WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s point man charting a new future for the oil-poisoned Gulf Coast will do the job part-time. Some environmentalists said the job demands someone’s full attention.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who oversees 900,000 Navy and Marine personnel and is a former governor of Mississippi, is inheriting an amorphous second job as the Obama administration’s leader of long-term environmental and economic planning. His task is no less than rebuilding a region still suffering after Hurricane Katrina and beset by decades of environmental problems.
Mabus won’t resign from his Navy job. When President George W. Bush picked Donald Powell to lead the recovery after Hurricane Katrina, Powell resigned as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
“The president talked to the governor about this, and they both agreed that he had the ability to do both,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday after Mabus met with Obama at the White House.
That prompted quick criticism from the Defenders of Wildlife, which is working to save animals from the oil that has gushed from an offshore BP oil well for nearly two months.
“The idea that he is only going to work on this part-time is disturbing,” said Robert Irvin, the group’s vice president for conservation programs. “If this is the equivalent of war, as the president has been saying, it needs a full-time general.”
In his year at the helm of the Navy, Mabus has called for a cleaner, more energy-efficient fleet. But he is largely unknown among environmental groups dealing with the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. After Obama named Mabus in a speech Tuesday night, environmental leaders called around, asking each other for insight.
“I don’t know what demands being head of the Navy requires, but from what I’ve heard he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” said Jill Mastrototaro, the head of the Sierra Club for the Gulf region.
While Obama selected Mabus for his ties to the Gulf Coast, the wealthy businessman also has had financial ties to the oil industry. Environmentalists want to know more about that from the man charged with helping remake the coastal economy.
When Mabus joined the Obama administration, energy investments were among the largest holdings in his portfolio. Between $350,000 and $750,000 was invested in partnerships trading energy commodities such as crude oil and natural gas. He also owned between $15,000 and $51,000 in Exxon Mobil stock and as much as $69,000 in energy mutual funds.
Mabus, whose net worth is millions of dollars, sold all his energy holdings upon taking office, Navy spokesman Thomas Oppel said.
The White House has not said exactly what Mabus’ job will be, so it’s unclear what sway he will have over the future of Gulf Coast environmental regulations and economic development policies, two things that could affect the coastal oil industry.
“Nothing in his background would suggest he will do anything but put the interests of the people of the Gulf first as he completes this critical mission, and the president has full confidence in his leadership,” White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
Mabus was one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars when he was elected Mississippi governor in 1987. He had exposed county government corruption as state auditor and campaigned for governor with the slogan “Mississippi will never be last again.”
But Mabus had a strained relationship with lawmakers. In a state where legislators, not the governor, have the most power, Mabus saw many of his proposals snubbed. At his urging, lawmakers expanded Medicaid coverage, but other efforts such as spending more money on early childhood literacy never materialized.
In his new job, Mabus must build consensus across the region. Already there are signs that won’t be easy. Louisiana’s former Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer declared that Obama “could not have picked a better man,” but Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, was quick with a barb.
“If this is really what it sounded like — that is, the federal government is going to make a long-term plan for the Gulf states — then it’s a terrible idea,” said Barbour, a possible Republican candidate for president in 2012. “Mississippians will decide about Mississippi’s future.”
Oliver Diaz, who was elected to the Mississippi House from the Gulf Coast the same year Mabus took office, said that despite growing up in northern Mississippi nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the Gulf, Mabus developed strong political ties to the coast that will help him in his new job. Mabus is usually friendly but can be tough, Diaz said.
“He exercised the strength of the governor’s office when he had to. That’s just part of the job, and it’s going to be part of this new position that he’s been appointed to,” Diaz said. “He’s going to have to exercise some control, whether it’s with oil company executives or people affected by the spill. I think he’s a guy that is going to take control.”
In his only major environmental decision as governor, Mabus angered politically powerful farmers in 1989 by opposing a plan to build the world’s largest pumps to drain water from flood-prone areas in the Yazoo River basin in rural western Mississippi. Mabus said the proposed federal project would have damaged sensitive wetlands to help agricultural interests.
The project was discussed for decades, and the EPA eventually killed the $220 million proposal in 2008.
Mabus’ decision to allow dockside casino gambling along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast became his unexpected legacy. Millions of dollars poured into Mississippi’s budget, but in a state with historically weak environmental regulations, the decision allowed widespread development in sensitive coastal areas.
Mabus angered many of his own supporters — including, critically, the Legislative Black Caucus — by closing Mississippi’s three charity hospitals, which for decades had cared for some of the poorest people in the nation. He never recovered politically and lost the 1991 governor’s race to Republican Kirk Fordice, a blunt-spoken contractor.
During the re-election campaign, Mabus received $1,000 each from oil companies BP America, Shell and Chevron. Each gave the most allowed by law, a tiny fraction of a $3 million campaign that got much broader support from bankers and lawyers.
An early supporter of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s presidential bid, Mabus landed in the Clinton administration as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He was the top U.S. diplomat to the oil-rich nation from 1994 until shortly before the deadly Khobar Towers terrorist attacks in 1996.
After helping with Clinton’s re-election campaign, Mabus stepped out of politics. But he was cast into the public eye in 1998 because of a messy divorce with his wife, Julie. The divorce became national news because Mabus secretly recorded his wife’s conversation with a priest, catching her on tape admitting adultery.
Before being tapped as Navy secretary, Mabus sat on corporate boards and charities. As CEO of Foamex International Inc. from 2006 to 2007, Mabus steered the polyurethane foam products company out of bankruptcy. He owns more than 4,700 acres (1,900 hectares) of Mississippi timberland worth between $5 million and $25 million.
He was an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign, endorsing him in 2007 and surprising some political observers who had expected Mabus to support Hillary Rodham Clinton because of Mabus’ past political ties to Bill Clinton.
Political savvy may be the most important aspect of Mabus’ new job. Steven Peyronnin, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said Mabus can learn quickly about environmental problems. The cleanup effort so far has been dogged by criticism that nobody is in charge. Peyronnin said the coast needs someone who can make decisions and get things done quickly.