Energy & Environment

Haaland has competition to be first Native American to lead Interior 

Bonnie Cash

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) has won headlines as she’s emerged as a leading contender to become President-elect Joe Biden’s Interior secretary, but a second public figure could win the post and become the first Native American to lead the department.

Former Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor, a descendant of the Taos Pueblo tribe who served during the last three years of the Obama administration, is also being seriously considered to lead the department.

Connor has largely flown under the radar while potential picks like Haaland have gathered momentum and attention, particularly as Biden has pledged to deliver a Cabinet that “looks like America.”

But sources say Haaland’s endorsement by progressive groups could complicate her confirmation process, while Connor, who was Senate-confirmed in 2014, could offer the same historic weight by placing a Native American in charge of a department with great responsibility to tribes.

Haaland has been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate organization, which, alongside Justice Democrats, has produced a list of progressive-backed candidates for different Cabinet posts.

“They run the risk of not thinking through the consequences of supporting Rep. Haaland so publicly,” one conservation source in close contact with congressional offices told The Hill.

“She is undoubtedly qualified and we are long overdue for a Native American Interior secretary, but drawing so much attention to her over a number of other qualified people as well would potentially put a target on her back for Senate Republicans who would love nothing more than to turn the confirmation hearing on a nominee into a referendum on the Green New Deal,” the source said. “The strong endorsement from Sunrise runs the risk, ironically, of making her harder to confirm.”

Sunrise did not respond to a request for comment.

Two other New Mexico lawmakers are also seen as being in the mix: Sens. Tom Udall (D), who is retiring at the end of this Congress, and Martin Heinrich (D). Both are white men.

Connor first came to Interior in 1993, working his way up the chain before a several-year stint as counselor for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee starting in 2001. Upon returning to Interior in 2009, he served as head of the Bureau of Reclamation before being confirmed as deputy secretary in 2014, serving until the start of the Trump administration. 

“Understanding the roles of the different departments and different assistant secretaries and looking at the chemistry of each department is really valuable,” one former high-ranking Interior official told The Hill.

“You get to understand how things get done, how to get things done, the areas where you have to pay close attention, and the people you can have faith are going to do the job without a lot of supervision. So Michael serving in the deputy secretary role would have seen all that. That’s an important asset he brings to table,” the official said.

Others described Connor as being well-liked and respected within the department.

“He was always very respectful of career people. Very sharp, just a wonderful man and it was a pleasure working with him,” said Steve Ellis, who served as the highest-ranking career official with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) during the Obama administration.

Good relationships with career employees could be particularly important for the incoming administration, as morale for some Interior employees has hit a low under the Trump administration.

The Biden team is already looking to fill BLM’s leadership position with someone familiar with the bureau in order to stabilize the agency — a thought process that could be seen elsewhere at Interior as the transition team makes other selections for the department.

Neither Connor nor the Biden transition team responded to a request for comment.

Connor works as an attorney with WilmerHale, where he specializes in natural resources and Native American law. 

He also spent time as an Environment Program Fellow with the Walton Family Foundation, a nonprofit funded by the family behind the Walmart empire dedicated to protecting waters and improving education. He also serves on the board of the Audubon Society. 

Though Connor’s practice primarily involves water law, his law firm offers legal services to oil and gas companies. That could be an issue, as progressives have urged the Biden administration to avoid those with any connection to the industry.

But not all share the view that lobbying from progressives — whether directed for or against a potential nominee — will make much of a difference.

“I don’t think those things matter as much. I think the administration has to choose people they have the most faith in that will be able not only to do the job but implement the agenda laid out in the election. Experience is a valuable asset, but lots and lots of people weigh in on who should be in what role and someone like President-elect Biden, with decades of experience in office, he’s been through this and seen the endorsements and commentary and I’m confident he and his team will make his own judgment,” the former Interior official said.

“They’re in the best position to make those judgments regardless of who said what about whom.”

Tags Deb Haaland deb haaland michael connor pick secretary department of interior native american biden administration cabinet Joe Biden Martin Heinrich Tom Udall

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video