Bush’s Economic Appointees Noted for Centrism, Savvy : Carla Hills Praised in Washington as Student, Diplomat and Politician

Times Staff Writer

A multitude of critics scoffed and groaned 13 years ago when Carla Anderson Hills, an assistant attorney general with no experience in housing issues, was nominated by President Gerald R. Ford to be secretary of housing and urban development.

But she immediately took charge, quickly learning programs that were undergoing radical change, listing 3,000 priorities for action and winning over a suspicious Congress with her tact, brains and toughness.

“She turned out to be one of the best secretaries the department ever had,” said Gerald R. McMurray, staff director of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs subcommittee on housing and community development.

Now Hills, picked Tuesday by President-elect George Bush to be his top trade negotiator, once again faces questions about her limited trade experience, as well as about possible conflicts of interest involving foreign trade clients of both her law firm and her husband’s investment firm. One trade consultant even feared that she would be at a disadvantage in negotiations with male-oriented Japanese and Europeans.


This time, though, Hills has a legion of supporters, seemingly assuring easy Senate approval of her nomination.

“She is a very quick learn, a consummate diplomat who is trusted across the political spectrum,” said William Gorham, president of the Urban Institute, one of several think tanks and corporations where Hills serves as an officer.

“After you leave the economics of trade,” Gorham added, “you quickly get into the politics--and in that she will be very good.”

William Walker, a former Ford Administration trade official and now a trade lawyer, said: “She is very much a lady, but she is also a tough cookie.”


Similar praise for Hills--a self-described “enlightened Republican"--came from Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs subcommittee on housing and urban affairs, and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee’s trade subcommittee.

“This is an outstanding nomination of an outstanding person,” Cranston said of the Los Angeles native. “I don’t expect her to have any serious opposition.”

Possible Conflict

Hills undoubtedly will be asked at Senate confirmation hearings about her Washington law firm’s lobbying on international trade matters for Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan and on foreign investment issues for Banco Central of Argentina.


A question was raised at her news conference with Bush on Tuesday about foreign clients of businesses run by her husband, Roderick, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“If there is any conflict of interest, Rod has said that he will remove himself from the position of conflict,” she said.

In an interview, Roderick Hills confirmed the statement and asserted that his wife has “enormous experience” in trade.

“She has faced every international trade problem you can imagine” as a director for IBM, Chevron, American Airlines and Corning Glass Works, he said.


Privileged Background

Carla Hills, who will be 55 in January, had what she has called an “advantaged” upbringing in Los Angeles, not unlike Bush’s--attending private school, riding a five-gaited saddle horse, playing tennis and spending summers at the family estate in Burbank.

At Stanford, her major was in history and she was captain of the women’s tennis team. She also studied at Oxford University in England and won a law degree from Yale.

In Washington, where the Hillses have a tennis court and a swimming pool in their back yard, she is known for being as good a hostess as she is a lawyer. But the couple’s tennis games have been aced of late by knee injuries to both.


“We have been too busy to get them fixed with arthroscopic surgery,” her husband said.

Staff writers Art Pine and Laurie Duncan contributed to this story.