Got A Problem? Dr. Ickes Is In

The liberal tough guy sets up shop--and what a client list

It's a busy night at Kinkead's, a chic Washington eatery, and Harold Ickes is starting to relax as only he can: He's staring intently at his dinner roll as he tears it into ever-smaller pieces. For a moment, it seems just like old times. Christopher Dodd, the garrulous Connecticut senator who until recently headed the Democratic National Committee, stops by to chat. Diners crane for a look at Ickes, an intense, blade-thin man hunched in a booth, and realize that he's somebody--even if they can't quite say who.

Well, he is, and he isn't. There's no question that Ickes used to be somebody high in the capital firmament. As White House deputy chief of staff, he was Bill and Hillary Clinton's shredder. His job: doing unto political foes exactly what he has done to his dinner roll. An architect of the President's '96 reelection campaign, Ickes helped put together the money machine that chewed up Bob Dole. To feed the beast, campaign-finance laws were stretched to the limit and perhaps beyond--a feat for which Ickes makes no apologies.

CHUTZPAH. Then Donorgate exploded, and Ickes found himself expendable. "Harold was seen as someone who is toxic," says friend and fellow White House confidante Susan Thomases. Just days after the Clinton landslide, he was dumped by new staff chief Erskine B. Bowles. Ickes walked out with 50 boxes of documents--some of which he turned over to Republican investigators--and hasn't looked back.

Now, he's Harold M. Ickes Esq., would-be power lobbyist. He has opened a Washington office for his old New York law firm, Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein. And teaming up with longtime aide Janice Enright, he has launched the Ickes & Enright Group, consulting for clients from unions to chemical companies. The tab? Anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 a month. "Harold's bad-guy reputation actually works for him," says Democratic lobbyist and ex-White House aide Steve Ricchetti. "His appeal is as someone who's both connected and tough."

Still, Ickes Inc. is an act of considerable chutzpah. His list of nonfans starts with Bowles, a starchy, time-chart-obsessed investment banker who couldn't abide Ickes' tantrums, profanity, or back channel to the Oval Office. "Erskine felt threatened by Harold," says a former White House official.

Then there are the foes, Democrats and Republicans alike, whom Ickes has trampled in the mosh pit of political combat. "Harold is smart, tough, and meticulous," sighs one senior Clinton official. "But he just can't help himself from rolling over people."

Finally, there are Republican Donorgate probers who suspect Ickes is at the center of all manner of dark conspiracies. "Ickes is the modern-day equivalent of Nixon's plumber," says conservative legal gadfly Larry Klayman, whose nonstop depositions in a sheaf of anti-Clinton lawsuits are one reason Ickes has run up a $300,000 legal bill. "He knows more about how this Administration operates, legally and illegally, than any other living person."

FRIENDSHIP. Despite the controversies swirling around him, Ickes is loath to quit Washington. Rather than slinking back to Manhattan, he decided to build a business on the unstated premise of his continuing friendship with the Clintons--if not all their minions. (The link was underscored when, thigh-deep in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Prez called Ickes in California to seek help with damage control.)

"We had to do something," says Enright. "We were basically chased out of the White House." Adds Ickes, who has stopped torturing his dinner and is now sipping a cranberry juice and vodka: "I was out of politics. I know a lot of people in town and know how the place works. I thought: `That's got to be valuable to some people."'

Apparently, Ickes figured right. Relying on past ties as a labor lawyer, he has a core of unions and New York-based groups as clients. They include the American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees' International Union, and its powerful affiliate, Local 1199 of the hospital workers' union. Ickes has pipes into the AFL-CIO and helped with the campaign to defeat California's Proposition 226--which would have curbed political donations by unions. Now, he is trying to talk labor chief John J. Sweeney into letting him represent the AFL-CIO. "I expect we'll cut a deal soon," says Ickes.

Other clients include the New York City Council, a gift from upwardly mobile Council Speaker Peter Vallone. Ickes is an unpaid adviser to Vallone's campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He also counsels the Greater New York Hospital Assn. on ways to live with new Medicare reimbursement caps and does some work for the Democratic Governors' Assn.

Ickes' most lucrative client is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which retains him to run interference with the departments of Labor and Health & Human Services. Ickes' pals are sprinkled throughout both agencies. And he's advising Governor Pedro Rossello on the battle for statehood.

Although his liberal views were shaped by his early days in West Side Manhattan politics, Ickes knows that no lobbyist worth his Guccis can survive solely on a progressive client list. So he's angling for business clients, too. And some of the ones he's snagging could surprise his friends on the left.

For instance, Ickes works for the Coalition for Asbestos Resolution. It consists of companies--among them GAF, Georgia-Pacific, Kaiser Aluminum, and U.S. Gypsum--that want protection from potentially huge worker-health claims. It is backing legislation by Representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) that would set up a trust fund for payouts and establish an arbitration procedure.

Then there's the Alliance for a Fair Tobacco Settlement. Made up of outfits including Owens-Corning, Owens-Illinois, W.R. Grace, and the Johns Manville Trust, AFFTS hired Ickes and former White House legislative affairs chief Patrick Griffin to help tap the proposed Senate tobacco settlement for up to $25 billion. The money was to go to asbestos-exposed workers who also smoke, a combination Ickes says vastly increases the odds an employer will be hit with an asbestos health claim. The collapse of the tobacco bill has frozen the effort for now.

"HE'LL DO FINE." Ickes & Enright also has been retained by the American Crop Protection Assn., which represents pesticide makers. Members include Dow Chemical, DuPont, and American Home Products. "Companies want to sell all the chemicals they can sell," Ickes says. "They worry that a new pesticide law passed in 1996 is so broad that the Environmental Protection Agency is going to run wild."

Is this the same Ickes who worked for Jesse Jackson's 1988 Presidential campaign, railed against the rightward lurches of former White House Svengali Dick Morris, and called Clinton's decision to back welfare reform a mistake? Yep. But Ickes isn't upset by the incongruity. "Most lobbying issues are decided on the merits," he says. "But business operates on paranoia. This fear leads to a thirst for information--and with my contacts, I can supply it."

Can Ickes, the former political head-banger, make a go of it as a silken Washington lobbyist? Why not, say chums. "He'll do fine living off his Rolodex," says fellow Democratic lobbyist Michael Berman. "As for Harold being out of politics, forget it. If Al Gore suddenly finds himself in trouble two years from now in New York, who do you think he's going to call?"