Obama team claims 500 advisers on energy, environment

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says energy will be his top priority if he is elected -- and the size of his team of advisers suggests he means business.

There are a whopping 500 or so people advising the Illinois senator on energy and environment. Among them are coalition builders from past Washington energy debates, Clinton administration veterans, Chicago-based environmentalists and a host of academics.

"Fortunately, we have quality as well as quantity," said Howard Learner, an environmental lawyer from Chicago and a friend of Obama's since the candidate's time at Harvard Law School. "I'll let the numbers and people speak for themselves."

Obama started building the campaign's energy and environment team early last year with fewer than a dozen people. Learner and his wife, lawyer Lauren Rosenthal, were there to draw up policy ideas on alternative energy, technology development and climate change. They had help from Sierra Club volunteer Kelly Mazeski, former U.S. EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Sussman and Washington lawyer Ken Berlin.

As Obama's candidacy picked up steam, the roster of advisers grew, reflecting the hunger of Democrats for taking back the White House after eight years under President Bush. By contrast, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has about a half-dozen public advisers on energy and environmental issues, although the campaign consults with others outside that circle, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior domestic policy adviser to the Arizona senator.


Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, said Obama's volunteer team seems much larger than that of any other presidential candidate in modern history. "It does strike me as an extremely high number," Light said, "but there's tremendous pent-up demand and a sense of urgency about environmental issues."

So do all those advisers get in each other's way? The public message is that the campaign is all about inclusiveness and bipartisanship -- not surprising in election season.

Jason Grumet, 41, is leading the Obama volunteer team, bringing experience from his day job at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the National Commission on Energy Policy -- two groups that focus on hashing out differences and building consensus from diverse perspectives. "We pay attention to public policy every four years in this country," he said in an April interview. "Being part of that discussion is exhilarating."

Grumet works as an unpaid volunteer for the campaign. The job demands late nights and telephone conversations from park benches outside his office, a requirement tied to campaign laws. Grumet is backed by a dozen or so others who serve on what the campaign calls a "coordinating council" for energy and environment. The candidate's innermost circle often requests help from the council as it travels.

Heather Zichal, 32, is the point person in the campaign's Chicago headquarters for all things related to energy and environment. It is similar to the job she did for the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, John Kerry. Zichal joined Obama in July, becoming one of the few paid staffers on those issues, replacing Heather Higginbottom, who became director of Obama's entire domestic policy team.

Other paid campaign officials handling environmental issues include Larry Strickling in Chicago, whom advisers call a "jack of all trades" for covering health care, civil liberties and education in addition to environment and energy, and Luke Knowles, son of former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D), who works from Washington to coordinate the energy and environmental volunteer team with Grumet.

Naming names

Leaders on Obama's volunteer team fall into four categories.

Julie Anderson, Grumet's colleague at the Bipartisan Policy Center, is a Clinton White House veteran who coordinates outreach to battleground states. She is joined by Mark Van Putten, a Washington-based environmental consultant and former president of the National Wildlife Federation, and Mazeski, an animal rights activist from the Chicago suburb of Barrington.

Anderson's group helped craft Obama's pledge last month for a $5 billion trust fund for cleaning up the Great Lakes. It also identifies community leaders, environmentalists, politicians and hunters and fishers for get-out-the-vote efforts and to speak up for Obama's environmental record.

Obama's rapid response team includes Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, and Karen Bridges, a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). They follow the news and monitor the McCain campaign's debate points. Policy advisers include Amy Salzman, a former Justice Department attorney who later worked on climate and energy projects for the Wallace Global Fund; Frank Loy, a former senior U.S. climate diplomat during the Clinton administration; and longtime Obama friend Rosenthal.

Former EPA official Sussman and Elgie Holstein, another Clinton veteran from the Commerce and Energy departments, are leaders on Obama's energy and environmental policy development team.

Another component of Obama's campaign team centers on surrogates who appear in place of the candidate during debates against McCain surrogates on energy and environmental issues. Grumet is a regular. But depending on the issue, location or timing of the event, other stand-ins include former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), Loy and Yale law professor Dan Esty, a former U.S. EPA official under President George H.W. Bush.

University of California, Berkeley, professor Dan Kammen, an expert on alternative-energy technologies, often represents Obama at events in the West. Kammen also was one of the Nobel Prize-winning authors of the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

On the other hand, McCain domestic policy adviser Holtz-Eakin is a one-man response operation. He returns calls from reporters who have questions about energy issues even as he juggles other high-profile demands, such as the candidate's response to the mortgage and economic crisis.

The Obama campaign has not released a complete list of advisers. But the Obama Web site does have a list of endorsements from top environmentalists that aides said offers a good read into who is helping, including Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Dean Gus Speth, former EPA Administrator Russell Train and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.).

Campaign aides said energy and environmental decisions also get made by other high-profile Obama volunteer teams, including an economic group led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett. The international relations team also contributes, including former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice and former Clinton National Security Adviser Tony Lake.

"We need people with different expertise on different things," Learner said. "If you look at what Senator Obama has been saying across the country on important energy and environmental issues, it's quite apparent that the work of the energy and environment team has been useful and put into practice by the campaign."

'Ideas all over the transom'

Several Obama advisers explained in interviews that their day jobs help them look ahead to the first 100 days of an Obama administration -- and beyond.

Grumet's two organizations, for example, have spent years sifting through possible solutions on energy and environment. And Kammen's expertise is well-known in energy circles. He will be tapped at the U.N. climate conference this December in Poznan, Poland, regardless of the election's outcome.

Light said he doubts that Obama uses all the advice flowing from his team. But a smart candidate learns not to reject advice out of hand.

"The candidate is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't," Light said. "If he has all these advisers around, he risks alienating some who don't get to the top. But they will be important in selling the energy and environmental initiatives once he's president. You don't want to turn them off. ... You never turn away a volunteer who might be able to help get a bill passed."

To be sure, not all 500 advisers have daily roles in the campaign. When their issue comes up, Learner said, they may get called. And he rejects the notion that there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

"That's a fair question," Learner said. "But as a practical matter, it may be the reason you see Senator Obama speaking out with depth and expertise on more energy and environmental issues than Senator McCain. He's had the bench in order to do it."

Eric Ueland, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said Obama deserves credit for building such a deep bench. "It's helpful for Obama in campaign mode to have plenty of voices with ideas all over the transom," he said. "That reflects a vitality of conversations reflective of what's happening in Congress, states, business and the environmental community."

In part, Obama benefits from modern technologies, which allow ideas to flow easily in cyberspace and let hundreds participate. "In this day and age, you get big bang for your buck through a conference call," Ueland said.

But Ueland also cautioned that there is a difference between whom Obama's campaign hears now and who could get jobs in an administration.

"Personnel is policy," Ueland said. "At the end of the day, who your EPA head is, who is responsible for your economic policy and who is responsible for your interactions with Congress will be key indicators of how your public policy conversation will end up."

Of course, many volunteer advisers would get jobs in the next administration. The next president will have about 550 positions to fill that require Senate confirmation, plus thousands more spots for key staffers and others. Both Obama and McCain have said they will hire people from the rival party.

Obama campaign officials shrug off questions about individual career plans. "I think of myself as a second-term Obama guy," Grumet said in April, citing the demands of three young children and a mortgage payment.

Kammen said he expects Obama would find plenty of willing employees, given the number of challenges for the next administration, including economic recovery, energy and environment. There is also an 11-month window to pull together a U.S. negotiation position for next year's climate meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark.

"I find that people who don't seem movable often are if they think it's a critical moment," Kammen said. "If you're serious about energy and environmental policy, maybe this is the moment to serve."

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