Groups Launch Campaign Against Bush Pick For Interior

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 2001 (ENS) - A coalition of environmental, public health, labor and civil rights groups today launched an all-out campaign to derail the U.S. Senate's confirmation of attorney Gale Norton, President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for Secretary of the Interior.

At a packed news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, representatives from nearly two dozen groups depicted Norton as an "ideological extremist" whose views regarding public lands issues and federal environmental laws are sharply at odds with the beliefs held by most Americans.


Gale Norton, President-elect Bush's nominee for Interior Secretary

But more importantly, Norton's views and past deeds suggest that she would work to actively undermine the very set of federal laws that she would be compelled to enforce if she were to be confirmed as a presidential cabinet secretary, group leaders said.

"Her views are so far out of the mainstream that she will be asked when she takes the oath of office to swear to uphold an entire series of laws, statutes and regulations in which she does not believe, and which she in fact believes are unconstitutional," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "I do not think it is reasonable for the Senate to give its consent to a nominee who will have to [swear] to uphold laws in which she does not believe."

The Sierra Club and other conservation groups were quick to condemn Norton's nomination when it was announced by Bush some two weeks ago. The groups were horrified to learn that Norton had once worked for James Watt, who was sharply criticized by the environmental community during his tumultuous stint as President Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary in the early 1980s.

But the drumbeat to scuttle Norton's confirmation grew louder and broader earlier this week, when a Washington based environmental research organization unearthed a speech that Norton had given in 1996, when she was serving as Attorney General for the state of Colorado.

In her 1996 speech to Colorado's conservative Independence Institute, Norton lauded Confederate soldiers who were willing to die during the Civil War to defend state sovereignty and state rights against the federal government. She told her conservative audience that "We lost too much" when the Confederate Army was defeated, and added that "we certainly had bad facts" when "we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery."

The speech provided additional fodder for conservation groups, which interpreted the remarks to mean that that Norton would choose not enforce key federal environmental laws if she were to be confirmed as Interior Secretary. The revelation of the 1996 speech also galvanized national civil rights groups, some of which have now joined the effort to block Norton's appointment.

"She exhibited a wanton insensitivity towards slavery and its descendants when she bemoaned the Confederacy's defeat as a loss of states' rights, and equated slavery with 'bad facts,'" said Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Just as [Norton] surely will not be hugging trees, her record suggests she will not enhance efforts or embrace efforts to end environmental racism, which ravages so many communities of color," Bond said.

Bush has thus far stood firm behind the embattled Norton, dismissing charges that his Interior nominee is a racist as "ridiculous." Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer on Thursday reiterated that position, saying that critics have put forth "a wild distortion" of what Norton actually meant in her 1996 speech.


President-elect Bush continues to support Norton and John Ashcroft, his embattled nominee for Attorney General (Photo courtesy Texas Governor's Office)

That is not good enough for Norton's critics, who have launched a fervent lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to derail Norton's nomination. The Sierra Club's Pope said that the Senate "could do the President-elect no greater favor" than to vote against Norton during her confirmation hearing next week.

Pope said that the circumstances surrounding Norton's confirmation hearing next week are not unlike those that existed in 1981, when only 12 Senators voted against the confirmation of James Watt. Watt's tumultuous battles with the environmental community raged in the public spotlight for nearly three years before he was ousted, after having described the members of a federal advisory panel as "a black ... a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

"I am reasonably certain that both the President and his chief advisors came to wish later that far more Senators had stood up for the views of the American people who had sent them the warning signs that James Watt was going to be trouble for the Reagan administration," Pope said. "We believe that Gale Norton would be trouble if confirmed for the Bush administration."

Greg Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council rejected the argument sounded by key Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week that no cabinet nominee has been rejected - or should ever be rejected - on philosophical or ideological grounds.

"Is there no limit to the degree to which a nominee's ideology and philosophy are incompatible with the mission of an agency?" Wetstone asked. Would we [confirm] an anarchist for a cabinet position? A communist? A Nazi?"

"If there is a line - and would submit that for government to function there must be a line - then it is clear that Gale Norton is on the other side of it," Wetstone added.

Environmental groups have come to oppose Norton's nomination for a host of reasons. Among them:

"Ms. Norton might be the right person to lead the American Petroleum Institute or the National Mining Association, but she is the wrong person to lead the Department of the Interior," said Gene Karpinski, executive director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Ms. Norton's environmental enforcement record and her specific views on any number of issues are incompatible with the Secretary of Interior's role as a steward for our natural heritage."


Environmentalists have criticized Norton over her efforts to open the Arctic NAtional Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration (Photo courtesy ANWR)

Among the many groups opposing Norton's nomination is Republicans for Environmental Protection, a grassroots organization dedicated to fostering conservation values. The group's president, Martha Marks, joined the leaders of the other groups at Friday's press conference in Washington.

"I did not want to be here today," began Marks, who said she was a "lifelong Republican." "But as Republicans who believe that conservation is fundamentally conservative, we are compelled to speak out against the nomination of Gale Norton," she said.


Gale Norton, far right, talks with audience members after a 1997 speech (Photo courtesy Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association)

Marks said that her group will urge Bush to withdraw Norton's nomination, which she said did little to ameliorate the "image problem" that the Republican Party has when it comes to the environment. Marks said that Norton could have publicly distanced herself from the "extreme anti-environmental wing" that inhabits a "dark corner" of the GOP, which she said was founded on a platform of conservation values.

"We truly hate to oppose a Republican president's cabinet nominee," said Marks. "But the position we are talking about is too important for us to ignore - Gale Norton is the wrong choice for Interior Secretary."

The Sierra Club has taken the lead on the campaign to scuttle Norton's nomination, launching today a television and radio advertising blitz urging people to call on their Senators to vote against Norton's confirmation. The ads will run in seven states where the organization feels it has a chance of influencing Senate votes, said Pope, the group's president.

Pope and other environmental leaders said they have received some support for their campaign on Capitol Hill. But the leaders begrudgingly acknowledged that the campaign will most likely fail, and that Norton will probably be confirmed by the Senate next week.


Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York sits on the committee that will conduct Norton's confirmation hearing next week (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Still, the campaign will serve to better "educate" the American people about Norton's anti-environmental record, which could help Democrats pick up seats in Congress in the 2002 election, one environmental leader told ENS.

The campaign to derail the Norton nomination was ridiculed by the American Land Rights Association, which called the effort "Mickey Mouse politics." Chuck Cushman, the group's executive director, said the "green" groups are just worried that they "may have to share the national parks with families and senior citizens who don't drive $50,000 SUVs and wear Patagonia clothing every time they step outside."

Other groups such as the National Center for Public policy research praised Norton, saying her support for opening the "oil rich" Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration would "help reduce the financial sacrifices that Americans - especially minorities and the poor - must now make for energy."

"Gale Norton understands that developing ANWR is not a zero-sum ecological proposition," said John Carlisle, director of the group's environmental policy task force. "As Interior Secretary, [Norton] would balance environmental concerns with the equally important goal of insuring affordable energy to all Americans."

Norton's confirmation hearing is slated for next Thursday, January 18, in the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee.