WASHINGTON—President Bush on Friday nominated a career agency insider who rose through the ranks in both Democratic and Republican administrations to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Stephen Johnson, 53, whom a former colleague praised as "the ultimate technocrat," has been the EPA's acting administrator since Michael Leavitt left to become health and human services secretary in January. He's the first career EPA employee to head the agency.
His selection won bipartisan praise Friday. It even won praise from environmental and industry groups locked in battles over Bush administration policies that generally ease strict regulations in favor of industry-friendly policies.
For most of his 24 years at the EPA, Johnson held nonpolitical jobs in the part of the agency that regulates pesticides. He was promoted to a senior position there by the Clinton administration. In 2001, Bush named him assistant administrator for pesticides, which made him a political appointee, and the president has promoted Johnson twice since then.
"He knows the EPA from the ground up and has a passion for its mission—to protect the health of our citizens and to guarantee the quality of our air, water and land for generations to come," Bush said Friday. "I've come to know Steve as an innovative problem-solver with good judgment and complete integrity."
The choice of the native Washingtonian is a departure from other Bush second-term Cabinet appointees, nearly all of whom have closer and longer ties to the president and the Republican Party. Johnson is part of the cadre of EPA career bureaucrats who stay in Washington no matter who's in power, a group with which industry and many Bush supporters often clash.
He's made so many friends in his tenure that Republicans and Democrats, industry and environmental groups all claim him for their side.
"His selection suggests to me that the Bush administration is trying to depoliticize to some extent environmental policy, which may in fact produce better results going forward," said Dan Esty, the director of Yale University's Center for Environmental Law and Policy. "We have gotten ourselves into a deep partisan divide here. And the attempt to put into place a top guy who really comes from the more nonpolitical bureaucracy may be an attempt to get beyond that."
Esty, a critic of the Bush administration who worked for the president's father, former President George Bush, called Johnson "the ultimate technocrat, with a way of bringing thoughtful, careful analysis to bear in trying to understand and solve hard problems."
Johnson, who must be confirmed by the Senate, has a reputation for making friends easily.
"He's got a black belt in Dale Carnegie," said G. Tracy Mehan II, an assistant EPA administrator until 2003, in a reference to the author of the book "How to Win Friends and Influence People." "He's got tremendous social skills and people skills. He knows the agency from the inside, and he's been able to flourish."
The praise was strongest from Democrats, former Clinton officials and environmental activists. The Environmental Working Group called it "a spectacularly good appointment."
"I promoted Steve several times," Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Browner said. "Steve was very, very critical and instrumental in all the work we did to ban and limit the use of organophosphates (pesticides) and was willing to take on the chemical companies."
"I'm a little surprised given the work he did with us that the White House would find him acceptable," Browner said.
Edward Krenik, an EPA associate administrator until 2003, said this was an effort at bipartisanship.
Bill Kovacs, the vice president of the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Johnson "is competent and he's going to go by the book and run the agency as a professional as opposed to a politician."
Bush's two previous EPA chiefs were governors: Leavitt of Utah and Christie Whitman of New Jersey. Bush billed Johnson—who has a master's degree in pathology—as the agency's first scientist administrator.
Leavitt called Johnson "fair-minded and respected by groups across the ideological spectrum."
"His experience alone is enough to have him in this top job in EPA," said former Bush EPA official Krenik. "He's so down-to-earth. He takes his time to understand the issues and really thinks through all sides of an issue before he makes a decision. He's very calm."
Michael McCabe, a former deputy EPA administrator under Clinton, recalled working with the pesticides expert during a crisis over the inadvertent release of genetically modified corn and found Johnson "very level-headed."
McCabe, who's now a Chadds Ford, Pa.-based environmental consultant and activist, said, "what I really fear is that they're putting him in a position of being a powerless functionary who will have to do what they tell him."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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