Idaho’s governor and a member of Congress from the state are among the candidates for Interior secretary as President Donald Trump seeks a replacement for Ryan Zinke.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador have been mentioned as possible candidates to replace Zinke, who in mid-December announced he would resign at the end of the year.
Otter and Labrador were also in the running when Trump was initially looking to fill the slot. Zinke, a former Montana congressman who took office as Interior secretary March 1, 2017, has been the subject of ethics investigations.
Idaho has already produced two Interior secretaries. Gov. Cecil Andrus served during President Jimmy Carter’s 1977-81 term. Dirk Kempthorne, a former governor and U.S. senator, served from June 2006 until the end of President George W. Bush’s second term in January 2009.
Idaho, which is about 60 percent federal land and home to the National Interagency Fire Center, “is one of a number of compelling choices” as the Interior secretary’s home state, said John Freemuth, Boise State University professor of public policy and Cecil D. Andrus Endowed Chair for Environment and Public Lands.
Neither Labrador nor Otter ran for re-election in 2018. Labrador, an immigration attorney and former Idaho legislator, in May lost in a contentious gubernatorial primary election. He was first elected to Idaho’s District 1 congressional seat, serving the state’s northern and far-west region, in 2010.
Otter, a rancher, a former District 1 congressman and past lieutenant governor, was elected governor in 2006, 2010 and 2014.
“You would have to have the right leader at the time to be picked, and the relationships,” Freemuth said. For example, Carter and Andrus, and Bush and Kempthorne knew each other as governors.
Much of what the Interior secretary does involves the western part of the country, and “public officials in the Western states tend to be a little more conversant with a lot of the activities that Interior undertakes,” said Randy Stapilus, a newspaper columnist and the author of several books about Idaho politics.
“The region is probably the larger factor,” Stapilus said. Interior West states have produced many recent secretaries, and “Idaho would certainly fit into the pattern.”
Otter declined an interview request. A spokesman, Jon Hanian, would not comment.
Officials in Labrador’s Idaho and Washington, D.C., offices could not be reached.
Heather Swift, senior advisor to the Interior secretary, said in a Dec. 28 email that the department is unable to respond to media inquiries unrelated to the lapse in appropriations, a reference to a partial government shutdown that started Dec. 22.
“Whether Gov. Otter wants to go back to Washington again, I have no idea,” Freemuth said. “But he certainly has a good handle on Western issues, so he would be a logical choice.”
Other candidates floated to replace Zinke — in addition to current Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt of Colorado — include:
• Former Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.
• Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
• Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
• Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico.
• Rep. Jeff Denham of California.
• Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.
• Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah.
• Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
• Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.
• Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
“You want an Interior secretary who understands Western issues, and that ideally means someone from the West,” Freemuth said. “Many times, the presidents aren’t from the West and don’t necessarily understand Western issues, so they need someone to help them understand.”
He said Heller is widely respected in both parties, Mead is bipartisan and has done a lot of work on the Endangered Species Act, and Lee has discussed public lands. Some say Bernhardt is too supportive of oil and gas development, “but nobody questions his competence. He has been there before.”
It would make political sense for Trump to nominate a Republican Western governor or former elected official, or to nominate Bernhardt or retain him as acting secretary as long as a new nominee is under review, Freemuth said. A new secretary also could come from industry or a conservative think tank.
“Because there is so much going on now, I wonder if there will be an urgency to appoint a new secretary for a while,” he said. “Bernhardt is competent and you have shutdown politics going on for now.”