Ken Salazar, hardly a household name, will soon be making some big decisions—and facing fresh scrutiny within his own party.
If Hillary Clinton wins as expected, the former senator from Colorado and Interior secretary running her transition team will be key to ensuring that the policy she’s run on can be transformed into reality.
A big part of his mission: Begin deciding on people to fill the Cabinet and roughly 4,000 presidentially appointed positions, a secretive process that will accelerate greatly after the election.
The 61-year-old is running the closed-door process while facing skepticism from activists who fear that he lacks progressive bona fides.
But people close to Salazar say the former senator will undertake planning in a way that breathes life into Clinton’s agenda, not his own policy opinions.
“I think maybe a bit too much is made of any particular position he may have taken in the past,” said Jeff Lane, Salazar’s former Senate chief of staff. “His role is relatively neutral in this process, and he will be going to pains to find the right people to implement her agenda, her policies.”
Indeed, while the bizarre 2016 race has not exactly been a public referendum on granular policy issues, Clinton’s campaign has created a series of detailed positions.
“I don’t think there is any real mystery about how she wants to move forward. I think his job is to try and build a team to move that agenda forward,” said Lane, who served as the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs from 2010 to 2013. He’s now counsel with the firm Dentons.
Lane said Salazar’s management style is to solicit input from a range of people, rather than rely exclusively on his top deputies.
“He wasn’t the type of senator who was back in his office isolated from the staff and just talking to his chief of staff. There are some like that, but that was not his style,” Lane said.
Adds a former Senate aide: “He likes having a team. He likes having different people around him so that he can hear different pieces of information and viewpoints.”
“He loved to bring the staff together, the whole staff, to lay out a problem and ask people what they thought,” the former Senate aide said.
He will face close scrutiny.
Progressives look at Salazar’s rather moderate Senate record, past support for oil-and-gas development via hydraulic fracturing, and endorsement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, not to mention his post-Interior role as a partner at WilmerHale, a major law and lobbying firm that gets hired by huge companies and major business groups.
“He is clearly not who we would have selected for that role,” said Josh Nelson, the deputy political director at the activist group Credo Action.
“We are watching the transition process closely, and we are weighing in both behind the scenes now and we will be weighing in publicly when the time is right,” Nelson said.
Salazar is leading the transition after a campaign that has seen Clinton—facing a tough primary race with Bernie Sanders—move to the left by opposing TPP and the Keystone pipeline (which Salazar has backed), vowing tough controls on Wall Street, and more.
He’s operating as activists are seeking to exert pressure under the rallying cry, made more prominent by Sen. Elizabeth Warren in her advocacy for tough financial regulations, that “personnel is policy,” which means they want to ensure that people with progressive bona fides are put in charge of decision-making in the new administration.
One former senior aide at the Interior Department said Salazar’s experience running the sprawling agency from 2009 to 2013 was good preparation for overseeing the mammoth task of ushering in a new presidency.
“He is very hands-on,” the aide said, adding that Salazar “moves quickly through issues and has exactly the kind of management skills that fit a transition very well.
“In a transition effort, you are dealing with an enormous, broad assortment of issues and constituencies and crosscurrents of substantive and political considerations, and the Department of the Interior is all about that, with issues ranging from water policy to Indian policy to wildlife to endangered species to wildfires,” the former aide said.
At Interior, Salazar’s tenure included work to boost renewable-energy development on federal lands, toughen regulation of offshore drilling, and initiate rules to increase oversight of fracking on federal lands, which were completed under his successor, Sally Jewell.
Salazar’s Senate career was less than a full term, but he had an impact, said former Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who was the Energy Committee’s top Democrat when a sweeping energy law passed in 2005 and chairman when another huge energy bill was enacted in 2007.
“In the Senate, he was very well liked and very effective,” Bingaman said, calling Salazar a “major contributor” to both bills.
Former Sen. Mary Landrieu, a conservative Louisiana Democrat who was defeated in 2014, was Salazar’s energy committee colleague, but later they butted heads repeatedly over offshore-drilling restrictions he imposed after the 2010 BP oil spill.
Landrieu, despite past disagreements, has kind words for Salazar and the Clinton campaign’s decision to tap him to lead the transition process.
“He is a very thoughtful, very intelligent, open-minded kind of guy, and that is exactly the kind of guy we want running a transition,” said Landrieu, now a lobbyist and senior policy adviser with Van Ness Feldman.
But activists are increasingly concerned with keeping pressure on the Clinton team to govern in the progressive vein that she campaigned on.
Already this month, a number of environmental groups have urged Clinton not to select another Coloradoan, Gov. John Hickenlooper, to become Interior secretary, arguing that he’s too friendly toward fracking and fossil fuels.
To be sure, there’s hardly a revolt against Salazar on the Left. As a Politico story notes, officials with some major environmental groups have expressed comfort with him.
Nonetheless, some activists are on alert as Salazar helps usher in a new administration.
“His appointment as head of the transition team has made some people concerned about how committed a potential Clinton administration is going to be to appointing leaders who stand ready to confront corporate power,” said Neil Sroka of the group Democracy for America.
The Clinton campaign announced Salazar’s appointment in August, along with names of transition-team cochairs and several top staff members. The cochairs are former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm; Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden; former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon; and Maggie Williams, who directs Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
Salazar was already a known quantity in the Clinton orbit, given his time in the Senate with Clinton and other ties.
And the WikiLeaks dump of emails hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta reveals Salazar’s communications with the campaign as he helped their efforts in Colorado. At one point, Podesta expressed hope that he could “lean on [Salazar] for advice,” and both men will surely face more scrutiny as the reality of a Clinton administration grows.
“I am sure everyone has got critics,” Landrieu said, “but he has got fewer than most, and he is just a known and respected quantity.”