Bill Clinton's Ms. Fix It

It was just days before the House was set to cast a fateful vote on President Clinton's budget last May, and Representative Robert E. Cramer Jr. (D-Ala.) was hopping mad. Vice-President Al Gore was considering a redesign of the space station, threatening hundreds of jobs in Cramer's Huntsville district. But the Alabaman was getting no help from the Clintonites. His planned revenge: a "no" vote on the budget.

That's when White House aide Joan N. Baggett, an affable pol with an advanced degree in tele-schmoozing, called Cramer. Soon, he was making his case to Gore, who ultimately opted for a less radical space-station redesign. Happy that he could demonstrate his clout to constituents, Cramer backed Clinton's economic plan. "Without Joan's involvement, I wouldn't have voted the way I did," he says.

CRUCIAL VOTES. Backstage drama like that doesn't make headlines, but it does win crucial votes for Clinton--no small matter considering the tough legislative challenges ahead. Just as important, Baggett, the White House political director, uses the power of the Presidency to help Democratic officeholders win support from voters back home.

As Ms. Fixit, Baggett spends endless hours chatting with state party chairs and elected officials, gathering intelligence to help the White House aid fellow Democrats and shape policy. She sends Cabinet secretaries into states that are key to Clinton's reelection, and she provides the President with data on local pols he meets on his travels. And in the runup to the crucial August budget votes she drummed up constituent backing to make it easier for wavering Democrats to vote "yes." Says Baggett: "When people feel like they're getting political support, then they can focus on the issues."

Baggett was promoted to director of the political office from her deputy position in June during a White House reshuffle. Her predecessor, Rahm I. Emanuel, considered too abrasive for the job of coddling Democrats, was sent to the communications office. Baggett is prepared to rap the knuckles of Democrats who abandon their President, denying them such goodies as Clinton visits to their districts. But getting even isn't her style. "I've been around Washington long enough to know that you can't burn bridges," she says.

Baggett, 41 and expecting her second child, bears no relation to the stereotypical fixer of old. But she has spent a lot of time in the trenches, including 15 years as political director of the bricklayers' union and a stint as chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the fall campaign. She wasn't a Friend of Bill, but Baggett's skills won the attention of the high command. Says Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald: "If I was trying to get something done, I'd call Joan."

Inside the Clinton White House, Baggett stands apart from the legions of Yale lawyers. She grew up the youngest of 10 children on a strawberry farm in Repton, Ala.--population 246. Political discourse was a dinnertime staple. Indeed, Democratic consultant Frank Greer thinks Baggett's upbringing is a plus in the Clinton White House: "She brings a real American view to the job that the Ivy League types don't have."

After graduating from the University of Alabama, Baggett worked for Senator Jim Allen (D-Ala.). In 1974, at 23, she was hired to edit the bricklayers' magazine and soon became political director, the first woman to hold a management job in the union. She commissioned polls and focus groups, set up phone banks, and turned the apolitical bricklayers into a potent force. "Joan was so effective that it always seemed that she represented a larger pile of money and more members than she really had," says Rachelle Horowitz, political director of the American Federation of Teachers.

At the DNC, Baggett and the late Paul Tully, its political director, coordinated ties among the Clinton team, state and local parties, and congressional campaigns. Along the way, she met many local party officials, forging relationships that serve her well at the White House.

Baggett's labor experience will be helpful in the months ahead, when the Administration must sell its liberal backers on a program they view as too conservative. Core constituent blocs, such as senior citizens and labor, are unhappy with Clinton's procompetition health-care plan. Outraged unions and environmentalists vow to sink the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Keeping liberals inside Clinton's camp will tax even Baggett's skills--though union leaders concede that their former ally now has different responsibilities. "We don't have a higher call on her loyalties," says AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue. "But she will be able to distinguish between disagreement on a single issue and a holy war."

WIDER TIES. Although core constituencies are a major concern, Baggett is also broadening ties to party conservatives. Senator Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.), who got the cold shoulder after calling Clinton the "tax man," credits Baggett with a recent rapprochement. "She knows she can always talk with me," he says.

With Clinton's legislative success tied to the fortunes of other Democratic officeholders, state and congressional elections are high on Baggett's agenda. This year, she's working for gubernatorial candidates James J. Florio in New Jersey and Mary Sue Terry in Virginia. To boost Florio, Baggett sent Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary to praise New Jersey's streamlined utility rules. The Administration will also hold a splashy welfare-reform hearing in the state, designed to highlight Florio's own reforms.

Baggett will offer similar help to congressional Democrats who voted with the President on the budget. For instance, when Clinton unveils his health-care plan in September, he will travel to the district of Representative Louise M. Slaughter to showcase the health-care system in Rochester, N.Y.

With the budget victory as her guide, Baggett will spend the coming weeks dispensing favors to supporters such as Slaughter and reminding opponents that independence has a price. "We're not the office of retribution," Baggett says. "But if members see there's no difference in how we treat friends and those who don't work with the President, they won't see any reason to work with us." With several tough battles ahead, Baggett's mix of steel and velvet may keep Clinton on the winning track.

      Baggett must find support among contentious Democratic interest groups on 
      several issues, including:
      TRADE The North American Free Trade Agreement faces fierce opposition from 
      labor and many Rust Belt Democrats
      HEALTH CARE Clinton's market-based health-reform plan is upsetting unions that 
      prefer a government-run system of universal coverage and seniors' groups that 
      oppose Medicare cutbacks and want long-term-care coverage
      THE NEW DEMOCRATIC AGENDA The White House is looking at entitlement cuts, may 
      require welfare recipients to find work after two years, and will push a tough 
      crime bill
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.