Car dealer is not the normal career path to foreign service, but if Sidney Williams prevails, he will go from being a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Hollywood to being the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas.
At 51, Williams has been a lot of other things, too: former professional football player (Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins), aide and chief of staff to former Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham, a minority business developer with former teammate Jim Brown.
But when it comes to ambassadorial appointments, perhaps his most influential credential is that of husband to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), one of President Clinton’s earliest and most prominent black supporters.
Most congressional observers believe that Williams, who has won committee approval, will be confirmed when the Senate votes on his nomination in the next few weeks.
Nevertheless, Williams is getting a lesson in how Washington works. Every time a president takes office he can count on a few of his ambassadorial nominees causing a tussle with the opposition party, and Williams is among four being targeted this time. The rumblings about Williams, one of two Los Angeles residents to be nominated for an ambassadorship (California Secretary of State March Fong Eu was nominated last week to be ambassador to Micronesia), are the classic ones that dog many presidents’ political nominees for ambassadorships.
“The best justification that he has for being ambassador is that he traveled to the Bahamas on vacation,” said one congressional aide familiar with Williams’ confirmation process.
His backers say that is a cheap shot and point out that many political appointees blossom into fine ambassadors.
The State Department, which issued a report on Williams to the Senate, said his background would serve him well in the diplomatic corps: “Mr. Williams developed strong discipline, strategic thinking and negotiating skills as a professional football player.”
As for Waters and Williams, they’re not talking. “The strict instructions from the State Department are to stay out of the newspapers until after he’s confirmed,” said Waters, declining to relay a message to her husband. “He’s not running for a beauty contest.”
But Waters has made sure that the right people know how she feels. Last February, Waters wrote to Bruce Lindsey, senior adviser and assistant to the President for personnel: “This letter is to alert you of my support of Sidney Williams for the position of Ambassador to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas,” reads the first line. “Sidney’s public relations and diplomatic skills have been well honed over the years.” Only in the fourth sentence does she let slip the detail of their relationship: “Sidney Williams, who is my spouse, was a professional football player for the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins.”
Williams, a Shreveport, La., native, married Waters in 1977 and was at her side as she rose to political prominence, first in the state Assembly and then in Congress.
“I’ve always admired him because she’s very flamboyant, and I’ve never sensed in him any insecurity,” said Jim Brown, the former football player, who has known Williams since they played for the Cleveland Browns in the mid-1960s. “That can be difficult for many men--to have a flamboyant, dynamic wife.”
Brown and Williams, a former linebacker, played on the 1965 Cleveland Browns NFL championship team. “He was a really good football player,” said Brown, one of the greatest running backs to play the game, who now works with gang members and on gang-related issues.
Williams, who has two stepchildren, worked with Brown from 1966 to 1974 on the Black Economic Union, a now-defunct organization that Brown started to help develop minority businesses. Brown describes Williams as detail-oriented, methodical and tenacious. “For example, he decided to lose weight and he just did it,” Brown recalled. “He lost like 30 pounds. He’s small now. No one ever realized it, but he was really big.”
Williams worked for former Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham in the mid-1970s, overlapping at one point with Maxine Waters. The two were not married at the time but they were dating, as far as Cunningham can recall. She was chief of staff until her departure in 1976, when she was elected to the state Assembly. Williams became chief of staff shortly afterward.
Williams was also a project manager for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency in the late 1970s. But in 1979, he switched gears and went to work at the Mercedes-Benz dealership.
“If you had an opportunity to enhance your income significantly through . . . commissions versus a salary of $50,000, wouldn’t you take it?” asked Cunningham, who is now a lobbyist.
Within the sleek, rounded walls of the Sunset Boulevard showroom--which looks more like an art gallery than a car dealership--Williams racked up more than 1,000 clients in 14 years, according to his friend and fellow dealer Andre Dawson.
“Ninety percent of his business was repeat business,” said Dawson, whom Williams helped install as his replacement at the dealership. “He didn’t take a lot of traffic off the floor.”
None of his friends or supporters see the transition from car salesman to ambassador as an insurmountable leap for Williams.
“He’s not a car salesman,” Cunningham said. “When you talk about Mercedes, BMWs, Rolls Royces, you’re not talking about car salesmen. As Sidney would say, ‘It’s not really a car that you sell. You act as a sales representative who helps people make decisions about the type of Mercedes they wish to acquire.’ ”
“He’s the sort of guy who should be an ambassador,” said Dawson, who remembers teasing Williams because he often wore that sartorial emblem of the East Coast Establishment: a bow tie. “He’s kind of reserved, rather conservative . . . I’m a little more aggressive than I have to be. He’s real cool and confident. He’s like a Clint Eastwood character. If you got this guy upset, you would never know it.”
Carlton Jenkins, president of Founders National Bank of Los Angeles, the only black-owned bank in California, noted that Williams had gone out of his way to get the dealership to replace him with an African American. “He’s opened the door to a lot of African Americans,” Jenkins said, “as well as put a lot of Mercedes on the street for African Americans . . . I think he’s been a positive African American male role model.”
According to friends, he’s already the consummate diplomat, even on the golf course.
“He might say, ‘Hey, buddy, I don’t want to mess up your game but it looks like you’re not getting back to your left side,’ ” Cunningham said.
The former councilman and Williams are members of a golf club of black professional men who call themselves the Funlovers and have a standing date to play every Sunday at the Montebello Municipal Golf Course. Williams has not made many of the past Sundays because he has been shuttling between Los Angeles and Washington, where he is being briefed on ambassadorial duties.
“We call him Mr. Ambassador,” laughed Kenneth Collins, an attorney and the president of the golf club. “His response is that that’s a little premature.”
Williams was one of four recent nominees criticized by some Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“They are certainly excellent Americans,” said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) in a committee meeting. “But there is very little in the record or in their testimony that would lead one to believe that they have the competence, really, to deal with the problems our country has with these very important countries.”
The White House has filled about 100 ambassadorial posts, but it has more than three dozen to fill.
Williams has only one hurdle left to clear. He survived a November Senate committee confirmation hearing--which lasted a scant 20 minutes--with a performance that by some accounts was lackluster but free of gaffes. There was a question from Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) about what kind of car he would be driving in the Bahamas.
“I am really looking at purchasing a Chevrolet, sir,” Williams said to laughter, noting that he had divested himself of his Mercedes. But he was not too expansive on drug trafficking and trade issues, the main points of interest between the two countries.
“He was nervous,” said Dodd, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sympathetically. Dodd has confessed to initial doubts about Williams’ candidacy. Dodd said over the course of several private meetings, Williams was impressive and won over the senator’s skeptical staffers.
“A lot of this is people skills,” said Dodd, whose committee approved the nomination 14 to 6 and sent it on to the Senate floor. “The idea that you have to have a Ph.D. in foreign affairs is not true. Some of our best ambassadors have been political appointees.”
Despite the grumbling of some Republicans on Capitol Hill, Williams has run into nothing like the opposition to another Californian ambassadorial nominee, M. Larry Lawrence, owner of the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.
Lawrence, one of the Democratic Party’s major contributors and the nominee to Switzerland, has drawn strong opposition from the American Foreign Service Assn., the union representing government foreign service employees. The group has made much of the fact that Lawrence does not know any of the official languages of Switzerland (although he is learning French.)
“Larry Lawrence represents something we should not be encouraging--the purchasing of an embassy,” said Dennis Kux, a member of the American Foreign Service Assn.'s board.
White House and congressional supporters dismiss his critics, calling Lawrence a sophisticated and successful businessman who has had numerous dealings with Switzerland.
One of only a handful of blacks nominated for ambassadorships, Williams is not opposed by Kux’s organization, which prides itself on being a watchdog against shamelessly unqualified political appointees. "(Williams) represents the diversity in diplomatic postings that we support,” Kux said.
So in a world of political appointments, in an age of political correctness, Williams is likely to be accorded a certain deference and benefit of the doubt. Observed one congressional aide: “Republicans don’t want to be identified as targeting a black ambassador nominated by Clinton.”
Although the Senate’s vote on his nomination has been held up by some senators--the White House was hoping he would be confirmed before Christmas--Dodd now dismisses that glitch as pure politics and a flexing of muscles by colleagues who were annoyed over other matters. “It’s sometimes difficult to discern the motivations of senators,” Dodd said.
Besides, Williams’ political connections are not to be underestimated.
“His wife is an influential member of Congress and close to the White House,” Dodd said. “I think in the Bahamas, people will know that he has access.”
During his confirmation hearing, Williams was careful to stress his background in government, but he did not give short shrift to his experience in the car business: “It allowed me to understand management concepts and I assisted my company in record profits,” Williams said.
Even Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), who grumbled during a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee that Williams knew only “the automobile business and the football business,” was careful to add the caveat that that did not automatically mean he could not be a good ambassador.
Or as Dodd said over the phone, laughing: “I suppose if you can sell cars, you can sell American foreign policy.”