Old friends are recommending former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell as a replacement for outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., sent a letter to President Bush, asking him to consider Campbell. If selected, he would be the first American Indian to head the agency that oversees tribal issues and vast tracts of federal lands.
Allard said Campbell’s background “lends itself well to the multiple roles he would be required to play as Secretary of Interior,” citing Campbell’s past work chairing the Indian Affairs committee and his focus on land, water and energy issues _ areas that the Interior Department oversees.
In an interview, Allard also said that as an Indian, Campbell could help resolve a long running class-action lawsuit over the department’s alleged mismanagement of Indian trust account funds, which are to compensate Indians for the use of their lands for energy development and grazing, among other things.
Allard said he was among “some rather important senators” who have urged the White House to consider Campbell for the job. Although Campbell was a Democrat turned Republican and earned a reputation as a maverick while in Congress, he would be a good fit for the agency, Allard said.
“He has his own issues and so forth, but fundamentally, he’s a team player,” Allard said.
The White House does not comment on pending nominations until final decisions are made, a spokesman said.
Longtime Campbell adviser Dave Devendorf said Campbell started getting encouraging calls from former colleagues since shortly after Norton made her announcement on Friday. Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, said she was leaving Interior this month to pursue opportunities in the private sector.
“Some of Ben’s former colleagues called him over the weekend saying they’d just like to see him in that position,” Devendorf said. “The White House makes their own decisions. I’m sure they probably already have an idea of who they’re going with.”
Campbell, who turns 73 next month, retired from the Senate at the end of 2004 and now works for the law and lobbying firm Holland & Knight.
He was one of the more colorful figures ever to serve in Congress, bringing an eclectic resume as a Korean War veteran, Olympic judo contender, jewelry designer, horse trainer, truck driver and honorary chief from the Northern Cheyenne tribe.
In terms of style, Campbell might be the polar opposite of Norton. While she is relatively soft-spoken, lawyerly and rarely strays from her talking points, Campbell is known to blast political foes or journalists at times, and he once got into a fracas with a Capitol Hill mugger.
“I’m thinking somebody of his temperament in that agency might do some good,” Allard said. “He might straighten them around. He’s a straightforward guy who doesn’t take a lot of malarkey, and I take that as a positive.”
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at SprengelmeyerM(at)shns.com)