Montoya’s Moment

After years of federal neglect, cities and states will get a new deal from the new administration. As Bill Clinton s assistant for intergovernmental affairs, Regina Montoya is in the right place-the White House-at the right time.

AS A GRAY WASHINGTON DAY GIVES WAY to a drizzly night. Regina Montoya makes her way through the ever-present knot of tourists snapping pictures in front of her office building. The weather is rotten this Sunday in late March, but sightseers are a constant fact of the landscape when you work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and your boss happens to be the president of the United States.

Earlier, Montoya told her visitor to dress casually-“after all, this is the Clinton White House”-and she has followed suit: bulky sweater, stirrup pants, tennis shoes. She leads the way through security toward her office in the West Wing, past furnishings and works of art favored by presidents from George Washington to George Bush. Any number of the storied personages peering from their oil paintings-frail, ascetic Woodrow Wilson; beefy, obdurate William Howard Taft-might blink in amazement to see a 39-year-old Hispanic woman striding toward an office, her office, just a short walk from the Oval Office.

The White House, surprisingly small and intimate, is quiet tonight. Its most famous occupants are still keeping a vigil in Little Rock with Hillary Clinton’s father, who suffered a stroke the week before. The silent halls wind toward the Oval Office, where a military guard points out John Kennedy’s old desk and a bust of Ben Franklin. Outside in the Rose Garden, Montoya stands near the tall doors where Kennedy and his brother Robert were photographed, deep in thought, during the Cuban missile crisis.

It’s heady stuff, and Regina Montoya, assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and the highest-ranking Hispanic in the White House, knows she’s walking in history’s footprints. But for the past two months, since she bolted from her Dallas law firm, said goodbye to her husband and daughter and hit the ground running even before Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Montoya hasn’t had much time to ponder the sweep of history or pay midnight visits to the Lincoln Memorial like some soul-searching character out of Advise and Consent.

She has been too busy finding a place to live, getting her things out of boxes and working 14-hour days as the linchpin of a new partnership Bill Clinton hopes to form between the White House and state and local elected officials. When mayors like Steve Bartlett, county commissioners like John Wiley Price and governors like Ann Richards need a friend in the White House, it will be up to Montoya to steer them in the right direction.

“We can really be an activist office, not just in the sense of bringing people in to visit the president, but in acting upon their comments,” she says. “What’s important is to ensure that we’re as responsive as possible. We want to open up the lines of communication and let them know that what they give to us goes somewhere.”

It’s way past time for that responsiveness, many observers believe. Asked to sum up the relationship between Washington and urban America these past dozen years, frustrated Democrats would offer this headline: “Reagan-Bush to Cities: Drop Dead-and Take Your Infrastructure With You.” Dallas mayor Steve Bartlett, who spent most of the ’80s as a Republican congressman from North Dallas, doesn’t believe there was any deliberate neglect of cities and states during the 12 years of GOP rule. But he acknowledges that priorities are shifting in the Clinton administration.

“Every president has his style,” says Bartlett. “Reagan and Bush placed the national security advisor as first among equals, They had an intergovernmental liaison like Regjna, but they didn’t place quite as much importance on that particular office.”

Bartlett, who visited Montoya during a mayors’ briefing at the White House last month, says that she “has substantially upgraded the government relations department” and enjoys “a much higher level of support from the White House” than was the case under Republican regimes. “I suspect that’s both the president’s and Regi-na’s wish,” Bartlett says.

Not surprisingly. Democrats greet Mon-toya’s ascension with more enthusiasm. Texas Assistant Attorney General Gregg Cooke, who oversees the state’s environmental protection efforts, spent many years as a Dallas Democratic activist and worked on numéro is political campaigns with Montoya. He’s elated about her appointment. “You can’t imagine how much help someone H ce her can be when it gets to issues concerning our state, where we need a voice and help,” says Cooke. “You can see the type of access she has to the president and to a staff members in the White House. I c;in’t imagine a staff member more vital.”

Democrj tic state Rep. David Cain of Dallas believes that having Montoya in the White House definitely means a friendlier reception far cities like Dallas.

“When you combine her obvious talents with those of her boss, who understands very well trie need to communicate with units of local government, you can’t overestimate the importance of having her there,” Cain says. A 16-year veteran of the state House who has been an officer of the Southern Legislative Conference, Cain says he doesn’t even remember the name of Montoya’s Republican predecessor. “That tells us something right there, doesn’t it?”

Nothing so pungent comes from Montoya, who has donned the cloak of caution since leaving her life as a high-profile Dallas Democrat last January. With her husband Paul Coggins, an attorney and writer who has Contributed to this magazine, Montoya, also an attorney, raised bales of money for the campaigns of Clinton, Texas attorney general Dan Morales and others. She was a panelist with a definite Democratic slant on “Between the Lines,” KERA-TV’s public affairs show, and served as president of the Dallas Democratic Forum last year.

Now, however, Montoya seems to have checked lier partisan blade at the door.

“Your role changes in the White House,” she says over dinner in a Georgetown restaurant-(separate checks, please: ethics rules). She’s added “no comment” to her vocabulary. Offered several chances, she refuses to whack Republicans and shuns any criticism of her predecessors. “I don’t know enough about what the office was like before, so I can only talk about the structure from here on in,” she says. The Washington Post, in a story highlighting Montoya, recently called the office under Bush and Reagan “a sleepy corner of the executive mansion,” but Montoya refuses to pile on. “The approach is different for our office, but I don’t know what prompted people to do things the way they did,” she says.

What she does want to talk about is her boss, Bill Clinton. Given Clinton’s campaign promise of a “laserlike focus” on that part of the world that lies between Canada and Mexico, Montoya is part of an army of home-front specialists looking for their moment in the sun. At last, one of their own is giving the marching orders.

“He was an attorney general and a governor,” Montoya says of Clinton. “This is me office he would have worked with very closely. He’s always ready to learn from others, and he’s so secure in himself that he has no problem giving credit to others for what they’ve done. Some other politicians feel threatened by that.”

As for the inevitable questions-did she know she was in when Clinton won? Did she get to pick her own job? Just how did she land this plum, out of thousands of well-qualified loyalists?-Montoya is carefully bland. “That’s just a process that presidential personnel go through,” she says. “You have to go back to the president’s desire to structure a public-private partnership and have the offices resemble America.”

Montoya brushes aside talk about her relationship with Hillary Clinton. Both attended Wellesley College-several years apart-and have served together on its board. It’s well known that Hillary Clinton’s network of friends stretches as far as her husband’s, but Montoya wants no misunderstanding as to the reporting relationship in the White House. Twice, she stresses that she works for the president, not the first lady.

Still, one influential Dallas Democrat, who did not want to be identified, insists that Montoya owes her job to “the Hillary connection.” It was the first lady, he says, who put Montoya’s name on the “A” List.

“Regina wasn’t even on the radar screen, according to people from Washington, until the meeting between Clinton and [Mexican president Carlos] Salinas in Austin,” he says. “She got in the limo with Mack McLarty (now White House chief of staff] and stayed with him throughout the entire visit.”

The Salinas visit took place in early Jan-jary. Soon thereafter, says this Democrat, a ridding war developed between McLarty md Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who wanted Montoya for his staff, “It became a dud of rivalry between the White House and Commerce. Mack called her at home one night and said, ’How about this job?’ Then he called back a little later and told her to be in Little Rock in 12 hours.”

Montoya says she doesn’t really deserve to be called a FOB-Friend of Bill- despite Dallas gossip that often portrayed her and husband Paul as members of the Clinton inner circle. Coggins, 41, was a Rhodes Scholar several years after Bill Clinton. He attended Yale and there met the future president who was studying at Yale Law School. Coggins has been a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderates who, sick of defeat, spent the ’80s pushing their party toward a more centrist position. The DLC, of course, was Bill Clinton’s launching pad in national politics.

Still, while their names have been ensconced for years on the Clintons’ Rolodex (said to be the size of a Conestoga wagon wheel), Montoya plays down the personal connection. Compared to a FOB like Mack McLarty, who has known Bill Clinton since they wore Davy Crockett coonskin caps in grade school, Montoya and Coggins are more accurately FOFOBAHs-Friends of Friends of Bill and Hillary-who came to know the Clintons as sources of inspiration from a neighboring state.

“Paul and I worked very hard in the campaign and that’s how we got to know so much about the Clintons and what they were going to be doing,” Montoya says. “We’ve certainly followed their careers because they’ve had such a great impact. I’ve done a lot in the children’s area, and Hillary Clinton is so far ahead of the vanguard of children’s issues. And they knew so many people from Texas. You would always hear about them as people who were making a difference.”

Montoya also intends to make a difference. She vows that her seven-person office will not become a “pro forma, meet-and-greet place.” She attends cabinet meetings, sees Chief of Staff McLarty “every day” and is confident she will be able to get her ideas across to the president.

“You just have to know what a privilege it is to be there and why it’s so important to do the best job you can for the country and a president who’s given so much of his life to be where he is. You’ve got to do die best job because you know who it affects.”

SINCE HIS INAUGURATION ON JANUARY 20, Bill Clinton has been getting in touch at a frantic pace with America’s elected officials, thanks in no small part to Regina Montoya. Her office has arranged meetings with the nation’s governors, big-city mayors, lieutenant governors, state treasurers, the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities.

This week brings a Tuesday meeting with the nation’s attorneys general, who will hear from die president and new attorney general Janet Reno. Montoya needs to prep for the meeting, but first she attends the daily 7:45 a.m. staff meeting, followed by a meeting with representatives of the Irving-based Energy Council, followed by a meeting with some Los Angeles City Council members who need help with airport matters. Then, after lunch with Texas attorney general Dan Morales, there’s a session with staffers from U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor’s office.

It’s all a long, long way from Tucumcari, New Mexico, where Montoya was born into a middle-class home in 1953. But it’s not the only big jump she’s made. She attended high school in Albuquerque, plunging into a rich ethnic mix of Native Americans, Hispanics, blacks and Anglos at a time when most Americans attended segregated schools. There were also kids from the local Air Force base who had lived all over the world. “I learned from their experiences and broadened my horizons,” Montoya says of her schoolmates.

That diverse milieu may have prepared Montoya to seek newer worlds. In the eighth grade she read a book on Helen Keller, who overcame blindness and deafness to become one of the century’s greatest women. Keller attended Radcliffe College, and reading about the school captured young Montoya’s imagination.

“I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to go to school in Boston” she laughs. “I have no idea why, because I had never been farther east than Oklahoma, but it sounded like a big adventure.”

By high school Montoya was determined to attend one of the elite Seven Sisters, a dream that worried her parents. “They thought it was the craziest idea I’d ever had,” Montoya recalls. “It was going to be expensive, and they just weren’t sure it would be a good place for a Mexican-American girl. They had suffered a fair amount of discrimination, and I think that was something Dad always wanted to protect me from.”

The family moved to Dallas in 1971, the year Regina graduated from high school. Accepted at Wellesley and St. Mary’s, she chose Wellesley, which at the time was trying to shake its ancient reputation as a lilywhite bastion of old-monied Easterners. “It was a perfect fit for me,” she says. “Welles-ley was very cognizant of diversity at a time when diversity was not a buzzword. I went sight unseen, on scholarship. It was a big culture shock. But it was a place where I really grew. It helped to change me for the better.”

Other changes came later, after Montoya found herself living in the same Harvard Law School dormitory as an older student named Paul Coggins. “I needed someone to help me carry a beer barrel, and this friend suggested that I ask the biggest guy in the dorm [Coggins stands 6-4]. Later I heard he was a Rhodes Scholar from New Mexico. We started going out, and I didn’t go with anyone else after that. It was all Paul.”

The couple married in 1976. Coggins had been invited back to England for a third Rhodes year, so the newlyweds decamped for Oxford. They traveled through Europe and, like Bill Clinton a few years earlier, spent a week in the Soviet Union. Then it was back to Harvard, where Montoya finished her law degree. She and Coggins moved back to Dallas in the late ’70s. Their daughter, Jessica, was born in 1986.

Montoya says she was late in coming to political consciousness and was steered toward involvement by Coggins, whose parents raised him a Republican. Her own choice of political parties, she says, was motivated by some powerful influences- her parents and the late judge Sarah T. Hughes.

Fred Montoya, Regina’s father, had been denied housing because of his race after serving in World War II. He went on to a successful career as an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Her mother, Rosa, made the National Honor Society in high school but, Montoya says, “Hispanic girls just didn’t go to college then. There was no expectation.” Years later, when Regina was a teen-ager. Rosa went back to school. She now holds a master’s degree and teaches English as a Second Language at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas.

Her parents’ lives, Montoya says, shaped her political philosophy. “My father got where he was because of the G.I. Bill. My mother got where she was because, finally, there was an opportunity for Hispanic women to succeed. I think it was the whole idea of equality for people, and self-determination no matter who your parents were or what they did. Whether you were wealthy working class or poor working class, there was a sense of purpose. The party made more opportunities available.”

Montoya met her first political hero when she clerked for federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes in 1979-80. Hughes, a Kennedy appointee who had been a fixture in Texas politics for half a century, felt a duty to serve as a mentor to talented young women. Studying Hughes’ career, Montoya realized the vital importance of fund raising to political success,

“Judge Hughes ran for Texas Supreme Court and would have won if she had carried Highland Park, which was her home town. It was just so hard for women to raise money. What has really changed is the recognition by women that they need to contribute to political candidates. Now you have EMILY’s List and the Women’s Campaign Fund. But when Judge Hughes was trying to do it, it was licking those stamps, doing everything with total volunteer support, because you just couldn’t raise the money.”

Sarah Hughes suffered a stroke in 1982 and died in 1985, but Montoya feels her influence every day. “The first day I walked into the White House, I put up three pictures: Paul, Jessica and Judge Hughes. I thought how proud she would be right now. She was such an inspiration to me.”

ROSS PEROT MIGHT WANT TO DO SOME checking, but Regina Montoya doesn’t fit the populist stereotype of a pampered bureaucrat living high at taxpayers’ expense. Her office is small, crowded and strictly functional. No eager lackeys and limo drivers wait for her command. Those now-infamous free haircuts and health club memberships are doled out at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Congress dwells.

Montoya draws a salary of $ 125,000. The vast majority of Americans would swap their paystubs in a second for hers, but she’s got to pay the District of Columbia’s 9.5 percent personal income tax and cope with D.C.’s high cost of living. Arriving in a rush, she quickly settled into a small apartment not far from the White House. For a bedroom, bath, breakfast nook and not much else, she pays $ 1,650 per month. If the brings a car to Washington, parking will cost another $150 a month. Food bills have been reasonable, since she often eats in the White House mess and frequently works through the dinner hour. “This is a great job to lose weight on, because sometimes you just don’t eat,” she says.

And there are other sacrifices. Montoya had a lucrative practice representing corporate clients as a partner at Godwin & Carlton, (Asked if she’s taking a 25 to 50 percent pay cut, she smiles, but will say only that the difference is “enough so that I notice it. It’s a financial sacrifice.”)

Far worse for Montoya is the disruption in her home life and the separation from her family. She talks to Coggins daily, but as of late March had been back to Dallas just once since taking the job. Jessica is coming to the White House Easter egg hunt, and Montoya hopes to bring her up for a month in the summer.

“She wants! to move the White House to Dallas,” Montoya says. The situation is made somewhat better by the fact that Fred Montoya has helped with Jessica’s care since she was a few months old. “We’re as fortunate as you can be in terms of a network of support,” Regina says. “He comes to the house every day, drives car pool for her and everything. They’re very close, and that really helps.” That may be the family’s status quo for some time to come, since Coggins is rumored to be the next U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. If he gets the post, Montoya says, he and Jessica will stay in Dallas.

And Montoya will stay in Washington, where her success depends on a number of factors-some of them beyond her control. The laser beam Bill Clinton promised for domestic affairs already has been redirected to the Middle East, Bosnia and the former Soviet Union. The battles to integrate gays into the military, remove government barriers to abortion and revolutionize the health care system are bound to dominate the president’s time and could drain his political capital.

Beyond those quandaries waits the black hole of the deficit, the enemy of all who would use federal money to improve the lot of states and cities. Clinton’s $16.3 billion stimulus package, Montoya notes, was enthusiastically endorsed by most mayors and governors. Some liberal Democrats, however, dismissed the package as a mere booster shoo for a comatose patient, while GOP senators chopped away to reduce what they called a pork-barrel payoff.

“You’ve got to start somewhere, and this will make an enormous difference to communities,” Montoya says.

“We’re starving for federal aid,” says Dallas City Council member Charlotte Mayes, who represents parts of East and South Dallas. “Every city will tell you they’re in dire need of funding, and I think it’s finally going to come our way.” Mayes lists housing funds for the city’s southern sector and the renovation of Fair Park and the Cotton Bowl as high priorities. “It’s an added plus to have someone in there who knows what is needed in our city,” Mayes says of Montoya.

Mayor Steve Bartlett, on the other hand, warns against looking to Washington for salvation. “I’m a fan of Regina, and I’m glad she’s there,” he says. “She will make sure that Dallas is listened to. But I’ve never thought we would find the promised land as a result of the spending package. And neither the president nor the congress is going to turn to Regina and say, ’OK, Regina, how about it? Eight billion for the Super Collider, or no?’ “

Beyond a requested $11 million in Community Development Block Grants, Bartlett isn’t looking for much help from the feds. He notes that Dallas has a SI billion annual budget, of which he estimates less than $30 million comes from federal funds. Adding even a generous increase from Washington-say, 10 percent-means only an extra $3 million for the city.

“It’s better to get that $3 million than to get a kick in the pants with a wet boot,” Bartlett says. “But it’s not going to balance your budget.”

Montoya, who describes herself as “moderate, conservative on the fiscal issues,” nonetheless believes that the country is “living on borrowed time” and must invest in the future. However, she doesn’t believe that her success is necessarily tied to the amount of money mat gets siphoned to the states. Just as important as the flow of dollars, she says, is the flow of information and ideas. She recently met David Osborne, author of the Clintonite bible Reinventing Government, and she’s excited about creating a clearing house that would help state and local officials share innovative ideas. She hopes to do more with more, but working smarter, doing more with less. may be the order of the day.

LThey [elected officials] should be able to call our office and say, ’We’ve got this or that problem,’ and then it depends on our being able to interact with the agencies to solve their problems.”

Sol Villasana, a former president of the Dallas Democratic Forum who now is special assistant to the executive director of die Texas Department of Commerce, believes that Montoya will be a valuable player for Texas despite the nation’s financial straits. He cites the North American Free Trade Agreement as an example.

“She will be important as we start enhancing our trade relationship with Mexico and the NAFTA ratification issue heats up,” Villasana says. “She’s our avenue into the White House and President Clinton when it comes to those issues. She understands what’s happening along the border.”

Villasana adds that Montoya’s background in Dallas politics will serve her well in her new role. “She’s always been a good mediator, especially in Hispanic politics. She’s been careful not to get pigeonholed into a certain camp or allied with a certain branch of politics. She could talk with the majority Anglo community, too. She’s a good bridge, but she’s never lost track of where she came from.”

A FEW DAYS LATER MONTOYA MAKES A weekend trip to Dallas, not a moment too soon. “I was hitting the maximum limit of time 1 could be away from my family,” she says. “I had been away from Jessica for six weeks.”

Just before coming home, Montoya flew to Florida to address the national convention of Operation SER: Jobs for Progress, Inc., and receive an award from the organization, which funds a number of programs to help non-English speaking people train for jobs.

Montoya explained the purpose of her office and its relation to other government agencies. She talked about the responsibilities of being the highest-ranking Hispanic in the White House. And, touting Bill Clinton’s economic stimulus package, she told the audience, which included about 300 young people, about the partnership she believes government must form with people.

“I told them it’s not just roads they were going to see from [Transportation secretary] Federico Pena. It’s not just housing they’re going to see from [Housing and Urban Development secretary] Henry Cis-neros. It’s people. The immunization programs and Head Start are going to be key for our people.”

Montoya strongly supports Clinton’s plan to have the federal government launch a massive program of subsidized immunizations. Her reasons are as much personal as political.

“I got the measles when I was 6 and almost died,” Montoya told her listeners. “I was in the hospital for two weeks and got encephalitis after that.” The raging fever damaged her vision, forcing her to wear glasses. A spinal tap followed when she was 7.

’The dollar we spend now is seven dollars saved later,” she said. “I’m an example of that.”


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