Shalala: A Lifetime Spent in the Center of Storms
By Barbara Vobejda
When Donna E. Shalala was a child, a tornado raced through her Cleveland neighborhood. The household flew into chaos, with Shalala's father yelling, gathering the children and sending the family into the basement for safety.
"But all of a sudden, Donna was gone," her twin sister, Diane Fritel, remembers. "Nobody could find her, but she'd been in the basement with us."
The family searched upstairs, outside and eventually down the tree-littered block. And there at the corner, in the middle of the street, was 10-year-old Donna. She was directing traffic.
"She was always the leader," said Fritel.
Shalala, whose nomination as health and human services secretary goes before the Senate Finance Committee today, has emerged as one of the most controversial of President-elect Clinton's Cabinet choices, in part because of her penchant, metaphorically, for directing traffic in a tornado.
She has been at the center of numerous power struggles during her career, in a series of administrative posts that took her from a role in the New York City bailout to assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and, most recently, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one of the nation's largest universities.
In each position she has, by all accounts, marched into the eye of the storm and taken charge, forcefully and decisively.
While there is little likelihood that her nomination will be derailed, she is expected to face tougher questions than many other nominees, not only because she has a long and very public record as an administrator, but because "she's a strong philosophical advocate of what she believes in," namely liberal and "politically correct" views, said David Hoppe, an aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
It is that association with "political correctness" in her case primarily a speech code at the University of Wisconsin that has been the main point of contention raised by congressional Republicans since Shalala's selection was announced last month.
But Hoppe also said Shalala, 51, is likely to be questioned on a range of other issues, from her support for a plan to increase the minority presence on the Madison campus some detractors say this amounted to a quota system to her handling of an investigation over scientific fraud and her views on whether states should be granted waivers to experiment with welfare reform.
Shalala's record is long, dating from her first high-profile appointment as a director and treasurer of the Municipal Assistance Corp. (MAC), the body formed to rescue New York City from its fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s.
"I saw this little woman with a big smile who knew a hell of a lot more about municipal politics and finance than I did," said investment banker Felix G. Rohatyn, who still serves as MAC chair.
Rohatyn, who has acted as an informal adviser to the Clinton campaign, said the MAC directors were forced to make "extraordinarily difficult decisions," including raising taxes, laying off city workers and freezing wages.
"Donna, who comes from a very liberal background and has very liberal tendencies, was absolutely rock solid when we went through this list of horrors," he said.
Like the child in the tornado, Shalala seemed unflappable to him. When she was sent to Texas to sell the municipal bonds that would bail out the city, she not only faced an unsympathetic audience, but found herself shut out of a meeting of potential investors because it was held in a men-only club.
"She went in the back door, made her pitch and thought nothing of it," according to Rohatyn.
Shalala, according to her sister, always has been full of energy and self-assurance. As a child, she played on a girls' softball team coached by George Steinbrenner, the famed New York Yankees owner, competed in tennis and took ballet and tap dancing classes.
Fritel remembers a dance recital when, after all the performers had taken their standard bow as a group, she decided to venture out on her own to take a final, personal bow.
Shalala's friends say she is still supremely confident today, a notorious name-dropper and, according to columnist Molly Ivins, "almost disgustingly cheerful."
After college, Shalala spent two years in Iran in the Peace Corps. She later earned a doctorate at Syracuse University, specializing in urban affairs, and went on to teach at City University of New York and Teacher's College.
It was at HUD, where she was appointed assistant secretary for policy development and research in 1977, that Shalala honed her political skills in the midst of turf battles and clashes with other staff.
In 1980, she was named president of Hunter College in New York City. She spent seven years there, then became chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the first woman to head a Big Ten campus.
Again, she moved quickly. Within months she introduced the Madison Plan, designed to more than double the number of new minority undergraduates, hire more minority faculty, institute an ethnic studies requirement and open a multicultural center.
The university has fallen far short of its goals for minority admissions, but fulfilled virtually all other elements of the plan.
The plan has drawn some criticism, particularly from conservatives who believe such efforts lead to admission and hiring decisions based on race, rather than academic excellence or qualification.
"I see nothing catastrophic, but a measurable decline" in academic excellence, said Theodore S. Hamerow, professor emeritus of history who taught at the university while Shalala was chancellor.
He also disapproved of her management style. "She's basically an authoritarian personality who is politically savvy enough to create an appearance of consensus. She exercises a great deal of pressure to ensure conformity with her views," he said.
Others on the campus see it differently.
"She tried very hard to make the campus a more diverse place," said Jane Voichick, a member of the University Committee, a faculty governing board. "Her intent was to make a higher quality environment."
Most of the criticism of Shalala's "political correctness" is linked to a speech code adopted not by Shalala but by the university's Board of Regents.
The code, which banned hate speech at all of the system's 13 campuses, was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 1991. A second, more narrow ban on epithets directed at individuals that could incite violence was repealed last fall after court rulings raised new constitutional questions.
Shalala did not publicly oppose either version of the code. In a recent interview, she said she supported the more limited version but is "absolutely opposed to anything that would interfere with the free exchange of speech."
Republican senators also may question Shalala on her role in a scientific fraud investigation of university biochemists accused of improperly obtaining patents for vitamin derivatives.
Shalala, acting with other officials at the school, refused a request from National Institutes of Health investigators to turn over laboratory notebooks. Instead, they offered to send the notebooks with a representative to be present during the inspection, arguing that they did not want to relinquish control of primary materials in an ongoing investigation.
NIH refused to accept the university's conditions. Last fall, its Office of Research Integrity closed the case, but said it could not concur with the university's exoneration of the scientists because of "certain substantial questions" about the accuracy of lab notebook entries and other unresolved issues.
"The University of Wisconsin has gone the extra mile to cover up the scandal, turning a blind eye to the obvious misconduct," said Walter Stewart, an NIH scientist who looked into the case.
Senate aide Hoppe said Shalala's personal involvement raises questions of her "moral authority" to oversee, as head of HHS, the NIH office with which she clashed over release of documents.
University of Wisconsin spokeswoman Susan Trebach dismissed the criticism, saying the school aggressively pursued the case and was unable to prove misconduct.
"People who want to keep this case alive want to portray the university as stonewalling," she said. "Clearly, that's not the case."
Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company