A lobbyist's farewell Dundalkian: Bill Wickert, a son of Dundalk who became Bethlehem Steel's man in Washington, retires after 36 years.

December 03, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Like other Dundalk kids in the 1940s, Bill Wickert remembers just about everybody working for Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point.

"They almost would clothe people coming in there looking for jobs, they needed people so much," Wickert said.

Like many of them, Wickert went to Bethlehem as a young man and recently retired after more than 36 years. But most similarities end there.

About 40 miles from the smoldering, clanging and gritty Sparrows Point plant, Wickert worked a world away. The only sound was the hum of K Street traffic six stories down. The only smoke was the wisp rising from the end of his cigarette.

For 29 years, Wickert represented Bethlehem Steel in Washington, trying to get Congress and seven presidents to take the company's side on environmental, labor and trade issues.

"You're either protecting the company or you're promoting something for the company," said Wickert, 65, who retired recently as vice president of federal government affairs.

As the dean of steel's Washington lobbyists, Wickert not only helped fight the industry's monumental battles with labor and government, he's also a link between the Bethlehem behemoth of the 1960s and today's smaller, more humbled company.

Indeed, when Wickert arrived, the Washington office bustled with eight full-time lobbyists and a sales force that won contracts for projects such as RFK Stadium. The salespeople are long gone and, with Wickert's retirement, there are two lobbyists.

During a career that spanned four decades, from the '60s to the '90s, Wickert worked to keep his name out of the press. But he recently discussed his career in an interview.

A Korean War veteran who attended the University of Maryland, Wickert worked as a summer laborer in Sparrows Point in the late 1950s. He didn't contemplate making a career there. Bethlehem wanted Lehigh University engineers, not Maryland journalism majors like him -- or so he thought.

After a couple of interviews -- and some ribbing about an article he wrote in a Dundalk newspaper endorsing unemployment insurance for strikers in 1959 -- the company hired him to work at its Bethlehem, Pa., headquarters on state issues.

"I never knew of anybody in Dundalk, other than people who were very high-ranking, being transferred to the home office," Wickert said.

The company's "loop course" management training program -- so named because it theoretically "looped" trainees through all of the company's operations -- lasted a taxing two months. "They weren't too anxious to have questions," he said.

Wickert, who went to Washington in 1967, got his first taste of national politics when President Lyndon B. Johnson summoned Bethlehem Steel executives to Washington because he was JTC angry at the company for raising prices -- a concern because of the possibility that it would send a ripple of inflation through the economy. The meeting resolved little.

Other brushes with presidents followed, as with the time Wickert tried to get approval from the Nixon administration to sell an oil rig to the People's Republic of China. "I was surprised to find that they didn't kiss me off immediately," he said.

What he didn't know was that the administration was secretly planning President Richard M. Nixon's landmark trip, signifying a major thaw in United States-China relations. The deal fell through, though.

Perhaps the greatest challenge came in the mid-1980s, when the steel industry was battling imports while Ronald Reagan occupied the White House. "We were hanging by our fingernails," Wickert said.

He remembers swallowing Rolaids in the middle of the night. The challenge: "How we were going to get into the White House and get to the president, who was surrounded by nothing but free traders?"

Schooled in the workings of Washington, where access is a key to power, Wickert hired Charlie Black, a GOP consultant, to make Bethlehem's case. Ultimately, Reagan agreed to limit imports. "The ticket was having Charlie Black on board," Wickert said.

Jack Sheehan, Wickert's counterpart for the United Steel Workers of America, said Reagan relented in part because Sheehan and Wickert recruited teachers, ministers and families from communities that had been devastated by steel layoffs.

"We didn't just simply bus in steel workers," Sheehan said.

But labor and the industry frequently opposed each other fiercely in the capital. Wickert's first major assignment was to defeat the bill to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- a labor-backed proposal that eventually succeeded. "He recognized that each of us had our own jobs to do, but he didn't view the union in a vindictive way," Sheehan said.

Besides, Wickert sometimes had his own questions. When Congress was considering safety legislation for mine workers -- a concern because Bethlehem owned coal mines -- Wickert looked at the brief list of safety principles that a coal trade group was peddling as a safety program. "I can't sell this," he remembers saying. "Credibility is everything in this city."

Wickert said he would like to think that he won't miss the job. "But you can't just walk away from it," he said. "I have a lot of friends in this town and a lot of friends in this company."

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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