Weld resigns as Mass. governor to fight for Mexico envoy's post Nominee hopes to bring pressure on Helms, but observers are doubtful


WASHINGTON -- William F. Weld resigned as governor of Massachusetts yesterday to fight for the post of ambassador to Mexico, adding a dramatic new ingredient to a confirmation battle that has defied convention from the beginning.

In stepping down, the unpredictable Weld was gambling that the force of his personality would "change the rules in Washington" and overcome the opposition of his fellow Republican, Sen. Jesse Helms.

"I've got a very straightforward case to make. You know, it's the American way: fairness, due process," Weld told reporters in Boston a few hours before he announced his resignation.

But his chances of winning confirmation still appeared to be slim with Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continuing to block him and Senate Democrats generally unwilling to fight for him.

Maverick record

A maverick Republican who supports abortion rights and gay rights, Weld was tapped for the post by President Clinton after running a losing campaign last year to unseat a veteran Democratic senator, John F. Kerry.

High-profile ambassadorial appointments are normally conferred on members of the president's own party. For Democrats, though, Weld's departure from Massachusetts offers the benefit of removing a rival to Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy, who is expected to run for governor.

Clinton's decision to tap Weld some weeks ago drew immediate and strong opposition from Helms, a North Carolina conservative. As committee chairman, Helms can deny Weld a confirmation hearing, a requirement for a vote by the full Senate on the nomination.

Helms has been a longtime critic of Mexico's official corruption and the country's role as a source of the narcotics flooding American cities. He criticized as inadequate Weld's drug-fighting efforts during his days as U.S. attorney in Boston and the governor's support for the medical use of marijuana.

There was no immediate comment from Helms yesterday, but in an interview last week he reaffirmed his opposition to Weld, saying, "I don't think he's the man for the job of ambassador to Mexico." A Helms aide, Marc Thiessen, called the resignation a "PR stunt."

The White House could have avoided a fight by nominating someone else. Indeed, administration officials reacted to Helms' opposition by exploring other possible ambassadorships for Weld.

Challenge to Clinton

Weld, however, reacted by issuing a public challenge to Clinton to take on Helms, charging that the senator had imposed on him an ideological litmus test.

"In plain language, I am not Senator Helms' kind of Republican," Weld said then. Last week, Clinton formally nominated him for the Mexico City post, opening the way for Weld to begin formally courting senators.

In announcing his resignation, Weld said he anticipated a protracted confirmation battle and "I don't think it would be fair to the people of Massachusetts to permit the conduct of their government to become embroiled in the vagaries of Washington politics."

White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Clinton hadn't tried to influence Weld's decision on whether to resign, and said the nominee faced a "10-foot roadblock."

The governor's theory, McCurry said in an interview, "is that public opinion and public debate will provide the dynamite that might blow a hold in that wall" of opposition.

Smarting from criticism that he has been reluctant to fight for Weld, Clinton yesterday made a point of mentioning Weld when he spoke to the National Governors Association in Las Vegas.

Praising the governors of six states, including Maryland, for agreeing to participate in standardized math and reading tests, he said, "I wish Governor Weld were here for me to thank him, but I appreciate the fact that he's willing to go to Mexico. And I hope we can get him there."

Other Senate aides and political professionals also voiced doubt that the resignation would improve Weld's chances of getting to Mexico City.

"If his goal was to get approved, it's not going to happen," said a Senate Democratic aide. "If his goal was to create a stink, that's happening, but it's not going to help him."

Upsetting the barracudas

"He's made the barracudas upset before he jumps in the pool," said Tom C. Korologos, a Republican lobbyist. "It's strange."

Senators are unlikely to be swayed by the attention Weld gets in Washington, Korologos added. "Do you think Sen. [Sam] Brownback [a Kansas Republican] is going to hear from 'Wheat farmers for Weld?' "

Pub Date: 7/29/97

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