How many Coloradans now hold top jobs at the Interior Department?
"So many," says Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D), "that I understand the cafeteria at Interior is now offering up Rocky Mountain oysters."
Udall wasn't the only lawmaker to make a crack about the Centennial State contingent at Interior during a recent confirmation hearing for Tom Strickland, a former U.S. attorney in Colorado, to be Interior assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.
"We're a little concerned about this Colorado cabal that seems to be settling in," joked Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who until January was himself a U.S. senator from Colorado, has chosen so many of his home-state friends and former colleagues for key positions that some Western lawmakers make cracks or show pride about it, while others -- those who hail from other regions -- express some wariness.
Udall said it speaks highly of the leadership of Salazar and Strickland, who has been serving as the secretary's chief of staff and will keep that job even if confirmed as assistant secretary, that so many of their fellow Coloradans have voluntarily left the "best state in the union" to work in Washington.
"You're going to have to excuse me again for indulging in a bit of home-state pride when I say how great it's been to see so many Coloradans going to work for the department of the federal government that has so much influence on the economic life and really our quality of life in the West," Udall said.
But others told Strickland flat-out that he and Salazar should not show a bias toward their home sweet home.
"We're very happy to see all of our Colorado folks advancing right on up there, but we want to make just a point about the importance of the South and the Southeast and the East Coast," Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) said. "We spend a lot of focus on the West, because most of the lands are out West and of course Alaska ... but just a push to not forget the Southern states and these East Coast states."
New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen echoed Landrieu's remarks.
"I love the West, too, but given all of my colleagues who are here on the committee, I feel a need to point out that New Hampshire also has mountains, fly fishing, coastal marshes, but I confess no prairie dogs and no oil rigs," she told Strickland. "But we appreciate that you will be looking after not only the West but the East, as Senator Landrieu pointed out, and the Northeast."
For his part, Salazar has repeatedly said that he is aiming to make Interior a "department of America," not just of the West.
Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied presidential transitions, said a department filled with so many home-state picks "doesn't happen all the time, but it happens."
It depends on how much leeway the secretary is given to choose top people and how much say the White House wants. "I suspect that the president basically said to Salazar, 'You come over from the Senate, I'll let you pick a number of people.'" Ornstein said. "It's natural he would pick people he knew."
A preponderance of deputies from one state will not have much effect "on the surface," Ornstein said. "If you chose good people and people who aren't ideologically rigid, you shouldn't expect it to make a huge difference," he said.
But at the same time, the Colorado experience on land-use and environmental issues is unique and may inform their views, he said.
"That may shape to some degree how you respond, and that may be a little different," Ornstein said. "But presumably, good people can transcend that."
Salazar and Strickland have known each other and worked together for more than 20 years. Together, they helped create the statewide land conservation program called Great Outdoors Colorado, and Strickland was U.S. attorney for the state while Salazar was Colorado's attorney general. Strickland also unsuccessfully ran in the state as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in both 1996 and 2002.
Salazar chose another deputy with experience running the conservation program when he appointed Will Shafroth as Interior's deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. "Will and I have worked together on natural resource conservation issues for more than 15 years," Salazar said.
A fourth-generation Coloradan, Shafroth served from 1994 to 2000 as the first executive director of the Great Outdoors Colorado, which Salazar helped found when he was executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Since becoming Interior secretary, Salazar has repeatedly said he wants to create a national initiative similar to the Colorado program.
Salazar chose a fourth-generation Denverite, Chris Henderson, as "recovery czar" for the Interior Department. The former chief operating officer for the mayor of Denver and investment banker is overseeing the roughly $3 billion flowing to Interior from the economic stimulus.
Salazar tapped prominent water lawyer Anne Castle, a longtime partner in the Denver office of Holland & Hart LLP, to be Interior assistant secretary for water and science. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) appointed Castle to the South Platte River Basin Task Force in 2007. She also served as chairwoman and an elected member of the board of directors for Colorado's Genesee Water and Sanitation District from 1989 to 2002 and was a member of the Colorado Ground Water Commission from 1994 to 2002 at the behest of former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D).
Some of Salazar's other choices for top positions have not lived in the state as long but still have Colorado ties. Rhea Suh, nominated to be Interior assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, has been a program officer working on Western ecosystems at two foundations and also served as senior legislative assistant to former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.).
Michael Connor, who earned his law degree from the University of Colorado and has been the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's general counsel since 2001, has been tapped to head the Bureau of Reclamation.
Candidates for other top jobs come from neighboring New Mexico. Hilary Tompkins, nominated to be Interior Department solicitor, and Ned Farquhar, appointed as Interior deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, both were top aides to to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). Deanna Archuleta, a water utility official and former county commissioner from Albuquerque, was appointed deputy assistant secretary for water and science.
Two days after being confirmed, Salazar introduced himself and many of his senior staffers -- at least five of whom have Colorado connections -- at a gathering of Interior employees.
Steve Black serves as Salazar's counselor for energy, the secretary said. Black was formerly Colorado's deputy attorney general for natural resources and the environment before becoming legislative counsel in Salazar's Senate office. Laura Davis, who formerly served as deputy chief of staff for Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), will become chief of staff for the Interior deputy secretary.
Ray Rivera, who headed President Obama's Colorado state campaign, serves as head of government affairs and external relations, working with governors, attorneys general and tribes, Salazar said. Ken Lane is working as Salazar's counselor, having served as chief of staff and then as senior counsel to Salazar while in the Senate. And Matt Lee-Ashley, who was communications director in Salazar's Senate office, stayed on in the secretary's communications office.