From labor lawyer to ambassador
IRVINE, Calif. — As a boy growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Tom Nassif read a lot about people in history and was taken with a biography of the famous trial lawyer and civil libertarian, Clarence Darrow.
“I became enthusiastic about law and particularly jury trials from reading about him,” Nassif says.
As a young man, Nassif, also was shaped by his Lebanese parents, the Antiochian (Eastern) Orthodox Church the family attended and by the small town Iowa atmosphere of the 1940s.
“My father immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon when he was 16. My mother was born in Des Moines to Lebanese parents. My parents were Democrats but conservative. It wasn’t a home where you saw drinking, partying or night-clubbing,” Nassif, now 72, said.
When Nassif was 10, the family moved to Hollywood, Calif., where his father continued in the flooring business. In Iowa, the family had no television, but Nassif and his sisters read about the entertainment industry. To move to the heart of it and see stars like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Alan Ladd “was a dream come true for a 10-year-old.”
Nassif graduated from Hollywood’s John Marshall High School in 1959. He received a bachelor’s degree from California State University in Los Angeles in 1965 and his law degree from California Western University School of Law in San Diego in 1968.
He was married, starting his family and practicing law in Los Angeles when a law school classmate invited him to move to the Imperial Valley. It was a big decision. Nassif and his wife, Zinetta, prayed about it, felt it was God’s will and moved to El Centro.
“Everything I’ve done since then has derived from that. Every job I’ve taken since has been based on prayer and faith,” he said.
The Teamsters Union had been representing farm truck drivers but after California adopted its Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the United Farm Workers of America, headed by Cesar Chavez, started organizing farmworkers.
Nassif began representing the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.
“They were looking for someone young and aggressive who didn’t mind getting into a brawl with the union guys,” Nassif said. “I was a young hippie lawyer with long curly hair. It was the highlight of my legal career, representing agriculture against the union and eventually driving the union off the farm.”
Contract negotiations between UFW and the vegetable growers broke down over wages, benefits and workforce control. A strike ensued.
“It became very violent. It got out of control. Union workers were burning cars and turning over buses. We weren’t armed. We tore up wooden pallets to have something in our hands to protect ourselves,” Nassif said.
Law enforcement officers gained control.
Later, Nassif helped a leading grower, Joe Maggio, sue the UFW. Maggio was awarded $1.6 million for crop loss, the hiring of security guards, damage to vehicles and housing for replacement workers. The union appealed, but a state appellate court upheld the ruling.
Before the first ruling, the Maggios and Nassifs attended Ronald Reagan’s first presidential inauguration. A friend in the new administration wanted Nassif to join the team. Nassif wasn’t looking for a job but a few months later became deputy chief of protocol at the White House for the Department of State.
“My wife didn’t recognize me because I cut my hair, got some three-piece pinstripe suits and became a prototypical young Republican,” Nassif said.
He had become a Republican when he began his law practice, deciding the party of smaller government and states’ rights was more in line with his views.
As deputy chief of protocol, Nassif helped organize state dinners and was with the president as he met and entertained heads of state. Nassif sat in on a lot of high-level meetings.
“Being able to spend as much time around the president and learning what a strong leader and individual he was, was my highlight in Washington,” Nassif said. “Today, as I sit here I can be extremely proud to have worked with whom I regard as the greatest American president in recent history.”
Nassif said he saw Reagan wasn’t to be trifled with when the president broke a national air traffic controllers’ strike by replacing them.
Reagan said he would take down the Soviet Union in three ways: the strategic defense initiative, which the press called “Star Wars;” supporting the solidarity movement in Poland and by doing so undermining the Soviet Union’s power there; and by defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by arming the Afghan people in cooperation with Pakistan, turning Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.
“All of that didn’t seem possible. More than a lofty goal,” Nassif said. “When I saw it all unfolding and he did what he said he would, I realized his importance and place in history.”
From deputy and then acting chief of protocol, Nassif became deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs. In that role at the president’s request, he helped reinitiate diplomatic relations between Morocco and Algeria, helped end a war in the Western Sahara and broke diplomatic relations between Morocco and Libya.
It was a tribute and honor, Nassif said, when State Department Foreign Service officers suggested he be appointed ambassador to Morocco. Reagan did so and Nassif served there from 1985 to 1988.
He was decorated by the late King Hassan II of Morocco and the president of Lebanon for his work on Middle East issues and serves as chairman and CEO of the American Task Force for Lebanon.
Following the Reagan administration, Nassif was chairman of Gulf Interstate Engineering in Houston, an oil and gas pipeline company. He then worked as president of Los Alamos Land Co., developing industrial and commercial business parks on the U.S.-Mexican border. He later became a managing partner in Aequitas International Consulting, an international business and political consulting company.
He became president and CEO of Western Growers in 2002. The association represents growers, packers and shippers of produce in California and Arizona, about half the produce grown in the U.S.
Western Growers created the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement after an E. coli outbreak in spinach that damaged that commodity. The agreement was adopted in Arizona and is a model, Nassif said, for the entire country on food safety practices.
Nassif was one of six national agricultural advisers to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.