Politics & Government

Californians rumored in running for top administration posts

WASHINGTON -- Californians have become viable candidates for top Obama administration positions governing farms, natural resources and the environment.

One California congressman, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, is being mentioned frequently as a potential interior secretary. The longtime head of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, Karen Ross, is being widely championed by the state's farmers as a potential deputy agriculture secretary.

At lower levels, too, California candidates abound. Former Mariposa County Supervisor Art Baggett, now a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, is a potential candidate for a federal water resources job. And with roughly 3,000 positions to be filled by presidential appointment, California lawmakers are pressing to ensure the state is well represented.

"We've put forward a number of names," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "We aren't forwarding the names of cronies, but just those who we know would do a fabulous job."

Obama administration job openings, of course, go well beyond the environment and natural resource agencies. Jobs range from the Arctic Research Commission to running cemeteries for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But in a state where the federal government owns 40 percent of the land and where agriculture is a $32 billion-a-year industry, some departments are considered particularly suitable.

Ross, for one, has become a consensus candidate among California farm groups who want to see one of their own in the top ranks of the Agriculture Department.

"I do have an interest," Ross said. "It would be a high honor to serve in the (Agriculture Department's) leadership team."

A Nebraska native who has run the Sacramento-based California Association of Winegrape Growers since 1996, Ross said California agricultural organizations first approached her about putting her name forward. The farm groups wanted to rally around one candidate who could understand the unique needs of the state's 350 different crops.

"It's very important to all of us in California agriculture," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League, adding that he is "a great supporter of Karen's."

Name-floating is a quadrennial exercise, and it can be misleading. Some names arise because they are legitimate contenders, others because they are trial balloons, and others strictly as a form of political solace. Like today's stock market, the presidential appointment sweepstakes can be highly volatile and subject to unverified rumor.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, for instance, was a few short weeks ago considered a good bet for agriculture secretary. He has since dropped off the table. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Nov. 20 was cited by the Washington Post as a potential secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Two weeks later, Villaraigosa revealed he already had advised President-elect Barack Obama in mid-November that he would be staying in Los Angeles.

The confirmation of candidacies, moreover, is complicated by the tendency of potential candidates to clam up at a certain point. Until a position is nailed down, few want to declare themselves.

Mary Nichols, currently chair of the California Air Resources Board, told The Sacramento Bee this week that she has "been asked not to talk about" widespread speculation that she's a candidate to run the federal Environmental Protection Agency. On Capitol Hill, rumors have spread that Nichols has in recent weeks visited the Obama offices in Chicago.

Likewise, University of California at Davis law professor Jennifer Chacon, who advised the Obama campaign on immigration and justice issues, said in an e-mail that only the president-elect's transition team was authorized to discuss appointment issues.

Baggett politely declined to discuss a potential candidacy for a Western-oriented slot somewhere within the Interior Department. Positions like assistant secretary for water and science and commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation have considerable sway in California. Thompson, too, declined to comment Friday.

"The Interior positions are incredibly important, and controversial," Cardoza noted.

It may help the Californians' cause that two of the top men handling the environmental transition for Obama, John Leshy and David Hayes, have direct knowledge of the state's pet issues. Leshy is a University of California law professor who once served as the Interior Department's top lawyer, while Hayes handled many California water issues while serving as deputy interior secretary in the Clinton administration.