Patricia Roberts Harris does not dispute the war stories about the way she conducted business while a member of Jimmy Carter's Cabinet--the numerous tales of her dressing down subordinates in front of their peers after she determined that they were not up to her standards.
She volunteers her own story, about an aide at what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, who proposed three solutions to one bureaucratic problem. Harris rejected each one.
And then, she says, "I simply said to him across the table, 'You have simply wasted my time. You have wasted everybody's time. You clearly are incapable of understanding what needs to be done. I will not proceed with this meeting on the basis of these papers.' "
The session was adjourned and the aide was subsequently demoted.
The important point, says Harris, who now is touting her administrative ability as she seeks the Democratic nomination for mayor, is not her style of operation, but the fact that she got results. The records and the recollections of more than two dozen former colleagues and government officials interviewed seem to bear her out.
By most accounts, Harris was a hard-edged, spirited and unusually effective member of the Carter administration, loyal to the president but a tiger in fighting to protect her own turf.
She came into the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1977 as a quick study with a flair for management and a commitment to appoint minorities. Subsidized housing starts quadrupled during her tenure, and private investors were prodded into developing ravished cities with an innovative action-grant program.
By the time she left after two years as secretary, the agency had changed from a mere extension of the nation's housing industry to an advocate for saving inner cities.
When Carter purged Joseph A. Califano from his Cabinet, Harris moved to HEW in August 1979. Once there, she rode out several budget crises, put in place a new management team and kept a competent watch over the massive agency during the last 18 months of the administration.
Harris acknowledges that her record at HUD and later at HEW (now the Department of Health and Human Services) was blemished.
Civil rights enforcement slipped at HHS during her tenure. The District of Columbia received relatively little benefit from her vaunted urban action-grant program. Although she maintained generally good working relations with Capitol Hill, she was criticized by Congress for slow implementation of recommendations designed to reduce the cost of health care.
Yet, says Stuart Eizenstat, a lawyer who was Carter's chief domestic adviser, "She did the job as well as any Cabinet officer. She was by no means afraid of presenting her views bluntly to the president . . . . She had a lot of battles over spending and she sure won more than she lost."
But admirers and critics of the proud, self-made lawyer and daughter of a dining car waiter from Mattoon, Ill., were troubled by the contentious style Harris displayed.
"She was calling people to task for something they should have done and she could be brutal, but it was almost always justified," said Ruth T. Prokop, who was Harris' general counsel at HUD and who has high regard for Harris' administrative skills. "I got in on some meetings where there were very brutal assaults."
One Carter administration colleague who worked closely with Harris said, "She tends to intimidate, scare and harass, and I'm not sure how candid the advice was she was getting at HUD and HHS."
Harris dismisses such criticism. "I don't think I have a chip on my shoulder," she says. "I think that people who fail to perform, who think they are performing, cannot accept the fact that it is their failure of performance that leads to rejection."
Harris has been trying to make the Sept. 14 Democratic primary a referendum on incumbent Marion Barry's administrative and leadership skills. She is considered Barry's leading challenger.
There are numerous similarities between directing a major federal department and running a city. But, "you can't operate the two jobs nearly alike," says one of the few who has done both recently, Moon Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans who succeeded Harris at HUD. While a mayor is responsible to a wide range of constituencies, a Cabinet member could be viewed as having a constituency of one--the president.
Harris does not share that view. What's more, she says, she is baffled by critics who suggest that her Cabinet experience, which included working with city officials throughout the country and drafting massive federal budget proposals, doesn't necessarily assure her effectiveness as mayor.
"To say that when you have been able to cook the whole chicken that you can't cook a chicken leg," Harris says, "it's kind of absurd."
"It is not that I am saying that being HUD secretary or HEW secretary qualifies me for this job," she said in a recent interview. "What I'm saying is that the experience that qualified me to be a Cabinet officer more than qualifies me to be mayor of this city. And I would have been qualified to have been a better mayor than the incumbent before I went into the Cabinet."
Harris, 58, is a graduate of Howard University and the George Washington University Law Center. She was a YWCA program director in Chicago, an administrator of a human rights organization and a national black sorority here and served as ambassador to Luxembourg.
In 1969, Harris was appointed dean of the Howard University law school, but she resigned after only a month following a dispute with the president of the university over the handling of a student strike. She then practiced law in Washington for seven years before President Carter selected her as secretary of HUD in January 1977.
Harris' strength as an administrator stemmed from her quick grasp of complex programs and her management-by-objective techniques, which kept subordinates under constant pressure to meet department goals. She also quickly got the hang of the federal budget process and fiercely defended her programs from OMB budget cutters.
Dennis Green, who was an associate director at OMB specializing in housing in the early days of the Carter administration, recalls the first time he sat in on a meeting with Harris in 1977 that he assumed would be a low-key, preliminary discussion.
"Before we could get the issues out on the table, she launched into a long, very strong, courtroom-like attack in the defense of the requests of her agency" that caught everyone in the room off guard, said Green.
"That characterized her approach--tough minded, intelligent, quick to grasp the intricacies of her agency, and she went after what she wanted . . . . If she hadn't been as aggressive in defending her agency, there would have been more cuts."
Harris put in place a relatively strong new management team at HUD. Half of her political, or noncareer, appointees were women and 28 percent were blacks and Hispanics. Most of her top aides were white, however.
Later, at HHS, 67 percent of Harris' political appointments were of women and minorities, which exceeded the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidelines.
Harris gave two of her assistants line authority over programs and reorganized the bureaucracy. One result was a reduction from two years to one in the time it took for construction to begin after HUD earmarked federal funds for a project.
A housing industry expert said recently that subsidized housing production peaked during the Carter administration. While Harris deserves much of the credit, he said, some of the increased production resulted from the efforts of former HUD Secretary Carla Hills in the final days of the Ford administration.
In 1976, the year before Harris took over, construction was begun on 41,623 federally subsidized housing units, according to HUD records. Construction starts rose to 101,800 in 1977 and to 175,100 in 1978, Harris' two full years as HUD secretary.
The idea for the highly successful Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) program, which has survived Reagan administration cutbacks, was cooked up by Harris and members of the Carter transition team.
HUD awarded about 400 action grants to 320 cities during Harris' tenure, spurring private investment in downtown commercial ventures such as Baltimore's Harborplace and in neighborhood improvements.
Yet Washington received only two grants, $3.2 million for construction of the Hechinger Mall in Northeast Washington and $993,000 for a home-purchase assistance program.
Harris blamed D.C. officials for the city's meager showing. "This city cannot write grant applications, cannot put together a program in terms of the clear standards that are set forward," she said.
During her time at HUD, Harris pushed hard to divert more funds to help urban areas, especially older and poorer cities. She also issued rules that encouraged communities to spend three-fourths of their development money on sewers, parks, community centers and other projects that benefit inner-city residents.
Some HUD officials questioned the 13 months it took Harris to foreclose on Clifton Terrace, a 285-unit apartment complex at 14th and Clifton streets NW, after she was informed that the firm managing the project was far behind in its mortgage payments and some agency officials suspected the management firm of "milking" HUD.
P.I. Properties, the complex's management firm, was headed by Mary Treadwell, the former wife of Mayor Barry and an aquaintance of Harris. Treadwell reportedly invoked Harris' name repeatedly in her dealings with HUD officials and auditors who sought back mortgage payments and documentation for many of the questionable expenses that her firm billed to HUD, which held the mortgage on the project.
HUD's director of loan management at the time, Fred W. Pfaender, said in 1979 that despite his persistence in seeking foreclosure, "the decisionmaking had been moved up to the secretary's level."
HUD foreclosed on the property in August 1978, long after it was clear to many that P.I. Properties wasn't able or willing to straighten out its tangled financial affairs and shortly after the city refused to reissue a license for Clifton Terrace because of housing and fire code violations.
Treadwell, an accountant and three other officers of the now-defunct P.I. Properties were indicted Feb. 22 on charges of stealing and misappropriating thousands of dollars. No trial date has been set yet.
Last week, Harris insisted that the matter was handled promptly. "Thirteen months, to anybody who knows anything about foreclosures, is speedy," she said. "It was clean. The foreclosure was upheld on appeal. That was fast."
Harris said she was aware of complaints from HUD officials that Treadwell was using her name, but that she told those officials Treadwell was not to be given special consideration.
She said she knew Treadwell primarily through her public reputation as an aggressive black businesswoman. Harris once did some legal work for Treadwell and attended the wedding reception when Treadwell married Barry. Harris said that after she joined Carter's Cabinet, she didn't speak with Treadwell.
Harris' 18-month stint at HEW was most notable for her skill in handling management and budgetary problems. Her experience as an infighter proved extremely useful in negotiating budgets for her department, including the fiscal 1981 budget that Carter ordered revised several times.
Harris emerged with administration support for a 1981 budget of $225 billion, about $25 billion more than the previous year, said Frederick M. Bohen, who served as an assistant secretary for management and budget at HHS under Califano and Harris.
"That was probably her top achievement," Bohen said. "She continued Califano's record of getting at least the department's fair share of funds, if not an increase," Bohen said. "Both secretaries were quite successful at a time when support for social programs was running short."
One of her top priorities was in clearing up a large backlog of audits of federally funded programs. Nearly one-fourth of the cases were closed while she was there, according to a former top official there, resulting in about $40 million in repayments to the federal government.
Harris said she set into motion a wide range of initiatives while at the agency, including getting OMB to agree to a set level of annual research grants and working with states to reduce the error rate in welfare payments.
She sought ways to achieve equity in Social Security benefits for women and helped defeat a proposal within the administration to eliminate the minimum Social Security payment.
One of the most controversial incidents associated with Harris' tenure at HEW actually occurred before she formally took over.
In one stormy staff meeting, Harris dressed down David Tatel, the head of the civil rights enforcement division. She complained that Tatel had provided her with a shoddy briefing on pending cases and also complained that he hadn't included a summary, table of contents and tabs in the briefing books--items that others who attended the meeting said were there.
Harris also complained at the meeting that Tatel hadn't shown sufficient "political sensitivity" in handling two highly controversial school desegregation cases involving the Chicago public schools and the University of North Carolina.
The meeting hastened Tatel's planned departure and embittered some department employes who were still upset about Califano's firing.
Harris said last week that a distorted picture of that meeting was leaked to the press by enemies at HHS who wanted to "chastize" her for taking Califano's job. "That was really a deliberate smear attempt," she said.
However, she conceded that HHS's civil rights enforcement efforts declined after Tatel's departure.
"I would say that there was an unfortunate management hiatus that I corrected as soon as I could in the office of civil rights," she said. "I do not claim that I am infallible in all my managerial decisions."