Taking Hill's pulse with top diplomacy

May 29, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- What's a political pro from Maryland -- one trained in social work, no less -- doing among the State Department pin-stripers at Foggy Bottom?

Pretty much what Wendy Sherman has done much of her working life: organizing, mapping strategy and lacing policy debates with her sense of how average Americans will respond.

Those talents propelled the Baltimore native to the front ranks of Maryland Democrats, of the nationwide movement to elect female candidates and, more recently, of the rapid-fire army of Washington campaign honchos and media meisters.

Now she's been tapped by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to forge the kind of foreign-policy partnership with Congress that is often sought but rarely achieved.

In the quietest times, the job of running the State Department's legislative affairs bureau is a delicate one, requiring political smarts and a knowledge of Congress more than foreign policy expertise.

The bureau lobbies on foreign aid, coordinates official testimony, guides senior-level appointees and ambassadors through Senate confirmations, helps organize congressional trips overseas and deals with the plethora of leaders, subcommittee chairmen and powerful staff members who must be consulted, persuaded and stroked.

Walking into storm

But Ms. Sherman, who turns 44 next month, walked into a storm. Early in the Clinton term, Congress was tied in knots over Bosnia, trying to squeeze more aid for Russia from an ever-tighter foreign aid budget and torn over a tougher policy toward China.

Since then, the relief that congressional leaders felt for finally having fellow Democrats run foreign policy has been strained by President Clinton's handling of the Balkans, unease over the administration's grasp of post-Cold War leadership and a perception of Mr. Christopher as overly cautious, if not vacillating.

Partly to Ms. Sherman's credit, Mr. Christopher retains a large reservoir of good will among congressional leaders, whom he has included at an early stage in developing policies.

She is part of a small core of Democratic campaign veterans who serve as top aides to the secretary of state, a lawyer-diplomat with little direct political experience. Others include Thomas Donilon, assistant secretary for public affairs, and Mike McCurry, soon to be the department's spokesman.

One of three assistant secretaries who report directly to Mr. Christopher, Ms. Sherman sees him at daily senior staff meetings and says she has ready access to him.

In frequent visits to Capitol Hill, or working the phone from a seventh-floor office overlooking the Mall, Ms. Sherman played a key role in negotiations that pulled two of Congress' chief critics of China, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, into endorsing Mr. Clinton's middle-road course on renewing China's favorable trade status.

She also was instrumental, officials say, in working with House appropriators to find the cuts necessary to come up with the $1.8 billion in additional Russian aid pledged by Mr. Christopher at a Tokyo meeting this spring.

Far more than her Republican predecessor, Janet Mullins, Ms. Sherman has tried to work with and through congressional staff members, although not all of them like her hard-driving manner. And she is learning, congressional sources say, to tighten her grip on the State Department's regional bureaus, which otherwise are inclined to run their own congressional relations.

Ms. Sherman came to Mr. Christopher's notice through connections and a reputation from a life of Democratic and social activism.

As a 12-year-old, she joined her parents in Baltimore civil rights marches that began at the Pagoda in Patterson Park.

Her father, a Realtor, was the first in Baltimore to advertise open housing, and he "paid dearly for that in many ways," she says.

After Pikesville High School, she attended Smith College, graduated with honors from Boston University and earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland.

"Politics is social work," she says, describing her approach to subsequent jobs as director of the Maryland Office of Child Welfare and the state-Cabinet-level post of special secretary for children and youth. "I'm trained as a community organizer and a policy and social strategist."

Head of Mikulski campaign

She began close political ties with Barbara A. Mikulski when the then-Baltimore congresswoman was developing legislation on battered women, and later became her chief of staff and strategist.

Her organizing and communications skills drew wide attention when she ran Ms. Mikulski's successful 1986 Senate race.

From there, Ms. Sherman directed Washington operations for the 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign, working with, among others, congressional delegates to the Democratic convention.

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