill Daley is good at that."
Daley accepted the NAFTA assignment despite what was widely regarded as a snub by Clinton a year earlier that Daley's friends said deeply disappointed him. Having served as Clinton's Illinois campaign chairman in 1992, Daley was so confident of being named transportation secretary that, according to Williamson, "he already had a real estate agent" in Washington.
But Clinton, seeking maximum diversity in his first Cabinet, at the last minute offered the job to Federico Peņa, a Hispanic who was mayor of Denver.
"Others might have gone and pouted. He did not," Axelrod said of Daley. "He continued to be helpful to the president."
"He's very loyal and very honest," said Bill Griffin, a local Democratic lawyer and lobbyist who has known Daley for years. "If you do something he likes or doesn't like, he tells you. In this game, a lot of people don't do that."
As commerce secretary, Daley's main responsibility will be to advance the interests of U.S. business. In Chicago, he has been his brother's emissary to the Republican-dominated local business community. Daley was instrumental in raising millions of dollars from business leaders to pay the costs of hosting last summer's Democratic National Convention here.
"I think the guy is super," said Richard C. Notebaert, a Republican and chief executive officer of Ameritech who served with Daley as co-chairman of the convention host committee. "He's real straight up. I think [business leaders] will all applaud him. This is the guy who really made NAFTA work."
Daley may need all of his political skills and connections in his new assignment. The GOP-controlled Congress still includes many who would like the abolish the Commerce Department, which is reeling from a series of blows, including the deaths of Secretary Ronald H. Brown and 12 other Commerce employees in a plane crash last April in Bosnia.
More recently, the department has been caught up in the controversy over Democratic fund-raising practices and the role of John Huang, who served in 1994 and 1995 as deputy assistant secretary for international economic affairs. Hoping to defuse partisan attacks, the White House considered appointing a Republican business executive to head Commerce before turning to Daley.
He is no Republican, but Daley "is certainly one of the best possible picks because Commerce is going to need strong political advocacy," said David J. Rothkopf, a managing director at Kissinger Associates who served as Brown's deputy undersecretary for international trade. "Commerce is going to need an attentive ear in the White House, and it is going to need someone who understands domestic politics."
Staff writer Paul Blustein in Washington contributed to this report.
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