As election fight drags on, Clinton appointees ponder next moves

Last week, before the Florida Supreme Court once again threw the presidential election into turmoil, a dark thought started to seriously sink in around the Democratic hallways of the federal government: That next job is probably, ahem, not coming from Al Gore.

Many political appointees, of course, refuse to ponder their employment futures until the moment Gore decides to concede.

"I have not thought about the next step," said one eight-year veteran of the Housing and Urban Development Department. "My focus has been on finishing the business we have now, and on the Vice President, whom I think the nation clearly wants to be the next President."

Others, including the young aides on loan to the Gore campaign from federal posts, are beginning to polish resumes and put out feelers to friends who successfully exited the Clinton-Gore Administration in happier days.

"I've probably heard from 10 people," said one former White House aide who abandoned Washington five months ago for venture capital challenges on the West Coast. "The biggest problem is that a lot of people have not thought through what they want to do outside of government, because they never expected to do it. They thought Gore would easily win this."

Elsewhere, upbeat Republicans are imagining what they'd like to do in government. And judging from some of the GOPers who are trying to locate the transition Web address belonging to Gov. George W. Bush (www.bushcheneytransition.com), they have varied ideas about what's needed: "I believe that because of my range of experience in all facets of fisheries, I would be an excellent choice for a position in fisheries management," wrote one Florida restaurateur who has a background in commercial fishing, bait and tackle, and wholesale seafood-plus a buddy who has taken former President Bush fishing. Despite all the public chatter and the photo-ops about transition planning, job seekers in both parties, and the headhunters poised to help them, describe the current Washington atmosphere as awkwardly "frozen" until the presidential race is finally decided. But at least one executive search firm reports that President Clinton's top tier of political appointees has suddenly gotten the message. "It's unbelievable. It's not a flood-it's a tidal wave," reports Eric Vautour, managing director of Russell Reynolds & Associates. "I've been around during the end of the Reagan, Bush, and now Clinton Administrations, and clearly these appointees have waited the longest and have the most-unrealistic expectations." Clinton's political people were supposed to be in better shape than their Gore brethren because they could anticipate a Jan. 20 curtain, particularly if they harbored no ambitions to burrow into a Democratic Administration for another tour of duty. But for those who thought, vaguely, that a Gore transition would mean the same job, or maybe a better one in government, Election Month has not been kind. "They're sort of shocked now because they waited until really late in the process," said the former White House aide who's been dispensing advice to former colleagues from his office out West. "They've got a month to figure out what they're going to do." The closer the appointees worked with the Gore campaign-in the White House or around the Cabinet departments whose Secretaries toiled prominently for the campaign-the tougher it has been to switch gears to a Plan B. "It's OK for the Clinton people to go out and look for jobs-they're expected to-but the Gore people, even in the face of what's appearing to be the reality, can't go out and do that," said one Democrat who works for a Washington think tank. "God knows, the first Gore person who has their name in the loop because they're out looking for a job is in trouble." That tension-between fight and flight-was echoed by a senior appointee at the Labor Department who had hoped his skills would be valuable to an incoming Gore Administration. He even took personal leave to help the Gore campaign in Michigan. Having done a stint on Capitol Hill, the aide, who did not want to see his name in print, somewhat dejectedly talked about hunting for work in the private sector or among law firms in Washington. But he said he had done nothing formal to look for new employment, because he wanted to wait for a Florida Supreme Court ruling or something official. When Gore concedes, "that's the day to begin," he insisted. "Anything before then would be defeatist, and any job searches before then in a town this small would not be productive." Inside the Gore campaign, which is now housed at the Democratic National Committee, "people are definitely spending more time on their resumes and thinking about what their next jobs will be," said one campaign policy staffer who detected a marked shift in thinking among his colleagues after this week's rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge N. Sanders Sauls of the Leon County, Fla., Circuit Court. "There's only so many times you can lose." Todd Menotti, a deputy assistant secretary for legislative and intergovernmental affairs at the Commerce Department, gave money to the Gore campaign and to the Democratic Party, and used vacation time to help Gore win a small slice-Jefferson County-of Menotti's home state, Arkansas, which went for Bush. Menotti had once hoped there might be a nice job opportunity in a Gore Administration but, he explained this week, "that wasn't my total strategy-nothing's guaranteed." He's now actively looking for opportunities to pitch his international and trade experience to a private company or to a lobbying firm that represents clients with those interests. And what sort of feedback is he getting? "I've had those conversations that generally take place after an election-firms do a reassessment and think about the next Congress-and those have been put off," he said. "There's a freeze, in effect. Everyone's in the same boat." If Democrats have been slow to make their moves, it's understandable, said Joe Clayton, a senior executive with Widmeyer Communications, a consulting and public relations firm. "People aren't really kicking themselves for not leaving earlier; it's been so up in the air that I can understand someone wanting to hold off for a while." Wright Andrews, a lobbyist with Butera & Andrews, agreed that Clinton appointees who always intended to shift out of government will probably not be penalized for waiting until the last second. "Some of them ... didn't necessarily feel it was appropriate to get too public about it until after the election, and no one knew it would be tied up this long," he said. One Republican head of a small lobbying shop said this week that he had been contacted by three people in the Clinton Administration inquiring whether the firm is interested in adding some Democrats. "What surprised me is that some folks from the Clinton Administration called, and they seem more certain about the ultimate outcome of the election than a lot of the Republicans I know," he said. If Democrats are tossed out of the executive branch, the party's power base shifts to Capitol Hill, where Democrats won more seats and expect to add staff. Although those positions may be attractive to younger staffers, more-senior aides are largely priced out of the Hill market, which pays less than most top jobs in the executive branch. That leaves the job seekers who want to remain in Washington, and who don't want to take a pay cut, to choose from among corporations, think tanks, trade groups, law firms, lobby firms, and public relations and consulting groups. For those thinking about new ventures, New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley, Calif., are in. And there's always academia. That's where Jason Furman, an economic adviser on the Gore campaign by way of the White House National Economic Council, hopes to head if the Vice President loses. "I sort of feel like I ended up in Washington accidentally," said the Harvard-educated Furman. An academic post, he said, might better lend itself to "the style of policy work I do." Of late, Furman has done little work on the sort of fiscal policy numbers-crunching he's used to-or that Gore would be focused on if he were President-elect and wanted to send Congress a proposed budget in February. Instead, Furman's been helping the Gore team with its collection and analysis of statistical data related to Florida's ballot disputes. "As long as I'm needed and wanted, I'll work for the recount," he added. "I believe, by any fair count in Florida, Al Gore would win, and I'm happy to see justice done." If Democrats suddenly find themselves job-shopping, K Streeters expect them to do fine in an environment that will put a premium on being politically ambidextrous. "Everybody wants to be represented by people who are respected on both sides of the aisle," Vautour said. "The real flamethrowers on either side don't do as well as those who are in the middle." The most marketable job seekers, he suggested, are the ones with specialized knowledge in trade, telecommunications, securities, health care financing, or Treasury issues. And if they know Congress, all the better. For Republicans, the real story is how many Hill aides are holding out against lucrative entreaties from lobby shops in order to weigh job offers that might arrive from a GOP White House and executive branch after eight long years out of power. "I think every Republican staffer in town wants to join a Bush Administration," said Greg Means, an Alpine Group lobbyist. The best news for Clinton-Gore Democrats may be that the economy is strong, and that the Bush team is not expected to resemble the Reagan White House, which spurned Carter Democrats and threatened to unplug much of the federal bureaucracy. Darla J. Letourneau, deputy assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs at the Labor Department, remembers when she was a Carter political appointee who made the protective switch into the career civil service during the early Reagan years. "The economy was terrible, and it was one of the roughest transitions," she said. Democratic appointees took unemployment assistance or any job they could find. "I remember one guy who was a lobbyist for the [Carter] White House legislative affairs office, who was very attractive," said Letourneau, who has long planned to move at the end of this year to Sanibel Island, Fla., with her husband. "I saw him one day in the Baltimore Sun paper. He was modeling Jockey shorts."

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