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Sidney Williams' Unusual Route to Ambassador Post : Appointments: His nomination has drawn some critics. But his biggest boost may come from his wife, Rep. Maxine Waters.

February 06, 1994|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Car dealer is not the normal career path to foreign service, but if Sidney Williams prevails, he will go from being a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Hollywood to being the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas.

At 51, Williams has been a lot of other things, too: former professional football player (Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins), aide and chief of staff to former Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham, a minority business developer with former teammate Jim Brown.

But when it comes to ambassadorial appointments, perhaps his most influential credential is that of husband to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), one of President Clinton's earliest and most prominent black supporters.

Most congressional observers believe that Williams, who has won committee approval, will be confirmed when the Senate votes on his nomination in the next few weeks.

Nevertheless, Williams is getting a lesson in how Washington works. Every time a president takes office he can count on a few of his ambassadorial nominees causing a tussle with the opposition party, and Williams is among four being targeted this time. The rumblings about Williams, one of two Los Angeles residents to be nominated for an ambassadorship (California Secretary of State March Fong Eu was nominated last week to be ambassador to Micronesia), are the classic ones that dog many presidents' political nominees for ambassadorships.

"The best justification that he has for being ambassador is that he traveled to the Bahamas on vacation," said one congressional aide familiar with Williams' confirmation process.

His backers say that is a cheap shot and point out that many political appointees blossom into fine ambassadors.

The State Department, which issued a report on Williams to the Senate, said his background would serve him well in the diplomatic corps: "Mr. Williams developed strong discipline, strategic thinking and negotiating skills as a professional football player."

As for Waters and Williams, they're not talking. "The strict instructions from the State Department are to stay out of the newspapers until after he's confirmed," said Waters, declining to relay a message to her husband. "He's not running for a beauty contest."

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But Waters has made sure that the right people know how she feels. Last February, Waters wrote to Bruce Lindsey, senior adviser and assistant to the President for personnel: "This letter is to alert you of my support of Sidney Williams for the position of Ambassador to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas," reads the first line. "Sidney's public relations and diplomatic skills have been well honed over the years." Only in the fourth sentence does she let slip the detail of their relationship: "Sidney Williams, who is my spouse, was a professional football player for the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins."

Williams, a Shreveport, La., native, married Waters in 1977 and was at her side as she rose to political prominence, first in the state Assembly and then in Congress.

"I've always admired him because she's very flamboyant, and I've never sensed in him any insecurity," said Jim Brown, the former football player, who has known Williams since they played for the Cleveland Browns in the mid-1960s. "That can be difficult for many men--to have a flamboyant, dynamic wife."

Brown and Williams, a former linebacker, played on the 1965 Cleveland Browns NFL championship team. "He was a really good football player," said Brown, one of the greatest running backs to play the game, who now works with gang members and on gang-related issues.

Williams, who has two stepchildren, worked with Brown from 1966 to 1974 on the Black Economic Union, a now-defunct organization that Brown started to help develop minority businesses. Brown describes Williams as detail-oriented, methodical and tenacious. "For example, he decided to lose weight and he just did it," Brown recalled. "He lost like 30 pounds. He's small now. No one ever realized it, but he was really big."

Williams worked for former Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham in the mid-1970s, overlapping at one point with Maxine Waters. The two were not married at the time but they were dating, as far as Cunningham can recall. She was chief of staff until her departure in 1976, when she was elected to the state Assembly. Williams became chief of staff shortly afterward.

Williams was also a project manager for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency in the late 1970s. But in 1979, he switched gears and went to work at the Mercedes-Benz dealership.

"If you had an opportunity to enhance your income significantly through . . . commissions versus a salary of $50,000, wouldn't you take it?" asked Cunningham, who is now a lobbyist.

Within the sleek, rounded walls of the Sunset Boulevard showroom--which looks more like an art gallery than a car dealership--Williams racked up more than 1,000 clients in 14 years, according to his friend and fellow dealer Andre Dawson.

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