The man behind the man

Deputy secretary gets the job done, with no (political) strings attached

Deputy secretaries are a bit like Cinderella. While their bosses are out making speeches and having all the fun, they’re stuck at the office taking care of the more tedious tasks. Since 1997, Robert Mallett has toiled behind the scenes as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, overseeing the day-to-day operations of nine agencies, 40,000 employees and a $6 million budget. When Al Gore tapped Commerce Secretary Bill Daley to run his presidential campaign, it seemed, for a while, that Mallett would finally go to the ball. As it turned out, he didn’t even get to try on the glass slipper. Instead, President Clinton named former California Congressman Norman Y. Mineta to head Commerce.

It was a brilliant political move. Mineta is an Asian-Pacific American, so Clinton can tick off one more ethnic box in the cabinet he has created to “look like America.” He is also a player; “one of the boys,” as one source put it, with enough connections and cachet to bring plenty of money to the party. But more important, perhaps, the state he so aptly represented for 21 years in Congress carries 54 electoral votes that Gore badly needs to win his November battle.

“I attribute the president’s decision to be strictly based on presidential politics,” says Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) who knows both men well. “California’s a very important state and he’s [Mineta] a very important individual there.” And while there’s no question in anyone’s mind about the fine job Mallett has done in the No. 2 spot, “he’s a guy who, in fact, doesn’t have a public persona. He’s more of a low-key administrative type.”

Naming his greatest accomplishment at Commerce, Mallett says, “is like choosing which is your favorite child.” But Mallett cites the success of the Census 2000 program, and how he has worked to ensure that minority advertising agencies and publications get their fair share of the Census Bureau dollar, as well as efforts to help minorities get more federal contracts. “These are all very homely, plain issues,” he concedes. “They’re not glamorous, but if you don’t do them, things fall apart.”

As for the future, Mallett has had enough of not going to the ball. “I’m looking for something that will give me a high level of job satisfaction managing people of talent, ideally at a private corporation,” he muses.

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