Woog’s World: Remembering a Westporter’s political legacy

Before November, few Americans knew much about the Electoral College. Now we all know more than we ever imagined — though we still don’t really understand it.

Similarly, we know very little about the presidential nominating process — the path that moves a reality TV host like Donald Trump from an escalator to the White House, catapults a floundering candidate like Joe Biden to an insurmountable lead in just a few days, and enables an obscure governor like Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis to become the standard-bearer for their party.

We don’t know much about the process. But Anne Wexler did.

American politics has never been the same since.

In the 1960s Wexler was the daughter of a prominent New York architect, wife of a Westport optometrist, and mother of two sons. She first dipped her toes in the political waters when she ran for, and won, a seat on the Zoning Board of Appeals. (Her interest in politics dated back to her Skidmore years, when she campaigned for Harry Truman. She also supported John F. Kennedy in 1960.)

Wexler worked for President Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964. Like many however, she was disillusioned by his handling of the Vietnam War. Her next political campaign was for a congressional peace candidate, John Fitzgerald. He did not win.

By 1968, Wexler was vice chair of Connecticut’s Eugene McCarthy for President Committee. (That’s one reason he held a raucous rally at Staples High School.)

Only 13 states scheduled primaries that year. Wexler and a few others researched election laws, then figured out how to force the first primary in Connecticut history. It was too late to include all 169 towns. Still, her group won 25 percent of the delegates to the June convention in Hartford. Wexler was one of those delegates.

That summer, she helped research the delegate selection process in the other 49 states. U.S. Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa chaired a commission to examine changes in the nominating process. At the convention - the famous Chicago bloodbath, during which Connecticut Sen. Abe Ribicoff taunted Mayor Richard Daley, who responded with an anti-Semitic epithet - the Hughes report was voted down.

Wexler, who had zoomed up to a position on the national Rules Committee, reintroduced it as a minority report. Late at night, in the midst of chaos, it passed. The report called for a national commission to recommend ways of providing greater public participation in the selection of candidates.

Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was appointed chair. Wexler was named to the group too. The McGovern Commission held hearings around the country. With solid knowledge of the new nominating process, McGovern himself was nominated for president in 1972.

That was a defining moment in American political history. Before ’72, party leaders - “bosses” - controlled the nominating process. They chose the candidates. In 1968 for example, though 80 percent of primary voters chose anti-war candidates like McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, the nomination went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He had not run in any primaries.

Because every presidential nomination of both major parties since 1976 has been sewn up before the convention - during the primary and caucus season - little attention has been paid to the backstage maneuverings of the conventions themselves. But like the Electoral College - the bookend to the nominating process - it is far more complicated (and malleable) than most of us realize.

Wexler, died in 2009, is an underappreciated footnote in American political history. She went on to become Undersecretary of Commerce in the Carter administration. In 1978, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan called her “the most competent woman in Democratic politics in this country.”

Wexler also pioneered a new form of political lobbying. Through the 1970s the business was divided between Democratic and Republican firms. Casting aside her previous partisan bent, in the 1980s she teamed up with Nancy Clark Reynolds - a close friend of Nancy Reagan - to create a bipartisan “super-lobbying” (and women-led) firm.

The company was sold to Hill & Knowlton in 1990. Wexler continued to run it. She even hired a new partner: former Republican congressman (and Newt Gingrich admirer) Bob Walker.

It’s clear that the Anne Wexler of later years was not the firebrand liberal of yore. Yet her legacy lives on, far beyond today’s primaries.

She had a keen eye for spotting other talented politicians. In 1970 - while managing the Connecticut senatorial campaign of Joe Duffey, who four years later became her second husband - Wexler recruited Yale Law School students Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham to help.

During her 2008 presidential run, Clinton credited Wexler with providing her first political job. If that had never happened - or if Wexler had not gotten involved in politics in the first place - American history might be very, very different today.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.