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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

For Thousands of Clinton Appointees, Survival Hangs in the Balance

Administration: From lawyers to college students, they came when the president called. Now voter turmoil has put them in a kind of political limbo.

November 11, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — At that election night moment when the networks awarded Florida to presidential candidate Al Gore, a beaming Jennifer Peck clinked glasses at an East Bay political party filled with her young Democratic friends.

Within hours, her dream had shattered like a champagne flute tumbling from her fingers as the TV anchors at first withdrew the call and then reversed themselves, giving both Florida and the presidency to Republican George W. Bush.

"I cried," said the 33-year-old Peck, who works in the offices of the U.S. Department of Education here. "I had to leave the room because there were much stronger emotions for me than anyone else. I'd had so much more involvement. It was so strange to have put so much passion and time and energy into something and have it come to an end so abruptly."

Peck is a presidential appointee, one of about 6,000 nationwide chosen by President Clinton eight years ago to become the shining stars of a 1.8-million-member federal work force.

From lawyers and lobbyists to idealistic, freshly minted college students like Peck, they came when the president called, many clocking insane hours, chasing their own vision of the way America should be.

Now their own hard-fought campaigns are in jeopardy.

As Americans await word on just who will be the next president, many Clinton appointees are weighing the chances of their survival, wondering whether they'll be able to see through the government programs they have helped launch.

For them, the last few days of indecision have provided an agonizing form of political limbo. Some have taken trips, switched off their cell phones, unable to watch the unfolding historic events.

For the appointees who are keeping close tabs on the Florida recount, each vote for Bush becomes another grain of sand to slip through the hourglass.

"All this uncertainty is killing me," said Isi Siddiqui, a presidential appointee from Los Angeles who became a senior trade advisor at the Department of Agriculture. "If things had been settled Tuesday night, we'd all know our futures by now. I told my wife, 'We're watching a new chapter in democracy in action.' But it's been a painful one, to say the least."

In Washington, the offices of Cabinet secretaries and other high-ranking appointees have already been vacated by savvy political insiders who know that there are no guarantees in politics and that it's best to get out when the getting is good.

"Most of these people know that when a new president comes in, they have to expect changes--so, even with a President-elect Gore, most can't assume they have a guaranteed job," said John Emerson, a former senior Clinton White House official, who helped select many of the 6,000 appointees, 10% of them from California.

"That said, the majority came to Washington or to some regional appointment--moving families, sinking roots. A lot of these folks would prefer to stick around, and they've had to resolve themselves to the fact they're not going to know their futures for a while. It's got to be tough."

Maria Echaveste knows how hard the waiting can be. The White House deputy chief of staff supervises about 400 presidential appointees, many ambitious young political lions who would like to stick around Washington awhile.

On Friday, she sent a memo to staffers asking them to submit their resignations as of Jan. 20.

"I guess there's some junior people here who want to think that a President-elect Gore will let them stay on, but it's been my job to set them straight," said the 46-year-old lawyer, who grew up in Oxnard.

In past weeks, Echaveste has offered career counseling to her staff. "Along with some advice on what to do next, I've reminded many that even if Gore is elected, it's a whole new administration and the president ought to have the freedom to select his own people. But some are still holding out hope."

Like many top Clinton appointees, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Richard Rominger has already made his postelection plans to return to his farm in Yolo County.

Especially over the last few days, he has felt sorry for younger staff appointees he has watched twist in the wind. "Nobody's making plans, nobody's doing much of anything, really. Most just have their TV sets on, watching the count. It's wait-and-see time."

As she awaits word on her next career move, presidential appointee Lonnie Hancock tries to check her anger: not at George W. Bush but at Ralph Nader.

"I've seen some young appointees on our staff biting their nails over these uncertain days, and I blame most of it on Ralph Nader, said the 60-year-old Hancock, who heads the Education Department's regional office in San Francisco.

"There's no doubt that his votes in Florida were the deciding factor," she said. "His decision to campaign there when it became clear that Florida was in play has put us on the edge of this historical void."

For many appointees, the waiting is marked by an anxiety that is both professional and personal.

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