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He's Taking Local Politics National : Derek Shearer, a Top Adviser to Bill Clinton, Learned a Lot at City Hall

August 27, 1992|JESSICA GOODHEART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA MONICA — Derek Shearer is in the big leagues now, but he cut his political teeth in Santa Monica.

Shearer, a top economic adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, was a planning commissioner in Santa Monica for five years. He credits the city with teaching him about politics and about what an activist government can do.

Now busy with the Clinton campaign, Shearer can be found churning out memos, fielding press calls, lunching with Clinton supporters and doing a hundred other tasks necessary to run the campaign in California. He has been on leave since June from his position as a public policy professor at Occidental College.

The Santa Monica resident spends half his time on the road trying to get across to the electorate Clinton's economic manifesto, which he helped craft along with Rhode Island businessman Ira Magaziner and Harvard economist Robert Reich. The booklet-length document outlines Clinton's economic plan and is credited with helping revive the lagging Clinton campaign in June.

An old friend of Clinton, Shearer said the plan incorporates few of his own original ideas. "I don't try to push my solutions" on the candidate, he said. Instead, he advises Clinton on a range of subjects, helping the candidate find information and expertise.

"Derek is the kind of person that thinks you should bring a lot of people together to discuss an issue," said Manuel Pastor, an economics professor at Occidental and a fellow at the college's International and Public Affairs Center, which Shearer directs.

But Shearer is a believer in the Clinton message.

"The core message is not that we need better tinkering with the Federal Reserve or we need to tinker a bit with this or that tax rate," Shearer said. "It's that there are structural problems in the economy. We need to deal with the institutions in the society, a lot of which are run down or decayed or not running very well."

He points to SMASH, the alternative public school his children attended in Santa Monica, as an example of the country's decaying infrastructure. Built in the 1930s, the school is "crumbling," Shearer said.

Shearer and Clinton met in the late '60s when Shearer was working as a free-lance journalist in London and Clinton was on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. Both shared an opposition to the Vietnam War and a passionate interest in government. The two men, both 45, have remained friends since.

Shearer said that when they met Clinton was much the same as he is today--"a natural politician" and unrelentingly gregarious.

When Clinton visited Shearer's home during the California primary, he stood out in the middle of the street and talked to neighbors, Shearer recalled.

And during an impromptu visit to the Venice beach boardwalk, Clinton took the opportunity to talk policy with roller-skaters. He attracted such a large crowd in a bookstore that he eventually had to make a quick getaway out the back door, Shearer said.

"He's very at ease with people and always has been," he said.

Even during the lowest points of the Clinton campaign--when charges of marital infidelity were flying--Shearer never lost faith in his chosen candidate.

And he had been there before. "I had been involved in the (Gary) Hart campaign four years before. I had always felt that Hart should not have withdrawn, that the American people want to hear about issues," Shearer said. He felt the same way about Clinton.

Shearer has taught at UCLA, Tufts University in Massachusetts and the UC Santa Barbara. He moved to Occidental in 1981 and now directs its public policy program.

He tries to bring his zest for real world politics to the classroom, teaching about "how policy really gets made." His students learn to deal with bureaucracies, write up policy decisions and even craft public relations brochures.

Shearer said he often invites journalists, campaign consultants and local politicians to talk to students, along with nationally known figures such as consumer advocate Ralph Nader and economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

By most accounts, Shearer is more liberal than Clinton. In fact, the Orange County Register in an Aug. 4 editorial singled out Shearer as evidence of the Clinton campaign's leanings to the left.

But Shearer rejects the "liberal" label in favor of "progressive."

"What being a progressive means is that you believe that government can make a difference in people's lives," he said.

To Shearer, the city in which he lives offers an example.

Smart planning and wise public investment have given Santa Monica its place in the sun, he said. He pointed to the Third Street Promenade--and the decision to zone it to encourage movie theaters to move to the area--as an example of good planning. The theaters attract lots of customers who patronize other businesses on the walkway, he said.

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