Champion of the Children The Edelman battle could be aided now by friends in high places

March 14, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Washington--Marian Wright Edelman had given her speech to an audience of Catholic leaders when suddenly the blunt-spoken, hard-driving children's advocate skipped out before the scheduled question-and-answer session with two other speakers.

As she bundled up her coat and papers in her arms and walked off the podium, her fellow panelists couldn't resist remarking on her departure -- and on her entrance to Power Washington:

"I'm not an FOB," joked Kate O'Beirne of the Heritage Foundation. "I can be here all day."

"We don't get called to the White House," chimed in John Carr of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Truth be told, Mrs. Edelman, more of an FOH (Friend of Hillary) than an FOB (Friend of Bill), hadn't been called to the White House that morning. She merely needed to get back to the Children's Defense Fund, the organization she founded 20 years ago and still presides over, to make calls regarding the group's annual conference here that ended yesterday.

But in Washington, where perception is as good as reality, Mrs. Edelman is now perceived to be as much a part of the White House scenery as the Lincoln bed.

And for good reason.

After 12 years of swimming upstream, pressing her case for full Head Start funding or family leave legislation to an unenthusiastic White House, she has not only the ear but also the sympathies and long-standing, intimate friendship of the new administration.

It could be argued that she is the second most influential woman in Washington.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former CDF attorney and, until recently, board chair, made her post-election Washington debut at a CDF fund-raiser where she embraced her friend of more than two decades, described her as her "mentor," and whispered to Mrs. Edelman, "I love you very much."

Few were surprised when the Clintons chose the Sidwell Friends School, a private school in northwest Washington, for 13-year-old Chelsea; Mrs. Edelman and her husband, Peter, sent their three sons, Joshua, 23, Jonah, 22, and Ezra, 19, to school there.

At the pre-inaugural economic summit in Little Rock, Ark., Mrs. Edelman, a Yale Law School graduate like the Clintons, was seated next to the president-elect.

And the Edelman and Clinton orbits are nearly as intertwined as the His and Hers offices in the West Wing. For starters, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala is a former CDF board member and chair and longtime Edelman confidante. Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, and assistant chief of staff, Evelyn Lieberman, are both CDF alumnae.

Mr. Edelman, who has sat in on administration meetings, is expected to leave his post as professor at the Georgetown University Law Center to become counsel to Mrs. Shalala. And a number of people with Edelman ties are working with Mrs. Clinton's task force on health care reform.

"A lot of people think Marian speaks for the administration," says Sharon M. Daly, director of government and community affairs for CDF, "which is absolutely not true."

H

But her influence on the Clinton agenda is hard to miss.

CDF issues

Along with making the family and medical leave bill the first to bear his presidential signature, Bill Clinton included in his recently unveiled budget package other issues long championed the Children's Defense Fund: full funding for Head Start and childhood immunization; increased funding for the Women's, Infants and Children food program; and the strengthening of child-support enforcement.

With friends in high places, Mrs. Edelman's already rapid-fire life has shifted into even higher gear. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, she speaks to groups several times a day now instead of several times of week in her swift, no-nonsense style. (She said she was too busy preparing for last week's conference to be interviewed for this article.)

And CDF, which spearheaded the battle for the 1990 child care bill and is already known as one of the nation's most successful, well-connected lobbies, has taken on an even more lustrous blue-chip aura.

For the first time, a coordinator had to be hired to deal with the onslaught of people who want to volunteer. Registration for last week's conference had to be cut off weeks ago after more than three times the usual number of paying participants had signed up. And more unsolicited donations than ever are pouring into the privately funded organization, which is supported by foundations and such corporate giants as Coca-Cola, AT&T, Chrysler, Exxon, Ford, General Mills and Anheuser-Busch.

It is no secret that for the next four years at least, CDF, which focuses on the nation's 14 million children living in poverty, will hold an extraordinary handful of power in its back pocket.

"It's clear their imprint is on a good bit of what's being discussed in this administration," says Bill Mattox, research director for the conservative Family Research Council. "The central question is whether America's children will be better for it."

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