After Pitched Battle, Herman Wins Out
By Kevin Merida and Frank Swoboda
When Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown was killed in a plane crash in April, it was Alexis Herman the White House director of public liaison and a longtime Brown confidant who put aside her own tears and became chief planner for the public and private grieving over his death.
"She was just phenomenal organizing everyone around Ron's accident," recalled Brown's widow, Alma. "Just bringing the whole apparatus together the religious community, the kids, our personal friends, the White House. . . . Everyone kept asking me, `What about this? What about that?' My only answer was, `Ask Alexis.' She was my eyes and ears. She's probably one of the best organizers of her time."
Ironically, Brown's tragedy drew President Clinton closer to Herman, perhaps influencing his decision to reject candidates proposed by labor leaders and other advisers and tap her as his next labor secretary yesterday. Not only have Clinton and Herman known and liked each other for many years both are political creatures adept at working a room but they shared a special relationship with Brown, who played a key role in helping Clinton win the presidency in 1992.
Under Democratic National Chairman Brown, Herman was appointed DNC chief of staff and chief executive officer of the 1992 Democratic convention. Yesterday, Clinton called her "one of [Brown's] closest advisers."
As director of the White House Office of Public Liaison since 1993, Herman has been responsible for putting together coalitions around issues and sometimes smoothing over rough relations with key constituencies. One of her techniques is to arrange informal dinner parties to elicit feedback and sell controversial administration initiatives, as she did before Clinton's policy announcement on affirmative action last year.
But the pitched battle over who would be nominated to the labor post was among the most intense the White House has faced over a cabinet appointment. And though there was public praise for Herman's nomination yesterday, some labor leaders made it privately clear they were not at all pleased.
Joined by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), organized labor initially had lined up behind former senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, dismissing Herman as not of sufficient stature to hold her own against Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin at the National Economic Council. When it became apparent that Clinton would not name Wofford, the AFL-CIO threw its support behind Rep. Esteban Edward Torres (D-Calif.), a former United Auto Workers official with a nearly 100 percent pro-labor voting record in Congress, and former representative Alan Wheat of Missouri, an African American with close ties to Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.).
In addition, union officials and Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), in line to become chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, raised with the White House potential problems with Herman's confirmation, including questions about her tenure at the DNC and at the Labor Department during the Carter administration, and her business dealings as a diversity consultant.
Yesterday, however, there was an attempt to publicly bury animosities and get behind Herman's confirmation. "Alexis Herman is a wonderful choice for secretary of labor," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a statement released by the federation. "She knows and understands working families' concerns, and we look forward to working closely with her to put their interests at the top of the national agenda." Sweeney described his relationship with Herman as "excellent."
Kennedy spoke with the president Thursday night and Herman yesterday morning and pledged to work hard to get her confirmed. "Senator Kennedy strongly supports the nomination of Alexis Herman and looks forward to working closely with her as secretary," said Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley.
Jesse L. Jackson, one of those who lobbied hard for Herman, said he conveyed to Sweeney that "it was important that our basic coalition not be ruptured over this issue." And C. DeLores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, said black women's groups pressed the case for Herman, who is black, with Vice President Gore an ally until the final hours before the decision was made. "We reminded everyone that African American women gave President Clinton the highest percentage he got from anyone," she said, citing exit-polling data showing Clinton got 89 percent of black women's votes.
Herman, 49, grew up in Mobile, Ala., the daughter of a politically active father who sued the Democratic Party to make it more inclusive. He ended up being Alabama's first black wardsman. After graduating from Xavier University in New Orleans, Herman returned to help desegregate her high school.
Her early activism included helping unskilled workers get hired at shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss., the home town of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "I have always worked hard to find practical solutions to the issues and challenges that American workers face," Herman said at a news conference yesterday. "I understand work, and I understand workers."
"She has a great background in labor," said Jackson, a longtime friend. "She worked with A. Philip Randolph. . . . She elevated women in the Department of Labor."
From 1977 to 1981, she was director of Labor's Women's Bureau during the Carter administration.
Outgoing Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who also was not an initial favorite of big labor, said Herman's "unique blend of experience from social worker to White House assistant to the president equips her with the skills and resolve to be a strong and articulate voice for working families."
Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company