The Great Persuader

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When national angst focused momentarily on fashion and sweatshops last year, it was largely because of the public vilification and atonement of one woman: Kathie Lee Gifford.

And if Gifford elected to rally the public conscience against evil labor practices, it was due in large part to coaxing by another woman: Maria Echaveste.

Then head of the U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, Echaveste connected with the co-host of "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" and her husband, former football great Frank Gifford, at dinner in a Manhattan restaurant last May. Echaveste's former boss, then-Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, was there and remembers it well.

"She was very persuasive," he says.

Kathie Lee Gifford's sunny image had been tarnished by allegations that a Wal-Mart clothing line bearing her name and likeness was produced by sweatshop labor. Over an Italian dinner, Reich and Echaveste transformed both Giffords into crusaders for garment industry reform.

Echaveste did it, in part, by talking about her own struggles growing up poor in a large, itinerate farm worker family, picking fruit as a child in the San Joaquin Valley and later in the fields of Ventura County. Echaveste had persevered over welfare and the crime-ridden streets of Oxnard's La Colonia neighborhood to reach Stanford University, a lucrative law career and Washington.

It was her personal rigor that put into context the celebrity's own public tribulations.

"I really liked her," Gifford recalls. "I was at a point where I had been beaten up pretty badly and was not in a mind-set to like anybody. And I just genuinely thought a lot of her. I thought, 'This is a woman who has struggled. This is a woman who has come from tremendous adversity and overcome tremendous obstacles and [whom] I would be proud to have as a friend.' "

Today, Echaveste, 43, does her persuading full time. As President Clinton's new director of the Office of Public Liaison, she is the administration's chief salesperson, peddling his initiatives--such as his emphasis on improving education, for example--to the public. She does this through speaking engagements, meeting with community or organizational leaders, generating newsworthy events or even urging somebody to write an op-ed piece for a newspaper.

In return, she samples for Clinton the public sentiment on a variety of issues. She works the phone with a Rolodex full of movers and shakers, and shags interesting ideas that land on the Oval Office desk. To do the job, Echaveste has a staff of 18 and earns $125,000 a year.

"The Office of Public Liaison is, in a nutshell, the eyes and ears of the president," she says.

Echaveste is also the highest-ranking Latino on the White House staff and intensely loyal, although she has told her family that the working environment there is viciously competitive. Not that she isn't up to the challenge: Her closest sister describes her as "very ambitious."

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Though an East Coast denizen who has allowed her driver's license to expire and owns no car (she enjoys grilling cab drivers on issues of the day), Echaveste still sees herself, at base, as a Californian.

She is a marathon runner, makes her own suits and stayed up until 4 a.m. finishing her inaugural gown. She is also a consummate sci-fi fan and closet Trekkie whose favorite television program is the space adventure "Babylon 5." ("Total escapism," she says with a laugh.) Her favorite author is Isabel Allende. Every weekend, she commutes to the Bronx, where she cultivates tomatillos, tomatoes, chilies and roses in the backyard of the Victorian she shares with lawyer-husband Stanley Schlein, just off Long Island Sound on quaint City Island.

A Washington Post gossip columnist recently described her as having "the best hair in the administration, a dark, rippling mass. . . ." In her early days at Labor she would work to confine the tresses, but, Echaveste says, "about a year or two ago I said, 'The hell with this.' If people can't deal with it, that's their problem."

As head of the Wage and Hour Division, she had a reputation as an activist, a label she says doesn't bother her in the least. She transformed the division from a purely complaint-driven enforcement office to one that aggressively targets labor law violators, leveraging news events like the 1995 raid on an El Monte sweatshop--where dozens of Thai immigrants worked in near slavery--as a means of embarrassing major retailers like Disney, JCPenney and Bloomingdale's into policing their contractors. Garment businesses in New York and Los Angeles regularly made her list of offenders. And enlisting the Giffords ratcheted attention on sweatshops even higher.

Says Reich: "She's articulate, insightful, full of energy, full of the beans, full of ideas."

She is so often defined as the child of immigrants, parents who only last year became U.S. citizens. Echaveste's most oft-told story is of how she defied her father, and the male-dominated culture of that Latino household, by using an academic scholarship to abandon Oxnard for Stanford, riding to Palo Alto on a Greyhound bus with her mother. What she doesn't add, however, is the price of that rebellion: Refugio Echaveste refused to speak to his oldest child for two years.

She pulled down the last pillar of childhood eight years ago: raised Roman Catholic, she converted to the faith of her husband.

"I mean, that's a story in itself," Echaveste says. "How does this Mexican farm worker's daughter end up marrying a Bronx Jew?"

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It is a long way from that predawn, backbreaking labor in the fields outside Fresno, the pink hands that wouldn't wash clean after hours of pulling strawberries, the occasional beehive stumbled upon in vineyards that sent pickers scattering, the succession of labor camps with concrete shacks where parents slept in one room, brothers in another, sisters in a third.

She was the eldest of seven, the only child born in Texas, where her parents migrated under a visiting workers' program. The family moved to Clovis, near Fresno, shortly afterward, and then on to Oxnard when Maria was 12, where her father thought they would find better wages. Instead, they found joblessness, the stigma of welfare and life for a time in La Colonia, a place that would become known as the most crime-ridden neighborhood in all of Ventura County.

"You always had to watch your back," recalls sister Carmella Echaveste, today a social worker living in Los Angeles. "You always had to be careful you didn't make someone mad."

But if life was difficult, the family remained sheltered, deeply religious and disciplined.

"My father was very strict," Carmella says. "It was a very Mexican upbringing where the girls had their roles and the boys were the dominating force of the family. Women did the caretaking and taking care of the men. No dating. No boyfriends. No going out."

But if the door to social freedom was closed, another to a world of books was thrown open, even encouraged. Between her duties as the occasional surrogate parent to her siblings, Echaveste plunged eagerly through it.

"There was nothing to do but read," she says. "I learned there was a world outside my experience."

Nancy Drew. Jonathan Swift. Isaac Asimov. Ayn Rand. Nights under the blanket with the proverbial flashlight. The fields were abandoned for an after-school job at Bob's Market, an Oxnard grocery. She made honors English at Channel Islands High School.

"What was really special about Maria," says former Channel Islands classmate Jovita Valdez, was that "she was one of the few Latinas who stood out as being able to play with the big girls and the big boys. . . . She could compete."

She learned about Stanford from an alumna, a Latina who returned on a recruiting assignment and visited Maria's home. Her father said nothing. Women would leave his home when they were married, and not before.

But Maria won scholarships. With those and college employment, she could pay for school without her father's help.

"That was my ticket out of my home," she recalls.

Still, the subject was nervously avoided until shortly before Maria was to leave. While cleaning up after supper one night, she mentioned that it would soon be time to quit her job and pack for college.

Her father was adamant: "You know you're not going."

They quarreled until her mother finally settled the matter.

"I'll take her myself," she said.

The earth had shifted in the Echaveste home. Years later, her father would come to understand and agree. But in the meantime, five other children would follow their sister to college. Today, one is an insurance broker, one a teacher for problem teenagers, one an engineer, another a health educator.

"Because of the stand that she took, I think it really helped all of us to face my father," Carmella Echaveste says.

At Stanford, she majored in anthropology, even then a student of diverse cultures. She served in the student senate.

"Maria was able successfully to move in many circles at once. She was involved in the Mexican American student organization, and she also had a lot of friends who were not Hispanics," says Lee Rosenbaum, who graduated with Echaveste in 1976 and is now an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. "I think she has become the most famous person in our class."

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After graduation, Echaveste worked at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and obtained her law degree from Boalt Hall in Berkeley in 1980. During the next 12 years as a corporate litigator and bankruptcy attorney in Los Angeles and New York, she served with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the board of the New World Foundation, a nonprofit agency that funds social service groups. They became friends, and Echaveste later worked on the 1992 campaign and transition team.

For a time last fall, her name was in play for appointment as labor secretary. Latino lawmakers and Latino groups had her on their short list of recommendations for Clinton, although the New Republic dubbed her an "unknown." In the end, the former Public Liaison chief, Alexis Herman, got the nod and Echaveste took her job.

She accepted the setback and seems enthusiastic with where she landed.

But the public vetting of candidates this time around bothered her. There had been so much discussion in the media about how Clinton was interested less in diversity this time than in quality. It struck close to home for a woman who had nearly been held back as a child, more than anything merely because she was female.

"I think that the most hurtful Washington perception on diversity is that time and time again, reporter after reporter states how the president, this time around, doesn't have to focus on diversity or make his administration look like America. He can focus on quality. The assumption is if you bring in women and minorities, they're certainly not the most qualified," Echaveste says.

"We're still a long way in this country from taking people as they are and treating ethnicity as it should be treated: 'Oh, your hair is long and black. Big deal.' "

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Maria Echaveste

Claim to fame: Top-ranking Latino in Clinton White House as director of its Office of Public Liaison.

Back story: Eldest of seven children in Mexican American farm worker family. Born in Texas 43 years ago; family moved to Clovis, near Fresno, shortly afterward, and then on to Oxnard when Maria was 12. Graduated from Stanford; law degree from Boalt Hall in Berkeley.

Home and family: Lives on City Island in the Bronx, N.Y., with husband Stanley Schlein, a lawyer.

Passions: Marathon running, gardening; makes many of her own clothes; loves science fiction and the books of Isabel Allende.

On managing access to the president: " 'Access' seems to be a dirty word. But the fact of the matter is, you have to know what people are thinking about to make good decisions. If you make policy in a vacuum, you're bound to get it wrong."

On naming names in the sweatshop flap: "We didn't say that the retailers had violated the law. We just simply said these were retailers who had received goods that were made in these horrific situations. Well, all of the sudden that meant that the retailers wanted to talk to [and work with] us because they found out that the public does care about this."

On being a minority role model: "It's the reality that when you walk into a room you are more than just yourself. If it's a burden, it's not an unpleasant thing. When people come into a place they are bringing their whole set of life experiences."

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