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Together serving Clinton, separate on the trail

Several figures from the last administration are running for office, and while their fortunes are tied to one man, their fate is their own.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2002


Several figures from the last administration are running for office, and while their fortunes are tied to one man, their fate is their own.

WASHINGTON -- After Al Gore and Janet Reno, it might seem the fate of all ex-Clinton administration officials to run afoul of South Florida's snarled voting systems.

In fact, the stories of former Clinton administration officials running for office this year are as diverse as the states to which these Democrats returned after serving in Washington.

Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is favored to win the New Mexico governor's race. Ex-White House aide Rahm Emanuel is headed to Congress from a Chicago district.

But former Labor Secretary Robert Reich lost a gubernatorial primary in Massachusetts on Tuesday and Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff, faces an uphill battle for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina.

In New York, meanwhile, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo was drummed out of the Democratic primary for governor by members of his party, including the former president.

"You have to look at each of these races individually," independent pollster John Zogby said. "There's no built-in advantage to having been in the Clinton administration. But there doesn't appear to have been a real disadvantage, either."

As polarizing as Bill Clinton was, the former president's scandals have not had much of an effect on voters' attitudes toward the alumni of his administration, Zogby said.

The exception seems to be North Carolina, where retiring Sen. Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican icon, once quipped that Clinton would need a bodyguard to visit the state.

In this Southern state, where President Bush won 56 percent of the vote in 2000, Bowles faces Republican Elizabeth Dole in the race to succeed Helms.

A Charlotte businessman making his first run for elected office, Bowles has run television ads that tout his White House experience but leave out one fact: the name of the president he served.

Bowles has called his time in the White House a "double-edged sword," and news accounts in North Carolina make frequent mention of his tenure during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

And so for Bowles, "whatever advantage there may have been in serving in the White House is counterveiled by the disadvantage of having been in the Clinton administration. So they cancel each other," Zogby said.

In liberal Democratic Massachusetts, however, Reich became a celebrity after serving in the Clinton administration and writing a book critical of his former boss' centrist policies.

Reich used his fame to launch a campaign for governor. Massively outspent by his rivals, the diminutive, outspoken former labor secretary finished second in Tuesday's primary out of four candidates vying to face Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Reich, a professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, campaigned hard and got strong support from students. But one person who did not stump for him was Clinton.

The ex-president, who met Reich when both were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, has been a very public enemy since Reich resigned his labor post in 1996, saying there was no room in the administration for liberals like himself.

Reich later accused Clinton of leaving the Democratic Party "as dead as a doornail" and criticized his relationship with Lewinsky.

In return, Clinton campaigned for one of Reich's rivals for the state house, Steve Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Grossman later dropped out of the race.

In Florida, Clinton did not go so far as to publicly snub Reno, his former attorney general who oversaw the independent counsel investigation that led to his impeachment.

But their relationship is known to be chilly, and there was never any expectation he would make appearances for Reno.

By contrast, Clinton showed up in Chicago to campaign for his former political aide Emanuel, an investment banker.

With the president's support, Emanuel won a hard-fought primary in March and is virtually assured of victory in the general election in November, given the district's heavy Democratic voter registration.

Cuomo also had hoped to benefit from his relationship with Clinton in his bid for the Democratic New York governor's nomination.

In the end, though, Cuomo's poor political judgment and gaffes weakened his campaign, and later the former president and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., privately advised him to end his bid.

The son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo drew hisses in April for criticizing his presumed GOP rival, New York governor George Pataki, for holding Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "coattails" rather than leading after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Perhaps more fateful, Cuomo's rival for the nomination, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, is African-American. Many of the state's black Democratic power brokers, most notably Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, wanted to clear the way for McCall's nomination.

With Sen. Clinton dependent on the support of black voters, Rangel had little problem persuading the Clintons to help ease Cuomo out of the race. This month, Cuomo withdrew, clearing the way for McCall's victory in the Sept. 10 primary.

Cuomo's failure "had everything to do with his style and his personality," said John Kohut, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Perhaps the best evidence that ex-Clintonites are rising or falling on their own merits is Richardson's strong lead in the New Mexico governor's race.

A former member of the House and one-time U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richardson emerged from the administration splattered with mud from Clinton-era scandals.

At the United Nations, Richardson's chief of staff interviewed Lewinsky for a job at a time when White House officials were trying to keep her away from Clinton by finding her a new berth.

More significantly, Richardson presided over the Energy Department during the uproar over potential theft of nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

New Mexico Republicans have tried to make his past an issue. But Richardson "is pretty much a titan in that state" and is not expected to lose in November to his Republican challenger, state Rep. John Sanchez, Kohut said.

While their political fates might vary, what's not surprising is that so many ex-Clintonites wanted to run for office, pollster Zogby said.

"Much like the president and the first lady, they're all policy wonks who came into the White House with a lot of vigor," he said. "They all loved what they did."

And a few of them, at least, might get to keep doing it.

-- Information from Times wire services was used in this report.

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