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WASHINGTON -- When Bill Clinton promised to be "a new kind of Democrat," Ronald H. Brown was not exactly the image that popped into people's heads.

The dapper Mr. Brown was a Democratic Party insider who grew to age practicing special-interest politics, worked on the presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Edward M. Kennedy, and amassed personal wealth as a well-connected Washington lawyer who rarely saw the inside of a courtroom.

But a funny thing has happened since Mr. Brown became secretary of commerce: America's business community has discovered an influential friend in a Democratic administration.

The commerce secretary is supposed to push the interests of business. But in recent years, as Democrats pursued agendas ranging from affirmative action to environmental protection, they got cross-wise with the business folks who actually make the economy go.

In a well-aimed tweak at his own party, Paul E. Tsongas put it this way during the 1992 campaign: "Democrats love employment -- it's just employers they can't stand."

"Tsongas got a lot of laughs with that line," said Howard Lewis, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers. "But there was a lot of truth to it, too."

Enter Ron Brown, a Democrat who wants to change that perception. A Democrat who cites the fact that small business, traditionally a bulwark of the Republican Party, creates more jobs every year than the Fortune 500 do. A Democrat who loves jobs and those who provide jobs.

"He is a pleasant surprise," Mr. Lewis says.

"I'm hardly uncontrollably pro-Democrat, but I'll vouch for him," said Kenneth Hagerty, a lobbyist who sought -- and received -- Mr. Brown's help in fighting an attempt to restrict start-up companies from offering stock options for their workers without being penalized. "He understood our issue . . . and came through."

It hasn't been easy. Mr. Brown faced a yearlong Justice Department investigation based on a hearsay accusation that he had accepted $700,000 to help lift the trade embargo against Vietnam. (He was exonerated earlier this month.)

He lost turf battles to more powerful federal agencies and heard speculation that he would be the first member of the Clinton Cabinet to go. (He wasn't.)

It all was a bit of a comedown from two years ago, when as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Brown helped Bill Clinton recapture the White House for the Democrats.

Once it was clear that Mr. Clinton was going to be the nominee, Mr. Brown spent considerable energy smoothing things out between the Clinton camp and a succession of disgruntled Democrats, including Mr. Jackson, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, one of Mr. Brown's law school professors.

So Mr. Brown was in line for a job in the Clinton administration. He fancied himself a likely secretary of state -- and still does, friends say. But Mr. Clinton was thinking more along the lines of housing and urban development.

"But I did not want the normal appointments black Americans -- African-Americans -- had had in the past," Mr. Brown said in an interview this week.

Then the president dangled the Commerce Department in front of him. Party officials who knew Mr. Brown and liked him wondered whether the new president understood just how much Mr. Brown had done for Mr. Clinton in 1992. Some of these same Brown allies, however, thought that commerce was a perfect fit.

Mr. Brown wanted to run an aggressive Commerce Department, one that helped business in ways that the Reagan administration's commerce secretary, Malcolm Baldrige, only dreamed of.

The president himself had said: "I want Ron Brown to make the Commerce Department a powerhouse."

In trying to live up to that challenge, Mr. Brown has spearheaded several initiatives that he hopes will make a lasting impact on American business and American competitiveness. They include:

* Development of the national export strategy. This was Mr. Brown's compromise between the laissez-faire capitalism of the Reaganites and the Democrats' vision of a national industrial policy. He chaired a 19-agency task force called the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee that issued 65 recommendations to boost U.S. exports.

* Working to reduce red tape for high-tech exports. Throughout the Cold War, entrenched bureaucracies at the State Department and Defense Department routinely blocked the sale of American computers, chips and electronics that were readily available to East Bloc nations on the world markets. This is still going on, and it is still one of the key issues for Silicon Valley companies. Mr. Brown fought within the administration to reduce those barriers.

Administration proposals released Thursday for loosening the Export Administration Act didn't go as far as the high-tech industry officials had hoped -- but they didn't blame Mr. Brown.

"The Commerce Department was our friend in this administration on this," said Greg Garcia, a lobbyist for the American Electronics Association.

* Set up ways for American companies to get their hands on American-developed technology. The most ambitious is the creation of the first of 100 "Manufacturing Centers." The centers, patterned loosely after the agricultural extension services developed in the 19th century to help the nation's farmers, would be places where small companies could learn about technologies that could help in their industries, old or new.

All this takes money, of course, and in this era of fiscal limits, Commerce's 34 percent proposed budget increase over the two Clinton budget cycles shows that the commitment is not all talk. New Democrat or old, Ron Brown is still a man who thinks that money talks, and he points to his budget with pride during the interview in his Commerce Department office.

The State Department, which he is still said to want to head someday, got no such increase.

"I have the best job in Washington," he said.

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