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Herman: A Power Behind the Throne

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Inside the White House, Alexis M. Herman spends the day with a telephone pressed to her ear, dialing the contacts in her bulging Rolodex. As director of the office of public liaison, it is her job to stroke egos outside the White House gates and marshal support for presidential policies when all seems lost.

But in recent weeks, she has had an issue on her plate far more personal than the North American Free Trade Agreement, Bosnia or than any other presidential directive--her own nomination as secretary of Labor.

With at least two other candidates in the mix and intense angling underway to sway President Clinton, Herman used her skills as a behind-the-scenes operator to round up enough backing among African Americans, women and cross-the-aisle Republicans to help persuade the president to appoint her as the first black woman to serve in the Labor post.

The struggle was nothing new for Herman, 49, a onetime Alabama social worker who has spent her career manipulating the system from the shadows.

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After graduating from Xavier University in New Orleans in 1969, she returned to her hometown of Mobile to help desegregate her old high school. As a young social worker, she fought to get a black woman admitted to an all-white labor union at a Mississippi shipyard.

“She could have stood on a soap box and said unions are bad because they don’t admit blacks,” said Rochelle Horowitz, former political director for the American Federation of Teachers. “She didn’t do that. She does what she always does--she worked behind the scenes to admit them.”

Herman spent most of her early career promoting job-training programs for women at a variety of social service organizations in the South.

After taking a mid-level position in the Carter administration, she joined Ronald H. Brown at the Democratic National Committee as his chief of staff.

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Among her tasks was the delicate job of negotiating with New York City trade unions in advance of the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

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In announcing Herman’s nomination at the White House on Friday, Clinton praised her for helping to soothe the Democrats’ many constituencies, from the business groups he needed on his side to pass the trade pact to the Eastern European immigrants he consulted on the U.S. peacekeeping operation in Bosnia.

“She is my eyes and ears,” he said.

In her own cause, Herman reached out to Republicans to help smooth her confirmation hearing even before she was sure that she would get the nomination. And she called Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on Friday to mend fences, since he had backed former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) for the job.

Becoming secretary would return Herman to a familiar bureaucracy, since she was deputy undersecretary of Labor under Carter.

“She knows the Labor Department far better than I did when I came here,” said outgoing Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who used the job to push for middle-class tax cuts and a boost in the minimum wage.

Her former boss, Ray Marshall, said that Herman is a natural for the balancing act necessary for the job.

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“It’s not easy,” said Marshall, who was secretary of Labor from 1977 to 1981. “Sometimes the unions are not going to be happy with you. Other times the Congress or business groups won’t be happy.”

Herman knows about that tightrope.

The AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for the nation’s major unions, lined up behind Wofford for Labor secretary while griping that Herman lacked a “passion” or “empathy” for labor issues. Latino groups and Californians, meanwhile, backed Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-Pico Rivera).

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In the end, Herman appears to have prodded some naysayers into her camp. Lawmakers in both parties signaled support for her Friday. And once-skeptical unions began looking at her anew.

“We believe Alexis’ experience--growing up in the rural South, advancing the interests of working women and minorities and dealing with the issues of a changing work force--will be a tremendous asset,” said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.


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