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Alexis Herman Confirmation Hearing Excerpts

March 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now confirmation hearings for another cabinet nominee. Kwame Holman reports.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I am proud to nominate as Secretary of Labor one of my closest advisers, a talented leader, Alexis Herman.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last December an enthusiastic President Clinton announced his choice of Alexis Herman to replace Robert Reisch as Secretary of Labor. A native of Mobile, Alabama, Herman graduated from Xavier University in New Orleans in 1969. Just three years later she became the first director of the City of Atlanta’s Minority Women’s Employment Program which fought for and won the first managerial jobs for African American women in corporations such as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and General Motors.

Herman has been confirmed by the Senate once before when at age 30 she became the youngest black woman to head the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau in the Carter administration. Herman soon became prominent in Democratic politics where her ascent has been fast and steep. In 1984, she helped organize Jesse Jackson’s historic presidential campaign. Four years later she was deputy convention manager for Jackson’s second run for the White House, working alongside campaign manager, the late Ron Brown. After George Bush’s triumph, Brown took over a tattered Democratic National Committee and chose Herman as his deputy. At the 1992 Democratic Convention in New York City Herman, herself, was in charge. She helped direct the first Clinton transition team, then became only the second African American woman to serve as an assistant to the President of the United States, running the White House Office of Public Liaison.

The Public Liaison builds coalitions among interest groups for the President’s priorities and helps them communicate with the White House staff. It’s Herman’s work in that job that has raised questions in Congress and put her nomination to head the Labor Department on hold for the last two months. Senate Republicans want to know about Herman’s role in the 1996 White House coffee at which prominent bankers, who also were Democratic contributors, met with the President, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Comptroller of the Currency; Herman’s financial interests in a Washington real estate project that earned her $500,000, although she invested no money; and Herman’s eight-month delay in divesting ownership of a minority business consulting firm after White House lawyers advised her the firm could constitute a conflict of interest.

Nonetheless, the President has reaffirmed his support for Herman in several forums recently. And last month the White House engaged some 75 leaders of civil rights and women’s organizations to help fight for Herman’s nomination. Many of the same supporters crowded the room this afternoon as Herman’s postponed confirmation hearing finally got underway before the Senate Labor Committee. In a touch of irony Herman was introduced by fellow Alabaman and Republican Richard Shelby, whose Senate inquiry led to the withdrawal of Anthony Lake’s nomination as CIA director.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, Chairman, Intelligence Committee: She’s worked in the vineyards. She’s worked in the Democratic Party. She’s worked in the White House. She’s earned her way the hard way, by hard work. And I believe that she will do a good job as Secretary of Labor.

KWAME HOLMAN: It quickly became clear Herman’s meetings with Senators prior to the hearing had helped explain some of the potential improprieties raised by Republicans. Still, Labor Committee Chairman James Jeffords was mildly critical of Herman’s and other White House involvement in Democratic fund-raising.

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS, Chairman, Labor Committee: At times I wish someone had spoken up and said this may be legal but it isn’t right. For example, what bothers me about the bankers’ coffee was not the involvement of the Office of Public Liaison. I can understand the trail of mistakes that led to that involvement. But when the pieces were in place for everyone to see, no one said, that is wrong. And perhaps even more telling, OPL staff seemed to regard the DNC fund-raisers as just another part of the administration. There in a nutshell is the problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: Once questioning began most Senators focused on wage rates, job training, and other labor issues, but freshman Republican Susan Collins of Maine returned to the fund-raising issue, asking Herman where she would draw the line between political and official activities in the White House.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R) Maine: Are you troubled, are you concerned by the reports of White House staff receiving a contribution or calls–fund-raising calls being made by the Vice President or other White House officials? I just would like to get your reaction from a personal standpoint of what is proper even if it may pass the legal, the strict legal test.

ALEXIS HERMAN, Labor Secretary Designate: First of all when you discuss just appropriate places or venues in the White House where people would meet on political activity, I believe that that is something that has been a practice, quite frankly, to make sure that we do understand what is appropriate and what is legal, and to be very clear that when those conversations do take place, that there is the proper venue, if you will, for it to take place in. And certainly the majority of my time is spent on doing the official work of the Office of Public Liaison. And I think for any employee in the White House who engages in political activities, that the importance of principle here is to make sure that whatever the mission is of your own department, of your own unit, that you fulfill that mission in the most appropriate manner that is possible.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee was expected to wrap up questioning of Herman tonight with a vote on whether to recommend confirmation to the full Senate coming after Congress’s Easter break.