U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, who's been named by Barack Obama as the incoming Secretary of the Interior, is a good guy. He is an independent Democrat from southern Colorado, where his ranching family has lived for generations. Four years ago, when he won his seat in the Senate, he demonstrated, to national Democrats, his party's revived potential in the Mountain West. He has an enviable quality for a politician: like Ronald Reagan, folks tend to underestimate him.
Salazar is a moderate. When other Democrats turned their backs, he loyally maintained his friendship with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the traitor from Connecticut. Salazar's first shining moment in the Senate came when Republicans threatened to "nuke" the federal judicial selection process, and he joined with Sen. John McCain in the gang of a dozen centrist Republicans and Democrats who defused that confrontation.
I'm thinking that neither industry nor the professional environmental movement is entirely thrilled with Salazar's appointment to Interior. Yet not terribly angry either. Democrats out West tend to side with the tree-huggers, while recognizing the place that resource development and the recreation industries have in the regional and national economy. I have no doubt that Salazar will make sound, deliberate—maybe even cautious—changes in federal stewardship of the public lands.
Salazar's real challenge—as well as his historic opportunity, and political potential—lies not in policy, but in management. I have lived a life watching crooks in Washington and cannot remember a federal agency so mismanaged, gutted, demoralized and corrupted as George W. Bush's Department of the Interior.
It is stunning. Interior has it all. Thievery. Sex scandals. Money scandals. Archaic accounting and business processes. Energy lobbyists run amok. Former corporate officials and lobbyists, "regulating" the industries they used to work for—who will now return to their cushy industry jobs.
The saga of Jack Abramoff—the sleazy lobbyist who cheated Native Americans out of their gaming profits—was no aberration at Interior. The Abramoff scandals represented the department's very way of doing business.
Before he was a senator, Salazar was his state's Attorney General. He liked those days as Colorado's top cop. And that is the real key to his appointment.
If, in the next four years, Salazar and Obama add not one acre or species to protected status—but clean house at Interior, reform its deplorable practices and leave behind an honest, modernized and model federal agency—they will more than justify the electorate's faith in them, and give Western voters a compelling reason to declare for the Democrats in future elections.
Indeed, that may be said of the Obama administration as a whole. The real action in the next four years may lie in management, not policy. The political party that makes the federal government work, efficiently, for the people, will have a mighty claim on their affection and respect.
It won't be easy. Salazar will need to summon yet undemonstrated guts, purpose and managerial skills to succeed. But it's got to be done. And he has no alternative. If he leaves Interior anything like he finds it, his fine career in public service will be tarnished, and over.