Riley Lacks Clinton's Flair But Shares Education Focus
By Mary Jordan
Sure, Richard Riley is a moderate Democratic former governor of a small southern state who's coming to Washington. But don't look for this newcomer to show up with a sax or appear on MTV.
Riley and Clinton often have been compared; they were elected governor the same year and focused on lifting their poor states from the bottom of education spending and achievement. But Riley has little of Clinton's flash. In a crowd of politicians, he's the one mistaken for a staffer.
"He's not the Robert Redford type that bowls you over with a commanding physical presence," said Dwight Drake, Riley's law partner and former campaign manager. "He's stooped and slight. . . . He's not the hale-fellow, well-met glad-handing politician who works the room."
Riley, 59, instead is deliberate and determined. He currently is in charge of sub-Cabinet appointments on Clinton's transition team. An attorney in South Carolina since his two-term governorship ended in 1987, he is a lecturer and fund-raiser for his alma mater, Furman University in Greenville, S.C. If confirmed as education secretary, he would be expected to cut his ties with Furman, along with the Duke Endowment, a charitable foundation that donates some money to Duke and Furman universities.
His emergence as a national leader on education issues is all the more remarkable, friends say, because his small, squeaky voice makes him less than a spellbinding speaker. It's the substance of what he says, they agree, that makes people listen.
Charles Dunn, a Republican who heads the Clemson University political science department, said when he once asked Riley for advice after winning a spot on a state commission, the former governor counseled: "You want to stake out your territory and defend it and don't cave in."
A painful bone disease called spondylitis is responsible for Riley's fused spine, a condition that makes it impossible for him to move his head without moving his whole body, too. Those who know him say his fight against the disease also has a lot to do with his trained, disciplined mind. Worried about getting hooked on prescription drugs, Riley refused even aspirin during the 15 years that the disease ravaged his spine.
Last week, members of Clinton's transition team queried Riley's law firm, Nelson, Mullings, Riley & Scarborough, about its work with foreign companies, including BMW and ThermalKEM Inc., a German-owned hazardous waste firm that was sued by the Justice Department in September for its disposal of toxins in Rock Hill, S.C.
But Drake and others said Riley never has been directly involved in legal work for foreign companies or for the tobacco firm Philip Morris Inc., another large client.
Riley's most important piece of state education legislation was passed in 1984. It was a $240 million effort to improve the public schools, funded by a hard-sought 1-cent sales tax.
To get it passed, Riley barnstormed the state and rounded up business and civic leaders. He hired a public relations firm to market the "penny-for-education" idea and set up a toll-free comment number.
At the time, South Carolina ranked 49th out of 50 states in spending on education and its Scholastic Aptitude Test scores were among the worst. Its SAT scores have improved and its rank in per-pupil spending has moved up to 41st.
© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company