Arizona could lose not one but two of its elected officials to President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet.
Just days after officials with Obama’s transition team said Gov. Janet Napolitano is the top choice for Homeland Security secretary, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., has emerged as a leading contender for secretary of the Interior.
Grijalva, 60, is Tucson native and son of an immigrant Mexican farmworker. He served as Hispanic co-chair for Obama’s presidential campaign and has been a fierce critic of the Bush administration’s environmental policies. He serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, and chairs the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.
The Interior secretary traditionally comes from a Western state, where management of public lands is a key issue. The administration post oversees public lands and serves as a steward for the nation’s Indian reservations.
On Friday, The Washington Post and the political Web site politico.com said Grijalva is a top contender for the post. Both cited transition officials as sources.
Grijalva could not be reached Friday, but spokeswoman Natalie Luna said the congressman has not received any word from Barack Obama’s transition team. “He said he hasn’t been contacted,” Luna said, adding, “I think he would give it really good thought.”
Luna said her boss has a “good rapport” with the president-elect. “I think he (Obama) knows the congressman’s background, what he’s interested in and passionate about,” she added.
Last month, Grijalva issued a scathing report titled, “The Bush Administration’s Assaults on Our National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. The 23-page critique accuses the President of carrying out “a concerted strategy” of reducing the protections for federal properties, “opening up these lands for every type of private, commercial and extractive industry possible.”
Rodolfo Espino, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, said such an appointment would make sense.
Grijalva is an up-and-comer who recently became co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Espino, sharing Obama’s liberal vision on public land policy. He also carries little baggage as a politician, worked on the presidential campaign and hails from a Western state where land issues are crucial.
If appointed, Grijalva would be the third Interior secretary from Arizona, following in the footsteps of Stewart Udall (1961-69) and Bruce Babbitt (1993-2001).
The Interior Department manages about 500 million acres of federal land, or one-fifth of the United States. It oversees 67,000 employees in a bureaucracy that includes the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Service.
Environmental leaders were thrilled at the prospect of Grijalva assuming the secretariat. Mining, ranching and other land-use industry representatives expressed dismay.
“Talk about a 180 from where we are today,” said Richard Mayol, communications director at the Grand Canyon Trust. “That is certainly something that we would love to get behind, something we would cheer.”
By contrast, Basilio Aja, executive director for the Arizona Beef Council, said Grijalva has been “singularly focused on monument declarations,” setting aside federal property so that it cannot be mined or grazed. Especially in tough economic times, he said, it will be critical to take advantage of federal grazing lands for food production.
Grijalva, serving his third term in Congressional District 7, was a Tucson schools trustee in the 1970s and ’80s, then served on the Pima County Board of Supervisors from 1988 to 2002.
He has long been regarded as an environmental advocate, leading efforts to regulate hard-rock mining and establish a National Landscape Conservation System. He recently told The Arizona Republic that Bush’s administration sold away public resources to private interests, performing “more like real-estate agents than stewards of (public) lands.”
Sandy Bahr, conservation director for the Sierra Club in Arizona, praised Grijalva’s efforts to ban uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, calling him a “real leader.”
“Obviously he knows the West and the importance of public lands,” Bahr said. “Arizona has been well-served by him, particularly on the kinds of issues that the Department of Interior addresses.”Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías, a Democrat, said Grijalva “would make a great secretary of the Interior.”
He said he hasn’t heard officially that Grijalva is being considered but said, “We’re very proud of him and what he’s done.”
Elías, who replaced Grijalva on the Board of Supervisors from District 5 when Grijalva first won his congressional seat in 2002, said supporting Grijalva “is something very important to me.”
Elías could be a potential replacement for Grijalva in the House of Representatives. He is a supporter of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, spearheaded by Grijalva.
“I don’t want to comment on possibilities for the future. It’s something I need to remain open to,” Elías said.
By The Arizona Republic, Sheryl Kornman