Anne Wexler died this morning, following a long battle with cancer.
Her obituary — sure to run tomorrow in the New York Times and Washington Post — will probably quote Washingtonian Magazine, which called the co-founder of Wexler & Walker one of the capital’s “10 most powerful lobbyists (and) easily the most influential female lobbyist in a world still dominated by men.”
It will talk about her tireless work in Democratic politics, including her participation on the McGovern Commission that revolutionized the nominating process — leading directly to the presidencies of unknown governors like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
It will mention that she was Jimmy Carter’s chief deputy in charge of building support for White House programs and policies, and a former Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce.
Her obituary will probably not talk about her Westport years. But they were key ones, crucial in her transformation from housewife into political powerhouse.
In the mid-1960s Wexler was a member of our Zoning Board of Appeals. She worked for President Johnson’s election in 1964 but — disillusioned with his handling of Vietnam — went on to manage the congressional campaign of peace candidate John Fitzgerald.
By 1968 she was vice chairman of Connecticut’s Eugene McCarthy for President Committee. Only 13 states scheduled primaries that year. Wexler and a few others researched election laws, then figured out how to force the 1st primary in Connecticut history. It was too late to include all 169 towns, but they won 25 percent of the delegates to the June convention in Hartford. Wexler was 1 of them.
That summer, she helped research the delegate selection process in the other 49 states. Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa chaired a commission to examine changes in the nominating process. At the convention — the famous Chicago bloodbath — the Hughes report was voted down.
Wexler — a member of 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.
George McGovern was appointed chairman. Wexler was named to the group too. The McGovern commission held hearings around the country. One result was that — with solid knowledge of the new nominating process — McGovern himself was nominated for president in 1972.
Another result was that the Democrats increased the role of caucuses and primaries, and mandated quotes for proportional representation by blacks, women and youth delegates. The role of party officials and insiders was considerably reduced. The rest is history.
Wexler eventually moved from party politics to lobbying. She left Westport behind (along with her husband — after their divorce, she married senatorial candidate and former priest Joe Duffey).
But Westport helped make Anne Wexler who she was. As local as it sounds, Westport’s Zoning Board of Appeals launched the political career of one of the most powerful women in Washington.