Comptroller McLean fights tough times Business and politics turning sour for her


A jubilant Jacqueline F. McLean commanded the middle of the dance floor and did the Electric Slide in step with a roomful of supporters at her campaign victory party.

Ms. McLean had reason to dance. A political unknown when elected to the City Council in 1983, Ms. McLean had just completed an improbable rise to the office of comptroller, the third most powerful seat in City Hall.

Ms. McLean rolled up an impressive 83 percent of the vote on her road to victory. It was the kind of showing that started people asking when, not if, Ms. McLean would run for mayor.

But now just three months later, Ms. McLean finds herself confronted by a thicket of problems that has obscured all talk about her future political plans.

Ms. McLean's business is having financial problems. Some constituents are angry with her for buying a new, taxpayer-financed car upon taking office. And some city firefighters are angry with her for allegedly deriding their profession -- in comments Ms. McLean says she never made.

All of these problems threaten to sidetrack a political career that was unquestionably on the rise just a few months ago.

During her campaign, Ms. McLean touted her business prowess as a qualification for office. In 1976, she and her husband, James, started Four Seas & Seven Winds, a travel agency that by 1989 sold $36 million worth of airline tickets a year. But now, the agency is shaken by a sharp downturn in the travel business that is being felt by travel agencies nationwide.

In the past 16 months, Four Seas has closed 11 offices and now is left with 21 offices in four states, Mr. McLean said. The work force has been trimmed from 110 to 86 employees.

In December, around the time that Ms. McLean resigned as executive vice president of the firm to be a full-time comptroller, the travel agency's bank yanked its line of credit, Mr. McLean said. That action quickly was followed with letters from the bank to Four Seas' clients, demanding that payments be made to the bank, not the travel agency.

This cut the cash flow to the McLeans' business. It also endangered the travel agency's relationship with the Airlines Reporting Corp., the outfit that accredits travel agents to sell airline tickets and serves as a clearinghouse between agencies and the carriers once a ticket is sold and money is collected for it. ARC had threatened to stop the agency from writing future airline tickets if it did not settle its account, Mr. McLean said.

"Four Seas was able to negotiate a delay with ARC to get its financial affairs back in order," said Mark Pestronk, the travel agency's lawyer.

Those developments left the McLeans scrambling for alternative financing to save their business. The McLeans are in line for a $750,000 loan from the Development Credit Fund, a loan that would be backed with an 80 percent guarantee from the Maryland Small Business Development Financing Authority, said a spokesman for the state agency.

Also, USF&G; Corp. is suing Four Seas in city Circuit Court, alleging that the travel agency owes the corporation $155,138.87 in unpaid commissions and interest.

Under a four-year deal signed in 1989, Four Seas was to be paid $91,000 a year for four years to handle travel arrangements for USF&G.; But all air, hotel and car rental commissions were to be turned over to USF&G;, the suit says.

"We owe them money," Mr. McLean said. "But the dispute is over how much. We are miles apart on the amount. But that's a business issue."

The new comptroller is having more than business trouble. She also is having political problems.

McLean assumed office on a pledge to put her business acumen to work to save the city money. But one of her first acts as comptroller was to buy a new, taxpayer-financed, $19,000 sedan to ferry her around town.

The city car used by Hyman A. Pressman, Ms. McLean's predecessor, had rolled up more than 50,000 miles and it is city policy to replace executive cars with that much mileage.

But some thought Ms. McLean should have held off because of the city's financial crisis.

"I am outraged at your audacity," wrote Christopher Moylan, an angry constituent from Homeland who sent her a protest letter. "Upon becoming city comptroller, you wasted no time cashing in on the goodies. I wish I had a free $19,000 car. I am extremely disappointed in your behavior."

Ms. McLean, who prides herself on being outspoken, bristles at such criticism. She says she is doing no more than her predecessors: taking advantage of the few perquisites that come with the job.

"I just got five phone calls and a few letters that were negative. They were all from white males. One man said I was 'uppity,' ", Ms. McLean said, pausing for a hearty laugh. "I loved that one."

Ms. McLean is even being skewered for a comment she swears she did not make. Many city firefighters are angry because Ms. McLean supposedly compared them to unskilled laborers. She denies the comment. And the president of the firefighters' union cannot pinpoint the rumor's source. But the angry letters pour into Ms. McLean's office anyway.

"I have been a firefighter for 25 years," wrote Lt. David W. Bilenki. "I am appalled and saddened by your suggestion. I think this is the worst slap in the face you could give us."

Things have gotten so bad for Ms. McLean that she even has been pilloried on a radio talk show for daring to wear the black fur coat that her husband gave her long before she stepped into public office.

"I really don't know why all of this is happening," Ms. McLean said. "I think it's change. I think people are trying to adjust to the fact that the new comptroller is black and female. Others realize that I am going to make changes in city government, and that might hurt some people's pocketbooks."

As comptroller, Ms. McLean heads the Audit Department and the Real Estate Division. She also sits on the boards of the three municipal pension systems and the Board of Estimates, which approves city contracts, all major expenditures and the budget. She also oversees the city government's internal mail and telephone systems.

And she is making some changes. Ms. McLean last week issued a memo announcing that city employees no longer would be able to call directory assistance from their office phones. Instead, they are to look numbers up in the phone book. She also barred calls to 900 numbers and calls from one city office to another that go outside the Centrex telephone system. She estimates that the changes will save the city $135,000 a year.

Even those relatively small moves sparked anger, this time from several City Council members who wanted to keep their 411 privileges, Ms. McLean said, adding that she is undeterred.

"The people put me in this job for four years, and I am going to do what it calls for," she said.

Ms. McLean said the criticism will not hurt her politically. Instead, she dismisses most of it as being petty or racially motivated.

"People have called here and said 'Nigger, we are going to geyou out of there,' " Ms. McLean said. "Success is almost like an albatross around your neck. People can't look and say, 'Isn't it great? Isn't it wonderful?' "

Ms. McLean said white people have aimed much of the criticism at her and many of her black constituents think she is being picked on unfairly. "With black voters, all of this has made it stronger," she says. "They are taking it like everything is racial."

And that is a point of view Ms. McLean has not discouraged.

"As long as I was just Jackie McLean, wife, mother, businesswoman -- everything was fine. The moment you become Jackie McLean, City Council member, City Council vice president, city comptroller, all hell breaks loose. And as a black person, you have to wonder what the hell is going on."

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