When in early 2006 Idaho was mentioned as source material for a new federal Interior secretary, I was a little skeptical. But it panned out: The state’s then-governor, Dirk Kempthorne, was named and confirmed to the position.
My reason for being dubious wasn’t specific to Kempthorne. He was a second-term governor not seeking re-election (and presumably looking for his next landing place), with a fellow Republican who would succeed him and no disqualifying scandals or other problems. All of that made for understandable sense as a prospect.
My skepticism came from how Idaho almost always seems to be mentioned for Interior, but has been far more often bridesmaid than bride. Before Kempthorne, just one Idahoan led that department - another governor, Cecil Andrus - but someone in the state almost always seems to be mentioned as a prospect.
I was asked last week why that is, and the answer seems straightforward.
Much of it is regional - as in western regional. The Department of Interior’s activities are national in scope, but they seem to to tilt western. The bureaus of Land Management and Reclamation, two of Interior’s largest agencies, operate mostly in the western states. Western governors and legislators - including Idaho’s - tend to have some focus on environmental and natural resource issues, usually more than most of their colleagues to the east. A lot of BLM and Bureau of Reclamation leaders have come from the western states.
(You could say something similar for secretary of the Department of Agriculture, a job never filled by an Idahoan, with the qualified and partial exception of Ezra Taft Benson.)
These things are true for most of the western states. Consider where the recent Interior secretaries have come from: Ryan Zinke from Montana, Sally Jewell from Washington, Ken Salazar from Colorado, Kempthorne from Idaho, and before him Gale Norton of Colorado, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Manuel Lujan of New Mexico. The principle applies the same for both parties. The last non-westerner in the position was Don Hodel, in the Reagan Administration. Of the 26 secretaries in the last century, all but six have been westerners.
Few cabinet jobs seem to have a strongly specific regional attachment, but Interior does.
No wonder that as Zinke heads for the door, the list of possibilities to replace him is strongly western. Names mentioned on the long list include just-departed Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Representative Raul Labrador, both loosely plausible from a resume standpoint. Otter, 76 years old and just wrapping 12 years as governor, spent six years in Washington as a member of Congress and seldom missed an opportunity to say how much he wanted leave. Labrador is a better fit in some ways but Interior-related subjects do not seem to have been a high priority for him. He has never been an executive (many cabinet members are former governors). Besides that, he lost the Republican primary for governor last year, a primary many had expected him to win, which would not be the best positioning for building political capital in the Trump Administration.
My best guess for an Interior nominee, at least following the usual political logic, might be to look toward Nevada, which has two departing Republican top office-holders (Senator Dean Heller and Governor Brian Sandoval), both with some established strength in a competitive political environment. No Nevadan has ever been confirmed as Interior secretary, while states around it have contributed. (The same is true of Utah; might that state provide a possibility too?)
I remain a little skeptical for an Idaho answer to the new Interior opening. But there’s always room for a surprise.