While the tanks, artillery and soldiers prepared to invade Ukraine this year, Wendy Sherman sat opposite the Russians in Geneva and tried to stave off war.

It was a long shot, though few people in the world had a better chance.

As deputy secretary of state, Sherman, 73, leads U.S. arms negotiations with Russia. She once stayed up until 2 a.m. debating Russia’s deputy foreign minister on Syria. While negotiating the landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, she placed calls on a dedicated phone line to his desk.

She’s come a long way from her start as a Baltimore social worker.

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Sherman has built a reputation as a formidable negotiator in the boys’ club of international diplomacy. “An iron fist in a velvet glove,” foreign adversaries called her. When an Iranian cartoonist drew her as a crafty fox, the depiction stuck as a badge of honor.

She told the U.N. Security Council in March that she sat with the Russians and presented diplomatic alternatives to an invasion of Ukraine, but President Vladimir Putin chose war. A war that has continued for four months, bringing reports of women raped, children killed, civilians tortured.

In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, Sherman said the world won’t be the same.

“I cannot imagine that anytime soon, maybe even in what’s left of my own life, we will see a relationship again with Russia where we will work together to achieve peace and security in the world.”

How did a social worker from Baltimore become the “Silver Fox”?

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A father committed to furthering civil rights

Sherman’s unlikely origin story begins in the 1960s, with a teenage Wendy and her father crowded into a meeting room at Coppin State College to hear the blacklisted actress and civil rights activist Lena Horne.

Sherman’s father embraced the civil rights movement. Malcolm “Mal” Sherman ran a successful real estate office in Northwest Baltimore, until he resolved to sell homes in white neighborhoods to all families, regardless of race or religion.

“Any broker who sold a house in a white part of town to a minority courted animosity,” Sherman writes in her 2018 memoir, “Not For The Faint Of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power & Persistence.” “Within six months, he had lost more than 60% of his listings.”

In December 1965, the Baltimore Orioles traded for All-Star Frank Robinson, who was Black. He wanted to live in a safe, integrated neighborhood with good schools, Sherman writes, but her father could only find Robinson a home in the African American neighborhood of Ashburton.

Next spring, Robinson was dissatisfied; the Orioles stepped in.

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“Orioles manager Frank Cashen called my dad from spring training, yelling that if dad didn’t find a house Robinson wanted, Robinson wouldn’t join the team,” Sherman wrote on Twitter upon Robinson’s death. “Dad found a house in what then became an integrated neighborhood by promising signed bats and balls, meeting one by one with each family.”

Mal Sherman was forced to close his office in the late 1960s. The family moved into a smaller home, and he found work for Columbia developer James Rouse. Her father had no regrets, Sherman writes in her memoir.

Wendy Sherman graduated from Pikesville High School in 1967. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore. Today, she’s married with one daughter and two grandsons.

Sherman often returns to the lessons learned as a young social worker from the Baltimore suburbs. Her training came less in clinical work than in community organizing and advocacy. She learned to understand the person on the other side of the table.

Sherman tells The Banner her training proved well-suited to international diplomacy, no matter the perceptions.

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Wendy Sherman meets with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss nuclear arms control measures in January 2022. (Photo by Eric Bridiers, U.S. State Department)

“I’d never been seen by those who have spent their whole lives studying national security and foreign policy as having complete legitimacy,” she says. “I don’t put myself out as a schooled academic; I’m not. I’m someone who knows how to get something done. …

“When you’re trained as a community organizer, you are looking for how to bring people together to achieve an objective.”

Whether social services or foreign powers, it’s all organizing to Sherman. As she puts it: The only thing that’s changed is the caseloads.

Stepping into state government and Congress

In 1979, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes appointed the lawyer Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman secretary of human resources, only the second person to hold the job who wasn’t a trained social worker. Hettleman sought reformers willing to shake up the office.

“I met Wendy, interviewed her, and was wowed for all the obvious reasons — how smart she is and able,” he says. “She was quite young and totally inexperienced, but I thought it was worth the risk.”

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He hired Sherman in 1980 to direct the Maryland Office of Child Welfare, overseeing services and policies around child abuse and neglect, foster care and adoptions. She was 30 years old.

“Quite frankly, it was insane to give me that job,” she said in a 2019 interview at Harvard University. “I could not have survived in that job without a team of really terrific experts.”

With few women in leadership positions of state government, Sherman and the others would meet Thursday evenings over a drink at the Inner Harbor to share encouragement. She formed another support group once on Capitol Hill, as chief of staff to Rep. Barbara Mikulski, convening women staffers for Chinese carryout at each other’s homes. Their rule: No one cooks.

Sherman was “crackerjack smart,” clearly an up-and-comer, Mikulski remembers. Both women had trained as social workers, saw their jobs as organizing over politics and felt committed to advance women in the workplace.

President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman participate in the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Freddie Everett/U.S. State Department)

Barbara Mikulski and political organizing

When Mikulski ran for the U.S. Senate in 1986, she asked Sherman to manage her campaign. A new mom, Sherman set the terms: no calls during the time she put her daughter to bed.

“I was one of the first people to enter into a treaty negotiation with Wendy Sherman,” Mikulski recalls, laughing.

The campaign sought to make Barbara “BAM” Mikulski the first Democratic woman elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate. Staffers declared themselves the “BAMers.” Among them, Maggie McIntosh would represent Baltimore City for 30 years in the Maryland House of Delegates.

“Wendy walks in the room and you notice her. She’s tall. She’s an impeccable dresser. She has an intense look,” McIntosh says. “She’s also incredibly strategic. She sees the path from A to Z quicker than anyone else in the room. That’s her brilliance.”

Brash and 4-foot-11, Mikulski was a target in the race. Sherman, mature beyond her years, proved a steady hand and mediator under stress, recalls Baltimore lawyer Rick Berndt, also on the campaign.

“Barbara could be volatile,” he says. “There would be stormy days. And in the beginning, anybody who found this difficult went to Wendy. And Wendy went to Barbara.”

Sherman recognizes her aptitude in building institutions — not necessarily sustaining them. With the election victory in hand, at 61% of the vote no less, she moved on.

She returned to state government in Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s Cabinet as special secretary for children and youth. But the work reopened wounds from her younger brother’s suicide seven years earlier, she writes. Depression runs in her family.

She also felt removed from the biggest issues of the day.

“The smaller pond of state government felt too restricting. The pace was slower, the stakes different.”

She resigned during an emotional meeting with Schaefer — “that conversation was one of the most difficult in my professional career” — to end her tenure in state government.

Sherman emerged as a top political strategist over the next six years, directing Campaign ‘88 for the Democratic National Committee, then helping EMILY’S List, a political action committee for women in politics, to declare 1992 the “Year of the Woman,” with the election of four women senators and 20 congresswomen.

Into the State Department and the Iran negotiations

In January 1994, after President Bill Clinton took office, Sherman’s phone rang with an old friend of the Democratic campaigns. Soon, she was driving into D.C. to meet Warren Christopher, nominee for secretary of state. He offered her a job as assistant secretary for legislative affairs, the go-between for the State Department and Congress.

In her memoir, she writes of her surprise.

“If you want someone who knows everything there is to know about foreign policy, then I am not the right person,” she told him. “If you are looking for someone who knows how Washington works, who’s been on the Hill, then maybe I’m the right person.”

Now, she worked to bring together members of Congress and their staffs behind White House foreign policy. She rose through the State Department to the rank of ambassador and served as counselor to the late Madeleine Albright, the first woman U.S. secretary of state.

The two became dear friends. In later years, between posts in the State Department, Sherman would work for the global consulting firm Albright co-founded.

Wendy Sherman at the table with U.S. and Iranian officials during the nuclear talks in Vienna in June 2015. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

In July 2011, President Barack Obama nominated Sherman as under secretary for political affairs. As the department’s No. 3 official, she managed bureaus for Africa, Asia, Europe and the Pacific. When a nine-story factory collapsed and killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh, she flew over to demand safer conditions for garment workers. She became the lead U.S. arms negotiator with Iran.

While rushing through the Capitol in late 2013 to brief Congress on the negotiations, her finger caught in a banister and she fell. The tendon ripped. Her pinkie bent at a grisly angle.

The pain, she writes, was spectacular.

She kept her composure through the briefing only to burst into tears when Rep. Edward Royce, R-California, walked up to shake her hand. He hurried her to a doctor.

“Her determination very much impressed me,” Royce told The Banner. “Wendy and I differed on the Iran nuclear deal, which I opposed, but I credit her with being accessible and thorough in making the administration’s case.”

Sherman pushed off surgery amid the negotiations. Her finger remains crooked.

When she recalls pulling off the Iran nuclear deal, Sherman tells of a month holed up with her team in a Vienna hotel, of grueling around-the-clock negotiations and, inevitably, of the Iranians chanting in the streets “Death to Wendy Sherman!”

Sherman’s known for her exhaustive prep work, but she’s also improvisational with the tools at hand. She tells of her growing frustration with the Iranians until one day, with the deadline looming, she broke down crying before them.

“They were completely rattled,” she tells audiences, usually bringing laughter. “It had a really good effect, and we got it done.”

The 159-page agreement required Iran to curtail its nuclear program and permit inspectors. In exchange, the U.S., Russia and other world powers would lift sanctions and release $100 billion of Iranian assets frozen overseas. With the agreement signed, Sherman accepted a fellowship at Harvard. Obama invited her to lunch at the White House before she left and awarded her the National Security Medal.

Three years later, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement, saying the deal enriched the Iranian regime while at best delaying its ability to pursue nuclear weapons. Sherman has criticized Trump’s foreign policy as “a series of marginally coherent tweets with no discernible objective or strategy.”

Her remarks drew the ire of some Republicans. When President Joe Biden nominated her for deputy secretary of state, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, urged Republicans to vote against her. He blamed her for shortcomings of the Iran deal and objected to her work to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. In April of last year, the U.S. Senate voted 56 to 42 to confirm Sherman.

She’s the country’s No. 2 diplomat.

Wendy Sherman, then U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a government villa in Russia in May 2015. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

A warning to Russia over Ukraine

Soon she was flying to Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss nuclear arms control measures with Russia. Biden and President Vladimir Putin had agreed to consider ways to reduce the risk of a nuclear war. Biden tapped Sherman, his most experienced negotiator, to lead the talks.

Her Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, had been an ally during the Iran negotiations.

“Ryabkov and I had formed, if not a friendship exactly, then a respect for the way we played the game,” she writes in her memoir.

By January, however, Russia had amassed more than 100,000 troops along the border of Ukraine. The crisis overshadowed their nuclear talks.

“We’ve made it clear that if Russia further invades Ukraine, there will be significant costs and consequences,” Sherman told reporters. “President Biden said as much to President Putin in their recent call, and I said that plainly to Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov as well.

“Russia has a stark choice to make.”

The next month, on Feb. 24, Putin invaded.

Sherman was on the phone that same day with leaders of the Netherlands, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Portugal, according to the State Department. The next day, she called Spain, Switzerland and Hungary. She united U.S. allies to condemn the invasion.

Just a month before, she had met Ryabkov to discuss nuclear arms control.

“We aren’t touching base these days,” she told The Banner. “We’re in a completely different world now. It’s very unfortunate. … What President Putin has done will have longtime and long-term consequences.”

Back in Baltimore, McIntosh turns on the TV or scrolls through the headlines to follow her old friend. There’s Sherman pledging to hold the Kremlin accountable for war crimes. There’s Sherman warning Chinese leaders of sanctions if they help Putin.

“People see Wendy on TV or read about Wendy and have no idea of her Maryland, and as we like to say, her Baltimore connection,” McIntosh says. “She is one of Maryland’s greatest daughters.”

At such moments, McIntosh reaches for her phone to message the BAMers. When they speak, someone always says it.

“Aren’t we proud of our Wendy?”

tim.prudente@thebaltimorebanner.com

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