White House Wanderings

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The White House is taking yet another crowd-pleasing spin or two around the crime and drug prevention track. In the Clinton administration's early years, adult and juvenile crime fighting was assigned to the President's Crime Prevention Council, chaired - on the rarest of occasions - by Vice President Al Gore. Once ballyhooed as a billion-dollar "Ounce of Prevention" effort incorporated into the hotly contested 1994 crime bill, the shop was unceremoniously chopped by a frightened White House when the GOP took control of Congress in 1995. Not that Gore or the vice president's senior staff was about to do much anyway - other than let the tiny council staff led by Karen Pittman do more than be a sort of paper-thin Potemkin Village showcasing federal crime-fighting programs.

But at least the Clinton half of the Clinton-Gore administration has come to life on gun and youth violence issues. In October 1999, President Bill Clinton issued an unheralded executive order setting up a White House Council on Youth Violence within the Domestic Policy Council, headed since 1993 by Bruce Reed. Now mostly through the loan of career civil servants from other federal agencies, a staff has been assembled. Tapped by Reed to lead the effort is Sonia Chessen. She was reassigned from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where she worked as a senior policy analyst in the Children and Youth Policy Division. There she handled youth development and related issues, ranging from teen pregnancy to runaway youth, building on her experience as a youth worker in Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green public housing. Chessen's deputy is Caroline Chambers, a former aide to then-Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and later a senior policy advisor to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). For the past year-and-a-half she had been staff director at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, chaired by Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the policy and research arm of the party's Senate leadership.

On loan from the Department of Justice's Office of Policy Development is Marie Burke, a former staffer for Harvard School of Public Health youth violence prevention guru Deborah Prothrow-Stith, whose speaking fees per semester to pontificate on youth violence while pushing her books (including "Deadly Consequences") dwarfs Burke's new office budget of about $300,000 per year. Standing guard at the operation housed across the street from the White House is Nick Lewin, a COPS (as in put 100,000 cops on the street) official at the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs. There Lewin helped create the COPS in Schools Development Initiative, which put some of those 100,000 community policing cops into public schools. Lewin comes in as assistant director with a strong background in youth work, including a stint as the programming director for Seeds for Peace International Camp in Maine, attended by 200 Palestinian and Israeli teens. Chessen says her office is "solidly, completely focused on youth violence" by way of rejecting any comparison to the now buried-in-a-pauper's-grave President's Crime Prevention Council.

Reed also oversees the not unrelated and now at-full-throttle anti-gun campaign being waged daily by a president with less than 260 days left to make his mark on history.

Gore's non-record on youth violence prevention leaves little room for post-Clinton era optimism about the prospects for a new White House Council on Youth Violence. Of course, should Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R-Tex.) (he who signed into law the right of Texans to bring a concealed weapon to church) become the master of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, look for its re-christening as the White House Council on Compassionate Youth Prison Construction. Contact: (202) 456-0716.

In his Saturday radio address of April 15th, the president again discussed youth violence and school safety, and put in a plug for the nonprofit National Campaign Against Youth Violence. It was launched in the Rose Garden a year ago and is now run by attorney Jeff Bleich. Two days after the radio address, the campaign unveiled a 34-member board of directors fully salted with top national media executives such as Steve Case, chairman and CEO of America Online; Robert A. Inger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company; Robert Wright, president and CEO of NBC; and Anne Zehren, publisher of Teen People. Joining the captains of the communication industry are past and present members of the political class, including Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) and Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.) co-chairs of the House Working Group on Youth Violence; Benjamin Civiletti, former Carter-era Attorney General; former Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kans.), and Mayors Wellington E. Webb (D-Denver) and Brent Coles (R-Boise).

One occupational switch-hitter that made the roster is Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development during Clinton's first term. He is now president and CEO of Univision Communications Inc. in Los Angeles. Also on board is another Clinton pal, Eli Segal, the former CEO of the Corporation for National Service and current CEO of the D.C.-based Welfare to Work Partnership. Also appointed were former National Urban League president and Clinton confidante Vernon Jordan, and Harvard's Dr. Prothrow-Stith. One appointment that will give anti-alcohol crusaders a frog in their parched throats is Francine Katz, vice president for consumer affairs of St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch.

While the campaign is shaping up to be primarily an air war against youth violence, it will also seek to mobilize a 15 "City-by-City" effort kicked off in mid-April in Memphis. Using four criteria - "need, infrastructure, corporate interest and diversity" - Memphis and the following were selected: Baltimore; Camden, N.J.; Chicago; Denver; Flint, Mich.; Hartford; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; Portland; Richmond, Calif.; Pine Ridge, S.D.; Spartanburg, S.C., and St. Louis. Contact: (202) 329-6070 or (415) 512-4008 or www.nonviolence.net.