Federal

Political Appointees Bid Farewell To Education Department

By Joetta L. Sack — January 24, 2001 4 min read
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A step ahead of many of his colleagues at the Department of Education, Paul Smolarcik had just about finished cleaning out his office early last week. But a pile of old, copiously marked-up speeches written for outgoing Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley didn’t have a place to go.

“I’ll sell them for a nickel apiece,” Mr. Smolarcik joked. Then he admitted he’d probably hang on to them as a souvenir of his five years as Mr. Riley’s chief speechwriter.

When the Clinton administration officially handed over the reins of the federal government to the Bush-Cheney team on Jan. 20, Mr. Smolarcik and about 180 other political appointees at the Education Department were out of jobs. And emotions from grief to joy were running high.

“It’s very hard to walk away from something you’ve put your heart and soul into for eight years, but it feels good in terms of what we’ve accomplished and the work we’ve done,” said Terry A. Dozier, Mr. Riley’s senior adviser on teaching.

Several department employees agreed that this year’s presidential transition was especially poignant for the agency because of Mr. Riley’s popularity and his long tenure as secretary.

“This is different because it’s eight years of the same secretary and top people, more or less,” said Jane Glickman, a public-affairs specialist and career employee who has been at the Education Department since its creation in 1979. “You form a stronger bond over a long time.”

On Jan. 15, about 850 of Mr. Riley’s friends and colleagues paid $75 each to say their goodbyes at a party at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and employees built him a farewell exhibit in the lobby of the department’s headquarters, just off the National Mall on Maryland Avenue.

But the secretary was sticking to his pledge to keep his employees focused on their work until their very last day. In a brief conversation last week, he appeared to be taking the process in stride.

“Well, it feels like it’s coming to an end,” Mr. Riley said with a smile, even as he was dashing onto an elevator for a meeting. The next day, he held a press conference to release a report on the senior year of high school.

Busy to the End

Many appointees reported having little time to reflect.

“It’s a busy time in the final days,” said John See, a speechwriter who was helping Mr. Riley prepare remarks for several farewell meetings with employees. “The work keeps going on ... although there’s been a different character to the work, ever since before the election.”

“Everyone’s rushing to finish up their work and pack at the same time,” added Terry K. Peterson, the secretary’s senior counsel, whose work for him dates back to Mr. Riley’s days in South Carolina politics.

The hectic schedule was partly a result of the protracted budget negotiations between Congress and the White House. The appropriations bill that covers the Education Department was originally scheduled for passage in October; it ended up being delayed until last month.

And some department officials were busy helping incoming President George W. Bush’s transition team prepare to take over the agency, with Secretary-designate Rod Paige expected to win easy Senate confirmation as the agency’s new boss.

Few of the political appointees last week had found new jobs, although some said they were in the final stages. One senior official to announce his plans was Scott S. Fleming, the assistant secretary for legislation and governmental affairs, who will stay in Washington to become Georgetown University’s assistant to the president for government relations. Alexander Wohl, the department’s public-affairs director, will become the communications director for the American Federation of Teachers.

“It’s tough to work on [the job search] because of ethics,” said Mr. Peterson, who had not found a new job but had several leads.

Under federal law, political appointees who are applying for or being recruited for a position with an employer that has a financial interest in matters they deal with must stop working on those issues. Mr. Peterson said he didn’t want to give up any of his responsibilities before he left his job.

Mr. Riley’s future plans have been a hot topic in South Carolina, where he served as governor from 1979 to 1987.

On Jan. 9, after a newspaper erroneously reported that Mr. Riley had taken a job teaching and fund raising at his alma mater, Furman University, his office released a statement reiterating that he would not consider a new job until after his tenure at the department had officially ended.

“While I remain committed to education and to continued involvement with students and the improvement of education, I want to make clear that I have deferred consideration of any specific offers for employment,” Mr. Riley said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smolarcik acknowledged he hadn’t been looking forward to a job hunt—and so far hasn’t put a lot of effort into it—in part, he said, because working for Mr. Riley was the best job he’d ever had.

“There’s incredible love for the man—just incredible love—so to end this journey is difficult to accept,” Mr. Smolarcik said. “We really poured ourselves into this job.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Political Appointees Bid Farewell To Education Department

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