Politics

Ruben Barrales: Beyond Cheerleading

Here's a challenge: Name a White House director of intergovernmental affairs who has ever been a major player in federal policy. If you are stumped, you are in good company. Nominally the liaison between the president and state and local governments, he or she has tended to serve as a glorified social secretary--an aide who leads cheers for the president's programs and handles the protocol when the chief executive gets together with the relevant officials outside Washington, D.C.
by | May 2001

Here's a challenge: Name a White House director of intergovernmental affairs who has ever been a major player in federal policy. If you are stumped, you are in good company. Nominally the liaison between the president and state and local governments, he or she has tended to serve as a glorified social secretary--an aide who leads cheers for the president's programs and handles the protocol when the chief executive gets together with the relevant officials outside Washington, D.C.

But Ruben Barrales might possibly break the mold--possibly.

If nothing else, the affable Barrales makes a near perfect poster boy for the president's brand of "compassionate conservatism." The son of Mexican immigrants, he also embodies the president's hopes of luring Latinos to the Republican Party. But like these policies, Barrales, who is just 38, is a work in progress.

He earned his government wings by serving two terms as a county supervisor in California's San Mateo County. A fiscal conservative with a moderate bent on social issues (he supports legalized abortion, for instance), he helped bring diverse jurisdictions together in a successful effort to bring down a soaring murder rate in economically ailing and ethnically diverse East Palo Alto. Later, he helped create one of California's first charter schools in a troubled, predominantly Latino neighborhood. But Barrales' approach was pragmatic: The new school imposed a toughened testing regimen on students, but also included a big infusion of money to pay for a longer school year, smaller class sizes and investments in technology.

"He'll do what works--he is not an ideologue," says Duf Sundheim, the incoming chairman of the Lincoln Club of Northern California, which sees a future for Barrales in Republican Party politics. Barrales ran unsuccessfully for state controller in 1998, and then became president of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a regional organization of business, government and educational leaders.

Having joined the new administration in March, Barrales didn't get a chance to help shape the Bush administration's initial priorities. But he may be in a better position than his predecessors to influence future rounds of policy making. The White House has moved the intergovernmental affairs operation from the political affairs office, where it resided under President Clinton, to its policy headquarters. That means Barrales should be able to work more closely with the Domestic Policy Council and Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Even more important, Card's understands Barrales' job: He himself held the intergovernmental affairs post under President Reagan.

In the near term, Barrales will be working with an interagency task force to develop a new executive order that will define the administration's approach to federalism. He serves on an energy task force headed by Vice President Cheney. And he wants to work on strategies to narrow the "digital divide." He promises that state and local officials will have much to say about the details of education reform, a Patient's Bill of Rights, public pension changes, welfare and the taxation of electronic commerce. But he isn't offering specific ideas on these issues yet.

Instead, Barrales emphasizes a philosophy born of his--and President Bush's--years in non-federal positions and the private sector. The new administration, he says, favors cooperation among different levels of government and flexibility in achieving government objectives. And recalling his own years in Silicon Valley, he adds one other value. "Taking risks," he says, "can be a powerful force in industry and government."

Considering the minimal accomplishments of most previous occupants of his job, Barrales may have to take some risks of his own if he is to make a mark in Washington.

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