Lobbyists turn to Gore, first lady; White House roles provide platforms to display influence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- For five years and to no avail, Devorah Halberstam had been imploring federal agents to reopen an investigation into the shooting death of her son, Ari, by a Lebanese gunman on the Brooklyn Bridge.

But after Hillary Rodham Clinton launched her all-but-declared bid for the Senate, Halberstam's luck changed dramatically. Halberstam's allies delivered a personal appeal to the first lady. Clinton began raising the issue with White House officials, and last week, the Justice Department said it had reopened the case.

The Halberstam episode is perhaps the clearest example of how Clinton administration policy has been subtly influenced by the political needs of the president's heirs apparent: Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Where lobbyists and activists once may have focused their attention on President Clinton, they are now increasingly seeing Gore and the first lady as pressure points they can press to win their battles.

Those battles range from minor local issues to major national policy decisions, from the Navy's fight to retain its bombing range in Puerto Rico to a Year 2000 liability law, from major bank reform legislation to possible clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the imprisoned Israeli spy.

"We're really trying to take advantage of the fact that Hillary came to New York and said she wants to know what's on the mind of New Yorkers," said Dov Hikind, a New York state assemblyman who is pushing for the release of Pollard. "We're letting her know what's on our mind."

There is nothing illegal about such attention. And aides to Gore and the first lady say there is nothing unseemly about it.

"Any time you become a candidate for president, particularly if you're the front-runner, you are just a much bigger target for people with agendas," said Chris Lehane, a spokesman for Gore. "It just comes with the territory."

Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for the first lady's Senate exploratory committee, said: "I don't think it's atypical for candidates running for office to hear a wide range of views on a wide range of subjects."

But it is hardly typical of a Senate candidate to have the omnipresent ear of the president of the United States. And though presidents have often made policy concessions for the vice presidents who hope to succeed them, few vice presidents have been as close to their presidential partners as Gore.

In some cases, such as the Halberstam investigation, the pressure appears to have worked.

In other instances, the proximity of Hillary Clinton or Gore to an issue has fueled criticism from Republicans. The president's offer of clemency to 16 Puerto Rican terrorists has been seized on by White House opponents as a dangerous ploy to win Latino votes for the first lady, though there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton was involved in the issue.

In still other cases, the results of the political pressure are not yet clear. A loose confederation of Jewish activists is pressuring the first lady to secure Pollard's release, but the public nature of their demands could make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to respond without being accused of political pandering, one White House aide said.

Likewise, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the Republican chairman of the Banking and Finance Committee, has told financial industry lobbyists that his sweeping bank reform legislation is sure to win White House support because the first lady cannot afford to alienate Wall Street interests. But the president has stood firm in his demands for significant changes to Gramm's bill.

Puerto Rican activists have appealed to Gore and Hillary Clinton to help drive the Navy out of its only East Coast firing range, Vieques Island, a part of Puerto Rico. Navy officials also seemed to know whom to lobby on this issue: The first high-level briefing they gave in the White House was to Gore's national security adviser, Leon Fuerth.

Those issues may be far from settled. But others involving the first lady or Gore have concluded in ways favorable to the pressure groups that reached her and the vice president.

Jewish activists say they are convinced that the first lady's intervention persuaded the Justice Department to finally investigate whether Ari Halberstam was the victim of an international terrorist attack -- not simply of a gunman suffering from "road rage," as the FBI originally concluded.

David Luchins, a top aide to retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Michael Miller, a New York Jewish leader, appealed to Hillary Clinton, setting off a chain of communications that eventually reached Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.

Though Clinton aides insist they do not know exactly what ensued, they expressed no displeasure when the Justice Department announced last week that it would take another look at the circumstances of Halberstam's death.

Likewise, high-technology lobbyists say they are confident that Gore's political concerns were critical in persuading the president in July to sign legislation to protect businesses from lawsuits arising from the Y2K computer bug. Many Democrats had objected.

"Clearly, this had become an issue which could be important in the context of the 2000 elections," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, who promoted the legislation twice in discussions with Gore. "And we felt, in the high-tech community, that the person feeling the most heat would be the vice president."

The attention being lavished on Hillary Clinton and Gore is beginning to worry even some of the activists involved. Pressure groups are lining up like jets on a runway, waiting to attract the attention of the administration's two future candidates.

The clemency offer to 16 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, points to the perils of the new activism.

Religious activists, liberals and members of Congress have been pushing their clemency demands for years. They argue that the Puerto Rican activists were not convicted of carrying out terrorist acts, that they had been given inordinately long sentences, and that they had already served long jail terms. Most have been in prison for at least 19 years.

Last year, three Democratic members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent persuaded the White House counsel at the time, Charles F. C. Ruff, to urge the president to offer clemency with his annual Christmas pardons. But Ruff soon was so consumed with Clinton's impeachment defense that he let the issue slip.

In the spring, after Ruff announced his resignation, the three members hurriedly reminded the lawyer of his promise, and Ruff made the clemency offer his last act as White House counsel.

"We've been getting pressure since the day we got here" on the Puerto Rican prisoners," said a senior White House official. "It had nothing to do with Hillary."

But the timing of the announcement -- just days before the president and first lady headed to New York on vacation -- allowed Clinton's opponents to contend that she was pandering to the many Puerto Rican voters in New York City.

Puerto Rican activists, however, were incensed about the conditions that the president put on the prisoners' release: The prisoners will have to renounce violence before they are released, and two of the activists will not go free for at least five years.

Still, conservatives and some law enforcement officers complained that they smelled politics.

"This is really and truly pandering to the Hispanic community, to the Latino community, for their vote when Mrs. Clinton runs," said Richard Pastorella, a former New York City detective who was blinded by an FALN bomb in 1982.

The first lady may be to blame, in part, for such statements, especially after she all but took credit for the Halberstam investigation, said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty.

"If she's choosing to involve herself in certain instances, like the Halberstam case, it's going to be hard to accept that the first lady is going to avoid at least the perception that she's involved in all New York issues," said Rapfogel, who nevertheless helped push her to examine the Halberstam case.

Others are unapologetic about their tactics. Hikind, who organized a protest for Pollard on Sunday in front of the first lady's exploratory committee office, said Hillary Clinton is not just any political candidate. She is one who has the ear of the president. And Hikind says he is not about to let that opportunity slip by.

"In the case of the first lady, the fact that she's not from New York and the fact that she's the wife of the president makes it difficult for her," he conceded. "Anything that she does will be seen as political.

"But really, that's immaterial. If Hillary gets involved in the Pollard issue, I'll agree that it's because of the right reasons."

Pub Date: 9/02/99

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