Confidante to Albright

Counselor: Wendy Sherman's career started with social work and ran through Barbara Mikulski's office to foreign policy at the State Department.

July 21, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This town spawns erratic career jumps, as any actor-turned-congressman or tycoon-become-ambassador could tell you, but Wendy Sherman's resume is diverse even by D.C. standards.

Trained in social work, devoted early in life to helping battered women and the urban poor, the 50-year-old Baltimore native finds herself talking with North Korean Communists and Middle Eastern diplomats these days as a top U.S. State Department official.

Sherman became counselor to Madeleine K. Albright two years ago after Albright succeeded Warren Christopher as secretary of state. Describing herself as "consigliere" to the secretary, Sherman is a trouble-shooter, special-project agent and political strategist who has Albright's ear and voice daily.

As counselor, a post once held by Cold-War sage George Kennan, Sherman ranks just below undersecretary, carries the title of ambassador and is one of the department's top six people after Albright, who calls her "a close confidante."

"Elaine Shocas [Albright chief of staff] probably had the closest personal relationship" to the secretary when she took office, "but Wendy was somebody who Albright trusts" from years of friendship, said Robert Zoellick, State Department counselor in the Bush administration.

The position, he said, "has shifted depending on the secretary, but the one thing that's probably a constant is that it is intended to be a relatively high-level job where the secretary can determine the functions."

Sherman was the No. 2 envoy and the senior State Department official on a sensitive U.S. mission in May to North Korea, which is developing transoceanic missiles and is considered a significant threat to security in East Asia.

She also was key in the baseball diplomacy involving Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles this year, and she has worked on the Kosovo refugee crisis as well as the Mideast peace process.

"She's a good old Baltimorean. Take out the `old.' She wouldn't like that, and it's not true," said Peter G. Angelos, Orioles majority owner and multimillionaire lawyer. "She was very instrumental," he said, in the baseball exchange which led to games in Cuba and Baltimore. "Very sophisticated, intellectually and in every way. A very impressive lady."

Sherman is a common Washington type, a 1960s liberal who has embraced the power and prominence once distrusted by her generation. Her modest, seventh-floor reception room offers a copy of the once-radical but now gentrified Mother Jones magazine -- on top of two copies of Business Week.

What distinguishes her, say people who admire her, is that her ideals have survived her importance, and not just on an elevated, policy level.

"She never left any bodies in her wake," said David Doak, a Washington-based political and media consultant who once was her business partner. "When you start to gain power in this town, it's so easy to blow people off. That's what's so great about Wendy. There's a decency with her, and a kindness with her. This is a tough town, and kindness is not often rewarded. But with Wendy, it has."

Sherman is as tough as anybody on the political molehill of the moment -- partisan, brusque, sometimes irritating. From 1993 to 1996, she was the State Department's chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill -- a diplomatic challenge in itself -- scrapping over Bosnian policy, the North American Free Trade Agreement and financial aid for the disintegrated Soviet Union.

But she seems better than many at keeping sight of policy through the smoke of politics.

"I don't think we would have continued our friendship if she were not idealistic," said Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who employed Sherman as chief of staff when Mikulski was in the House in the 1980s. "But she also knows that unless you put your ideals into action, they're hollow. Her belief in the rule of law, her belief in the advancement of women, her belief that no person should be left behind, really allows her to be a very effective counselor in our foreign policy."

Sherman was born in Baltimore and moved at an early age to Pikesville. She attended Pikesville High School and Smith College, graduated from Boston University and earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland. She stuffed envelopes in Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign and later marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Mikulski shared her interests in women's and urban issues, and pulled her into government. Mikulski's successful 1986 Senate campaign was managed by Sherman.

Now a resident of Bethesda, Sherman at various times has been fund-raising director at the Enterprise Foundation in Columbia; Maryland's special secretary for children and youth; a political media pro with Doak; director of Emily's List, a national fund-raising group for Democratic women candidates supporting abortion rights; president and chief executive of the Fannie Mae Foundation; and director of the Democratic National Committee's 1988 campaign.

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