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HERMAN'S COALITION-BUILDING SKILLS LAUDED

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WASHINGTON-President Clinton's selection of Alexis Herman as secretary-designation of the Labor Department is winning plaudits from employer groups.

The departure of Labor Secretary Robert Reich, one of the most highly visible members of President Clinton's cabinet, leaves a big void to fill. But Ms. Herman is expected to fill that void quite handily, employer groups and consultants say, despite a lack of recent involvement in the policy issues she'll face in the job.

That's owing largely to her track record as President Clinton's director of public liaison since 1993. In that post, Ms. Herman's responsibilities involved creating coalitions to back presidential initiatives, including the North American Free Trade Agreement. As public liaison director, she also won a reputation for being particularly concerned about issues facing small business.

Ms. Herman had previously sharpened her consensus-building skills as chief of staff and vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and as chairman of the Democratic Convention Committee in the early 1990s.

Ms. Herman's resume is not devoid of experience with employment-related issues. She began her career as a social worker, and President Carter named her head of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau in 1977.

As the youngest person to ever serve as director of the Women's Bureau in the Labor Department, Ms. Herman pressed for the establishment of more day care facilities in order to meet the needs of working mothers, teenage pregnancy programs, school-to-work transition programs and efforts to bring lower-income women into white-collar jobs. Her later work as head of her own consulting firm, A.M. Herman & Associates, also centered around matters such as job creation.

Ms. Herman gave a hint of the course she might follow as she accepted the president's nomination late last month.

"I want you to know that I have continued to believe that we must have a growing, innovative and entrepreneurial economy if the living standards of working men and women are to rise, especially in this era of global and technological change. Workers must be prepared for their jobs, rewarded for their work, secure in their retirement and able to freely organize," she said.

Ms. Herman's experience as a small businesswoman and as a social worker is an "interesting combination," said Frank McArdle, a consultant with Hewitt Associates L.L.C. in Washington.

"There's potential there. Her experience in coalition-building in the liaison office combined with her apparent practicality seems to hold promise," said Henry Saveth, principal in A. Foster Higgins & Co. Inc.'s New York office.

"One of the interesting things for the benefits community is that this is a relatively new name and a new face, but the roots of this appointment really run pretty deep. Clinton had wanted to carve out a more centrist policy position, and this nominee fits that trend, whereas some of the other potential nominees did not," said Mr. McArdle.

He noted that the AFL-CIO had initially promoted former Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., as its candidate for the job. As a senator, Mr. Wofford earned a reputation of being one of the chamber's most liberal members, particularly in regard to health care reform.

"This was not organized labor's first choice, and part of that stems from the debate over NAFTA," said Mr. McArdle.

But organized labor dropped its opposition to Ms. Herman after it became evident that the president would not appoint a candidate more to labor's liking.

"Alexis Herman is a wonderful choice for secretary of labor. She knows and understands working families' concerns, and we look forward to working closely with her to put their interests on the top of the national agenda," said John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

"At a time when so many working men and women are struggling against declining pay and growing disrespect from corporate America, we believe Alexis' experience-growing up in the rural South, advancing the interests of working women and minorities and dealing with the issues of a changing workforce-will be a tremendous asset. Over the years, she has had an excellent relationship with me and other union leaders," said Mr. Sweeney.

One of the country's largest employer groups shares this positive assessment.

"I think she will bring in the balance what is needed in a secretary of labor. I see Ms. Herman to maybe be that catalyst bringing the two groups-business and labor-together," said June D'Zurilla, associate director of employee relations for the National Assn. of Manufacturers in Washington.

"Working with a lot of small businesses, you would tend to have more hands-on experience. At the same time, she's been consulting for large corporations. At this point, we really welcome her as secretary of labor because of her vast experience," Ms. D'Zurilla added.

The National Federation of Independent Business is also pleased with the nomination, noted a spokeswoman for the Washington-based small-business group.

"Jack Faris, president of the NFIB, has had a good working relationship with Ms. Herman. She definitely had an open door policy in regard to inviting him to some meetings at the White House, and we hope to continue that relationship," said the spokeswoman.

One unanswered question is how Ms. Herman will compare to her outspoken and unusually visible predecessor.

Although the secretary of labor is generally not one of the political powerhouses in any administration, Mr. Reich's long friendship with Mr. Clinton and his previous prominence as an advocate for government activism gave him a prominent place in the administration.

"My sense is that she would maintain a lower profile than Secretary Reich. The outgoing secretary has maintained a high profile, and it's a very hard act to follow because of that," said Hewitt's Mr. McArdle.

Foster Higgins' Mr. Saveth cautioned against reading too much into Ms. Herman's record as prologue to what she would do as labor secretary.

"You never know how these people are going to turn out. They can go in like a Supreme Court justice one way and a couple years later go the other way," he said.

Nevertheless, the current composition of Congress will probably serve to put the brakes on any liberal initiatives Ms. Herman might be inclined to pursue, said Mr. Saveth. He pointed to the president's desire to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act as an example of something the Republican-dominated Congress would likely balk at, though he added that the administration could have better luck with pension reforms.

"Any broadening of the family leave is going to be very tough in this Congress. Pension issues tend to be so hyper-technical that they're not reviewed with a magnifying glass, so they may have an easier time," Mr. Saveth said.

Mr. McArdle pointed to another potential problem for Ms. Herman: "She's got close ties to President Clinton and helped with his re-election and the last two conventions. Her ties to the Democratic National Committee, it has been suggested, may raise some issues for her in the confirmation process.

"But members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee will probably be hard pressed to come down hard on this candidate," he said.