A couple of years ago Trudi Morrison, then the highest ranking black woman in the White House, was out on the road trying to convince a skeptical audience that the Reagan administration cared about women's issues.
As she approached the podium at a luncheon, sponsored by a women's professional and business group, a woman stood up and threw a tomato at her.
"Well I had a red dress on and I dodged successfully," recalls Morrison flatly, her anger faded now to a tone of resignation.
But right then Morrison, now the deputy sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. Senate, was mad. She called on the maverick spirit she inherited as a descendant of Colorado pioneers, the determination that made her overcome childhood illnesses and the schooled serenity that enabled her to survive not only hostile audiences during her White House tenure but questions about her impact.
She had the tomato-thrower arrested,and went right ahead with her speech, but never pressed charges.
For almost everyone who knows her, Morrison's characteristic trait is bluntness -- a quality either envied or avoided. She says her outspokenness helped mold her into the spiritual daughter of activists ranging from journalist Ida B. Wells to Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.). "I thrive on those kinds of situations," she says. "The more controversial, the harder the task, the better I seem to perform." And she likes to win. "I don't get into games that I can't win. I don't go into losing games."
While her batting average falls short of perfect, she has competed with energy and e'lan. When she was about 10 years old a doctor told her she had to strengthen a pinkie finger. To do so, she took up one of music's most demanding instrument's for finger strength, the bass violin.
At Colorado State University she protested the policies of the administration; in 1970 she was elected the first black homecoming queen. At the homecoming football game, she raised a black-gloved hand in victory and some students were offended by what they thought was a black power salute. Someone threw a brick through her apartment window. Those who attacked her, she says, "transferred their own fear of black power to me. It had nothing to do with me personally."
In the intervening years, Morrison, 35, has continued to be a lightning rod for political storms. She worked in the often-tumultuous Office of Public Liaison as the director of the "50 States" project that surveyed gender-discriminatory laws in the country. When the project was completed this spring, she started thinking of her next step. Before she had anything finalized, Linda Chavez, the director of the office, gave her 30 days' notice. Shortly afterward, Morrison was appointed to her Senate job and began her first full Senate session when the legislature reconvened a few days ago.
Her appointment as the first woman or first black to have a ranking administrative job in the Senate makes its own history. The Hill is still considered a club of white, male decision-makers. "I honestly feel it is a sad commentary on the state of our society that a woman or black could be the first in any professional career in 1985," she says, "especially in something as visible as the U.S. Senate. The sex and race issue should have been broken years ago." At this moment, she is showing characteristic partisan diplomacy, giving all the credit for her appointment to Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.). The Senate majority leader has jurisdiction over the sergeant-at-arms office, which has 2,200 employes and a $100 million budget and oversees the Senate's administrative and protocol needs. Only Morrison and her boss, Ernest Garcia, have the power to arrest the president.
In talking about her Washington career, Morrison speaks with the care of an attorney, weighing every thought carefully and stopping long enough to hear her words evaporate. She is a tall, solidly built woman; her black hair spills over her shoulders onto a silk blouse and linen jacket, framing a full, heart-shaped face. Though her smile is very tentative, her wide-set brown eyes convey playful confidence.
Morrison has never had to look far for a sense of who she is. She is a fifth-generation Coloradan, fifth-generation Republican and fifth-generation African Methodist Episcopal Church member. In Denver there is a park named after her grandfather, George Morrison Sr., a musician who played with Paul Whiteman, Nat "King" Cole, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. Her father, George Morrison Jr., was at one time a school principal and is now an administrator with the Denver public schools. Her cousin, George Morrison Bailey, is music director and choreographer for the Stuttgart Ballet.
Some black Republicans now think Morrison might become another kind of pioneer by running for elective office. "She is someone the party should look forward to in the future. She would be an excellent model and encouragement for younger blacks," says Elaine Jenkins, president of the Council of 100, a black Republican group.
"The Lord has a plan for me. And I am just an instrumentality, a tool to achieve whatever that goal is," Morrison answers, brushing away at a spotless conference table. "So I never questioned anything. I have never sought any position. That is how I live my life."
Morrison's mother Marjorie graduated from high school in Texas when she was only 15. She applied to Colorado Women's College but was denied admission because of her race. Years later the mother arranged to have her daughter's wedding at the college. "That's her way of obtaining justice in the end," says Trudi Morrison, who took the irony one step further. She accepted an invitation to speak at the same college 40 years to the day after her mother's rejection letter was written, and started her speech by relating her mother's experience.
Her exposure to politics started almost as soon as she could walk. When her mother was a stenographer for the Colorado State Senate, she took her daughters to the closing session. There 2 1/2-year-old Trudi pounded the gavel and got her first taste of power. In the second grade, she ran for student body president of her elementary school and won. Her father, a teacher, told her she was too young and should give the post to a boy in the sixth grade. "I asked him if it was true I couldn't be president because I was a girl. He said no, I could be anything I wanted to be," she says. Later she would be elected president of the delegate assembly in junior high on the platform 'Don't be snooty, vote for Trudi,' and would receive the leadership award in her senior year in high school.
As a youngster, Morrison was hospitalized for long periods, battling pneumonia, bronchitis and severe allergies. She adopted as a heroine Wilma Rudolph, the track great who had also been a sickly child. "Being able to pull the strength from her body and her mind to become an outstanding woman . . . that's the struggle few understand," she says.
But the sport that made Rudolph a star was one area where Morrison couldn't excel. At one foot race, her mother recalls, "She was the last one to make it in. But she never stopped."
She did win at music and books but had to fight to get a music scholarship to college. "She saw this scholarship application that didn't mention bass players. She wrote a strongly worded letter, saying her instrument was the backbone of the orchestra. She auditioned. She wouldn't take no for an answer," says Marjorie Morrison, an executive secretary for a city official in Denver.
At Colorado State,Morrison kept her independent stance but joined the protest tenor of the late 1960s. She helped form the Black Student Alliance -- out of 17,000 students there were 200 blacks -- and for two years wrote editorials for the paper. One began "Off White Pigs. . . ." She doesn't find that sort of rhetoric inconsistent with her present beliefs or job, picturing herself as a middle-of-the-road black power advocate. "I was trying to have the concerns of blacks recognized," she says. "I have never regretted anything I have ever done."
She was also secretary of the student body council, where she urged Colorado State to drop Brigham Young University from its football and basketball schedule because of the Mormon Church's policy then of barring blacks from the ministry. But she kept a rein on her personal involvement. Once she helped organize a lobbying effort to get more funds for the college library,but skipped the demonstration itself to take an exam.
Those experiences made her consider law after putting in four years for a psychology degree. "I saw a lot of my friends arrested for practicing free speech. I wanted to use the Constitution to protect everyone's rights," she says. She finished George Washington University Law School in 1975. In 1976 she joined the Maryland State's Attorney office in Montgomery County, handling assault and battery, robbery and shoplifting cases, and then returned to Colorado to work first in a private firm and then in the district attorney's office. For more than three years -- her longest job to date -- she worked for the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, where she says she felt "more comfortable" doing administrative work. In 1980 she received her first appointment in Washington, joining the policy and budget office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. After a year she returned to Colorado as a deputy regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services.
During this interlude at home, Morrison met Dale Saunders, a New York-born lawyer, who was moving to Denver. "One of my college roommates was working in Denver, he provided me with some names I should get in contact with, and Trudi's family was at the top of the list," recalls Saunders. They were married in 1981. He found a diligent woman who combined her legal, civic and political work. Just as she had been a candy striper when she was 14, she was now one of the first to visit nursing homes on Thanksgiving and deliver food in Meals-on-Wheels programs.
Last year Colorado State gave Morrison its first Alumni Award. At the ceremony there were several ironies. The award was named for William E. Morgan, the president she had vigorously opposed. At the homecoming Colorado State played Brigham Young, the old target of protest. And this time some students objected to her visit because she represented the political establishment..
Morrison, like many minority appointees in all administrations, found herself wearing several hats: promoting her specific task, advocating a black perspective at White House meetings, and clarifying the party's politics to opponents who often thought of minority aides as roadblocks rather than helpers.
Steven Rhodes, a former assistant to Vice President George Bush, says that often the job was not to do something, but to stop something.
Morrison agrees. "In a general manner, the Reagan administration approach was one of pulling away from intrusive acts into the private lives of people," she says. "But there is a danger, and those of us in the administration who cared about minorities felt we had an obligation that the approach did not have an adverse effect on minorities."
When the Justice Department opposed a policy guaranteeing a percentage of federal contracts to minority businesses, she recalls, the blacks in the White House joined others in the administration in advising against that approach. In a later speech before the National Association of Minority Contractors, the president said that such "set-asides" were consistent with his federal policy."
Morrison says the multiple roles often led to hardships at the White House, but she is reluctant to review the specifics. "I didn't always feel I had a clear line of demarcation between my responsibilities and other staffers. It was not the fact that I didn't have power. I just needed to know what I could do."
According to some of her confidants, Morrison was constantly frustrated because she "did not always have the complete green light" for her projects and had to battle intra-office jealousies and turf fights. Some of the jealousies directed at her, friends believed, were because she was an energetic doer who set a pace few could follow. Others, outside the staff, thought she was blind to a situation they saw as basically window dressing. "Her exuberance is not always understood," says one friend.
One of her solutions was to form an informal network of the black women appointees, nicknamed BRWN (Black Republican Women's Network). "When I came back to Washington, she called me for no other reason other than I was here and was another black woman," says Antoinette Ford, an assistant administrator at the Agency for International Development. "She helped those of us in the administration help one another, whether it was an issue we were working on, such as child support enforcement, or different employment opportunities," says Stephanie Lee-Miller, assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. Some of her invitations to briefings were signed "Yours in Sisterhood."
When Morrison was appointed to the White House in July 1983, the debate over the gender gap was in full swing, and Faith Ryan Whittlesey, then director of the public liaison office, was often on the firing line. Morrison spent a great deal of time defending the administration's policies and researching. In six months she traveled to 28 states. The project became known as the administration's answer to the Equal Rights Amendment. "That was because the ERA looked at a constitutional amendment, where this project was saying there are other means to obtain the same end," she says. "Personally, my own feelings never entered into this. I do feel that a state by state approach from a legal standpoint is the best way to obtain legal equity."
But she didn't always keep her own feelings under wraps. On a voter registration swing through the South, she praised the Republican record and urged that more Republican politicians hire black Republicans for jobs. Her comments led some state GOP officials to circulate letters asking that she be muzzled or removed.
"When she leaves your office you know that Trudi Morrison has paid you a visit," says Melvin Bradley, a special assistant to the president. Cathi Villalpando, the former special assistant for Hispanic affairs, says Morrison was firm but not intimidating. "She really puts people at ease, and she doesn't look down on people."
Friends says she doesn't have scars from that time. "She is a woman who heals well," one says. Other friends say she was never that totally consumed with the politics of the job. "I would have to initiate a conversation about an issue," says Beverly Spellman, a Democratic attorney who plays cards with Morrison and Saunders on weekends. She remembers inviting some other Democrats to lunch with Morrison. "She didn't talk ravenously about politics. But at the end of the lunch we were saying we should rethink our party choices. We had talked about any number of things, tax reform, and others. Her views were more conservative than ours. I could see that she works by making you think about other options," says Spellman.
Some observers of her career and the Reagan White House feel her mentors lobbied for her Senate job so it would not look bad for another black appointee to be leaving the White House. Besides Bradley, there are two other black staffers above special assistant level: George Armstrong, associate director of presidential personnel, and Frederick McClure, special assistant for legislative affairs, down from a one-time high of six.
Some, including Morrison, feel it was simply the right time. She says she was anxious to take on the sergeant-at-arms job because she needed to grow. "Now I am in a position to see how laws are made," she says, with diplomatic resilience. The sergeant-at-arms office was organized to call back the far-flung lawmakers to business and keep the rowdy public and lawmakers intact. Garcia, the sergeant-at-arms, does most of the ceremonial and troubleshooting duties. Morrison has taken over the day-to-day operations, which include overseeing tours, pages, recording and photography studios and the press galleries. When the Senate stays late, so does Morrison.
So far the worst incident in her new job was almost getting lost in the Capitol with a group of Sen. William Armstrong's constituents.
"He had a busload of Coloradans he was bringing in for a breakfast. I went with him to greet the bus when the Coloradans unloaded. They were all so proud. And then Sen. Armstrong said, 'Okay, Trudi, take them to the floor and then take them to whatever room the breakfast is in.' I was having trouble finding my way from the parking lot to my office. I didn't know where I was going." And she laughs, knowing the daughter of pioneers didn't take long to find the trail