Four years ago, the process President Clinton used to produce a cabinet that “looks like America” was marred by disarray, which turned out be a preview of the turbulence and headlines to come.
This time around, the nominations of Alexis Herman and Rodney Slater, secretaries-designate of the Departments of Labor and Transportation, respectively, reflect a new cautiousness that maintains diversity while rewarding loyalty. They lack the high visibility of late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and former Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, but both are longtime “friends of Bill.”
Since 1993, Herman, 49, had been the director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, where she was responsible for building coalitions over controversial issues like Clinton’s revised Policy on affirmative action. Prior to that appointment, she served as chief of staff and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1988, and was the chief executive of the 1991-92 Democratic National Convention Committee.
Once director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau during the Carter administration, Herman was not organized labor’s first choice for the position. Unlike other departments, Labor has “an operating constituency where its policies and programs directly affect organized labor and workers in general,” says Bill Lucy, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Union leaders initially threw support behind former Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, whom they considered a more aggressive advocate. “Although they supported another candidate, I think they’ll make a maximum effort to support her confirmation and work with her,” says Lucy.
Slater, currency head of the Federal Highway Administration, has. ties to Clinton extending back to Arkansas, where he served in a variety of public offices: as assistant attorney general, an assistant to then- governor Clinton and as a member and chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission.
“He understands transportation, has the backing of the entire Congress and is someone the President trusts,” notes CBC member Elijah E. Cummings (D-Maryland), who also sits on the House transportation and infrastructure committees.
Both Herman and Slater will face enormous challenges in the next four years if confirmed. Alvin Thornton, a political analyst, professor and chairman of the department of political science at Howard University, says affirmative action battles will be fought on both fronts. “Labor is where a lot of affirmative action is carried out and enforced,” says Thornton, “and billions of contracting dollars are filtered through transportation which will have to get over Adarand hurdles and work around those types of court decisions.” Despite the influence and power that cabinet secretaries have, Thornton wonders whether Herman and Slater will be limited by Clinton’s tendency to micromanage domestic policies.
“Ron Brown, who dealt with high finance on the international stage, is the standard in terms of the desirable level of power,” adds Thornton. Although Herman and Slater are both part of Clinton’s inner circle, “that is the level to which blacks must aspire.”