Cabinet making and staffing up for an incoming administration generally falls under an age-old axiom: Anybody who knows anything will divulge nothing, while those who know nothing are willing to say anything. Another axiom: the early appointees in a Biden-Harris administration will need bureaucratic smarts to tackle the job of unraveling Trump damage, and political skills so as not to set off suspicions of the Democratic Party’s sensitive left.
Caveats aside, who in the Northwest might the 46th President pick with an ability to govern?
The focus usually starts with big names. Would Attorney General Bob Ferguson, on a path to become Governor, leave to take a high post in the “other” Washington? Less noticed, but more likely, would have Biden-Harris tap Washington’s Solicitor General Noah Purcell, a courtroom star who argued the federal court case that blocked Muslim Travel Ban No. 1.
We’ve heard lots of speculation that Gov. Jay Inslee will leave sometime in his third term to head the Environmental Protection Agency or become U.S. Secretary of the Interior. A wiser, more likely course of action is to recruit talent from Evergreen Action, climate specialists from the Inslee and Warren presidential campaigns who drafted the far-reaching Biden-Harris climate agenda. They will need the patience of Job in getting Joe Biden to grasp it.
Washington is home to standout, politically savvy Native American leaders. Fawn Sharp, a lawyer, is president of the Quinault Indian Nation and current president of the National Congress of American Indians. Until defeated in a tribal election early this year, Brian Cladoosby chaired the Swinomish tribal council for 23 years and has twice chaired the National Congress of American Indians.
Two successful Northwest political figures are certain to get a look. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana is locked in a tight U.S. Senate race with Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines. If Bullock doesn’t make it, he would be a natural for Secretary of the Interior. A pair of Western governors – Cecil Andrus of Idaho and Bruce Babbitt of Arizona – headed Interior in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and were responsible for creating millions of acres of new national monuments.
Another leading Northwest politician is Congressman Adam Smith, dean of Washington’s House delegation and chair of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, one of the few collegial committees left on Capitol Hill. Smith has forcefully defended the professionalism of the military against political interference, notably after the botched firing of the captain of the carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, who went public with a prescient warning that COVID-19 was assuming pandemic proportions among his crew. As well, Smith has advocated for a climate-conscious military and been out ahead in warning that global warming is destabilizing populations and becoming a national security threat.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is overqualified for a high post at Justice, though her partner is not enthused by politics or by the bitter opposition from the extreme left of the local Democratic Party. Ex-Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, now a MSNBC commentator, could be an asset to a competently run government.
Cabinet-making as a political exercise is quirky and unpredictable. At the onset of the 2008 campaign, ex-Gov. Gary Locke and King County Executive Ron Sims were co-chairs of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Washington state. Attorney Jenny Durkan was backing former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. When the dust settled, and Barack Obama settled in the Oval Office, Durkan was U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, Sims was Undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Locke was overseeing the 2010 Census as U.S. Secretary of Commerce. (Locke was actually the third pick after two other nominations fell through.)
REI boss Sally Jewell was offered the post of Undersecretary of the Interior. She turned it down as her friend Gerry Grinstein advised her to wait for the top spot to come open. Sure enough, when Interior Secretary Ken “Seldom Seen” Salazar, left the Cabinet, Jewell was selected. She served through Obama’s second term. Just before Obama left office, he created the Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, which the Trump Administration has sought to eviscerate.
A pair of other political possibilities, if willing to uproot: Lisa Brown is director of the state Department of Commerce, before that chancellor of WSU-Spokane, and formerly State Senate Majority Leader. While losing a 2018 challenge to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Brown has shown skill in making things happen, notably the WSU Medical School in Spokane. A natural for Biden-Harris posting would be Kristine Reeves, former State Representative who failed to make the finals in the 10th District U.S. House race.
When it comes to diplomatic appointments, Washington has some embarrassments to overcome. Named as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand by her friend George H.W. Bush, Della Newman initially could not name Prime Minister David Lange, and got hung up over Lange’s bid to bar nuclear-armed U.S. Navy ships from ports in his country. President Obama named businesswoman-philanthropist Cynthia Stroum to be U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Within months Stroum faced an embassy staff uprising and accusations of creating a a hostile workplace environment. One deputy at the embassy asked for a transfer to Afghanistan.
Other Obama choices have thrived in government, notably Dr. Rajiv Shah, who held posts at the Gates Foundation until he was tapped as Obama’s Undersecretary of Agriculture. Within a year, Shah was heading the U.S. Agency for International Development, and handling response to the Haiti earthquake. He is today president of the Rockefeller Foundation.
One final axiom pertains. To be “mentioned” by the Northwest press is usually a kiss of death. During my years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, we nominated Dan Evans for Vice President (twice), for U.S. Interior Secretary, and twice for U.S. Secretary of Energy, and for Secretary of Education. Evans was a retiring Republican senator in 1989, but given nothing by Bush I. Former colleagues petitioned Bush II to appoint ex-Sen. Slade Gorton to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It didn’t happen.
The list of disappointed Northwesterners goes on. Gov. Booth Gardner was rumored Cabinet-bound under Clinton, but instead given a cushy but non-consequential trade post in Geneva. U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn was frequently touted for high office by the Seattle Times’ Dick Larsen. After Trump’s surprise win, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was a supposed frontrunner for Interior, but was reportedly given thumbs down by Donald Trump, Jr.
One reason for the Trump snubs is that the Trump Administration has maintained almost no presence in Washington state. With Democrats, that is certain to change.