Meet the Head of Hillary Clinton's Transition Team

Ken Salazar speaks in Nevada in 2009. Ken Salazar speaks in Nevada in 2009. Andy Pernick/Bureau of Reclamation file photo

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.”

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