States, Cities Provide Talent to the Clinton Cabinet

NEAL R. PEIRCE

January 11, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Dissecting the ''diversity'' issue, speculating who's conservative or liberal, a friend of Hillary or not, the media has missed a critical point about a number of Bill Clinton's top appointees.

It is that this president-elect has been able to draw on a constellation of remarkable talent -- people who, like Mr. Clinton himself, proved their mettle at the state and local level but were closed off from federal executive service for the life of the Reagan-Bush administrations.

While Washington floundered on the shoals of executive-legislative gridlock, this talented crew proved government can work in America.

Models of the ''can-do'' school are the two governors tapped by Clinton for his Cabinet -- South Carolina's Richard Riley to be secretary of education, and Arizona's Bruce Babbitt tapped for secretary of the interior.

Governor Riley transformed the politics of rigidly conservative South Carolina with a combination of disarming kind-heartedness and canny tactical skills. A fervid believer in children's welfare, he was able to win passage of education- and health-reform measures vitally important to a state that had been plagued by illiteracy, low worker skills and poor public health. His coalitions for children embraced business executives, chambers of commerce, hospitals, county governments and community leaders.

When the legislature seemed about to quash his school-reform measure, Governor Riley sparked a popular advertising-speaking-letter-writing campaign that overwhelmed the opposition. The RAND Corp. hailed the bill, which combined higher student and teacher performance standards with a $240 million a year sales-tax increase, as the nation's ''most comprehensive single piece'' of school-reform legislation.

Mr. Babbitt was Arizona's first truly strong governor, leaving his imprint on every area from the environment to high-tech economic development to child care. Before Ronald Reagan took up the cause, Governor Babbitt was talking about New Federalism, advocating a trade-off of functions between Washington and the states. Years ahead of Governor Clinton himself, Mr. Babbitt conceptualized a new, non-ideological brand Democratic politics -- pragmatic, programmatically innovative, fiscally cautious.

Governor Babbitt's most lasting contribution may be a precedent-shattering ground- water management law that should ensure adequate supplies for parched Arizona well into the next century. His method: to get the competing interests into a room and keep them there until a compromise agreement emerged.

Grazing, mining or any other Western interests who think they can roll over this interior secretary better think twice. Each year of his 10 years as governor, Mr. Babbitt told author David Osborne: ''I selected one or two or three issues and used everything at my disposal -- initiative, referendum, the bully pulpit, the press, brow-beating, trade-offs, threats, rewards -- to get what I needed. My agenda is concentrated and aimed at overwhelming the opposition.''

Governor Clinton's Cabinet picks also include two successful mayors: Federico Pena of Denver for secretary of transportation and Henry Cisneros of San Antonio as secretary of housing and urban development.

Mr. Cisneros is the better known of the two, such a charismatic figure that people were mentioning him for governor, senator or president almost as soon as he became San Antonio's mayor in 1981.

He pushed neighborhood and downtown development and in a referendum trounced opponents who tried to slap a tax lid on the city. What was most special about his mayoralty, Mr. Cisneros said in his 1986 speech as president of the National League of Cities, was ''a spirit of consensus, cooperation and constant dialogue, a sharing of power and a kind of balancing-out of the important interest groups in the community.''

Federico Pena's biggest achievement in eight years as Denver's mayor was gaining approval for a $2.3 billion new Denver International Airport to replace constricted and weather-sensitive Stapleton. Suburban and state politicians, major airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration and Wall Street bond houses all had to be maneuvered into support. Mayor Pena succeeded and Denver International, the world's largest airport, opens next October.

Mr. Pena also carried off a plan to improve Denver's alarmingly bad air quality and got a $247 million infrastructure bond issue passed in the midst of a severe regional recession. His method: to appoint a broad-based Citizens for Denver's Future, which spent a year analyzing needs, then returned a priority project list to the mayor and council. Similar consensus-building tactics could stand Mr. Pena in good stead in getting communities to bring all the stakeholders into camp in disbursing transportation spending under the new 1991 federal transportation bill.

Already on President-elect Clinton's top team are two women veterans of state-local service. His secretary of health and human services, University of Wisconsin/Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala, is known as an inventive thinker and no-nonsense manager ever since she served on the ''Big Mac'' board that helped New York City slash expenditures and escape from bankruptcy in the 1970s. Mr. Clinton's Environmental Protection Agency chief, Carol Browner, is widely respected for resolving development and pollution issues as Florida's chief environmental regulator.

Can these men and women ''achieve'' at the federal level as they did back home? Will their ''new paradigms'' for consensus-gathering work in the shark pool of Washington's special-interest lobbying? Only time will tell. But one thing's sure: in the arts of governance, these are no amateurs.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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