Herman's march

A one-time rising star among New Democrats, Alexis Herman was relegated to the sidelines in Los Angeles, until her party needed her help with the black caucus.

By Alicia Montgomery
Published August 18, 2000 10:57PM (EDT)

It was not so long ago that Alexis Herman was a rising New Democrat star, one of the breed of business-friendly Democrats who followed President Bill Clinton to Washington. After serving in various White House posts, Herman hung tough in a nasty confirmation battle and took over the Department of Labor from Robert Reich in 1997. Just a few months later, she scored a major victory by finessing a UPS strike to a swift and civil conclusion. Her performance won over some of her remaining union critics, but it didn't win over Republican congressional leaders. Then Herman was caught up in the Clinton scandal storm. She even became the subject of an independent counsel probe.

Whether it was a consequence of the Clinton taint or the weight of her duties as a Cabinet officer, Herman went from being CEO of the 1992 convention to playing a behind-the-scenes role in Los Angeles -- until she jumped into the fray earlier this week.

You denied a Washington Post report that Gore had dispatched you to smooth over relations between the congressional black caucus and Sen. Joe Lieberman. Yet you met in a closed-door conference with Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and then again with her and Lieberman the morning of his black caucus appearance. What was your role in that conversation and how did you get that role?

I've been on the political scene since 1977 with Jimmy Carter, so I'm fairly clear when concerns need to be addressed. So when this issue was brought to me on the convention floor the night before, I knew that it needed to be dealt with quickly, and I knew that all that was necessary was to clarify Senator Lieberman's record on issues.

I was scheduled to preside over the [black caucus] event, and I asked to be informed by my staff when Congresswoman Waters arrived. And when she did, I went out to have a personal conversation to see directly what her concerns were. I hadn't been in touch directly with her about it until that point, and so it was important to have that personal time to talk.

I knew Maxine just wanted to get some of these questions answered, and then it would be fine. I've known her for 30 years, and I knew that she would support Lieberman when she had the facts. I needed to tell her about the Joe Lieberman I knew, because I've known him for a number of years, and he's always been a strong supporter of affirmative action, and he's had a strong voting record on the important issues.

I was surprised to hear that some delegates weren't aware of that. But then it's not so surprising when someone is a representative or a senator that they aren't well known outside of their home states. Those of us who knew Joe needed to help clarify where he stood on the critical issues. I knew that he would want to have a conversation with Maxine himself to address her concerns. And so I contacted him and he agreed to take a few minutes with Maxine before the event. He did and her questions were answered, and then so she felt comfortable supporting him. We just needed to get that done.

In November, I covered an online town hall chat you had with the vice president. It seemed to signal that your role in his campaign would be substantial, with frequent appearances at similar public forums. But it hasn't happened that way. What has your role been in Gore's campaign, and what do you see as your future role on his campaign team?

For me, my first job is as secretary of labor. It's my day job and I can't put any other work ahead of that. I've been an informal advisor to the vice president, and I've been a friend of his for many years. I did work with Warren Christopher in the selection process of the vice president, and, on occasion, I do expect to be involved on his campaign in other roles. But I am still secretary of labor. I think in being a good secretary of labor I'm helping his campaign the best way I can.

Many of those associated with the Clinton administration have been accused of corruption. You were criticized for your role in the White House coffees, and were investigated and later exonerated by an independent counsel. Do you feel that your association with the Clinton scandals -- however innocent -- has hurt your career?

I don't feel I've been hurt by it. I recognize that all that battering back and forth has become a part of the political landscape, but I'm hoping that the pendulum has swung back the other way.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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