Features » September 26, 2008
22 to Know (cont’d)
Secretary of State: Jim McDermott
Secretary of state has two major tasks: To define and represent U.S. interests in the world, and to bring the rest of the world’s interests to the United States. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) – a 10-term member of Congress and a Progressive Caucus stalwart – would do both.
McDermott has been a consistent voice for single-payer healthcare, for increased funding for the U.S. and global HIV/AIDS crisis, and for maintaining the estate tax. And he has stated unequivocally that Big Oil and the Iraq War are causing skyrocketing oil prices.
Like any U.S. politician, his record isn’t perfect, particularly on trade. But unlike most of his colleagues, McDermott is independent and willing to think and act outside the Washington box.
McDermott actively opposes U.S. threats of war against Iran, and he has challenged Israel directly, saying it’s “both appropriate and urgent for the U.S. to raise questions about [Israel’s] intentions” toward Iran.
Secretary McDermott would not only call for redeploying combat troops out of Iraq, he would also press for bringing home all U.S. troops and mercenaries. He would enforce ignored laws prohibiting U.S. bases there. And he would immediately renounce U.S. efforts to control Iraq’s oil. In fact, he read into the Congressional Record the full text of the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty, which set the same terms for British control of oil that the Bush administration is trying to impose on Iraq today.
Secretary of State Jim McDermott would reclaim the primacy of diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy.
FCC Chairman: Michael Copps
In his two terms on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Michael Copps has done yeoman’s duty, consistently protecting the public’s stake in the communications spectrum under a string of hostile chairmen.
In his first term, Copps helped launch a series of public hearings about media consolidation. In 2007, he announced his American Media Contract, which asserts citizens’ rights to “programming that isn’t so damned bad so damned often.” And at the 2008 National Conference for Media Reform, Copps called for tougher, more frequent FCC monitoring of local broadcast licenses, and the enforcement of net neutrality principles.
Trained as a historian at the University of North Carolina, Copps would bring nearly four decades of public and private sector experience to the position. He’ll need all of it to deal with the coming disruptions in the media environment.
On Feb. 17, 2009, the analog broadcast signal will be shut off, turning many Americans’ TVs into doorstops unless they subscribe to commercial cable or satellite services, or obtain a converter box. Coupons for those boxes are limited, and advocates for elderly, minority and low-income Americans warn that they may be cut off from crucial emergency and public information services.
A battle is also raging over new spectrum allocations: Consumer advocates argue that “white spaces” should be left open to provide options for affordable public wireless networks, while broadcasters counter that this would interfere with broadcast quality.
Meanwhile, media consolidation continues. Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin approved the recent merger of XM and Sirius, even though the move created a monopoly in satellite radio. Copps dissented, citing, as usual, the public interest.
It’s long past time such dissent became mainstream.
Education: C.J. Prentiss
An African American from Ohio, C.J. Prentiss has the background needed to confront the key tasks of any education secretary: maintaining a focus on student achievement, closing the achievement gap and mobilizing a broad constituency to demand reform beyond the current emphasis on teaching children to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.
For more than a quarter-century, Prentiss has been a legislator, policy-maker and community activist adept at building bridges among diverse groups. She currently heads a new initiative by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to increase the state’s graduation rate for African-American males.
Prentiss began as an organizer in the ’80s, working on literacy campaigns in housing projects. She went on to serve 15 years in the Ohio legislature, rising to become the Democratic leader in the Ohio Senate. For eight years, Prentiss also headed the Education Committee of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
She has developed initiatives that put into practice oft-stated goals of investing in children, involving parents and community, changing teacher practices, and closing the achievement gap. She demands more of teachers and schools, but refuses to scapegoat them: a delicate balance essential to any meaningful reform.
Because education is primarily a state responsibility, such a background will serve Prentiss well as education secretary.
Urban Development: Valerie Jarrett
Valerie Jarrett’s blue-ribbon résumé delivers a potent blend of corporate, government and civic “street cred.”
Jarrett, 51, is CEO of the Habitat Co. – a clout-heavy Chicago real estate firm – and the court-appointed overseer of the city’s massive plan to transform its notoriously decrepit public housing developments.
A lawyer by trade, Jarrett has served as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief of staff and planning commissioner, and has chaired the boards of the Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago Stock Exchange.
In 1991, Jarrett recruited Obama’s then-fiancée Michelle Robinson, for a job in Daley’s office. But first Jarrett had to pass muster with Obama. They sealed the deal over dinner, and today, Jarrett is a tight family friend and indispensable Obama confidante.
She’s well prepared for the treacheries of the Washington Beltway. Jarrett has stood down an array of Chicago characters, like cranky transit riders, vociferous public housing activists and mendacious aldermen. Friend and foe consider her a no-nonsense, astute operative.
The first woman at Housing and Urban Development’s helm will need to navigate multiple threats to the American Dream of home ownership: the subprime loan debacle, an affordable-housing crisis and skyrocketing foreclosures, to name a few. Whatever her prescriptions, she’ll have the president’s ear.
Then again, Jarrett – who has been called “the other side of Obama’s brain” – may be better suited for a Karl Rove-ian role in the White House.
Attorney General: Charles Ogletree Jr.
For the post of attorney general in an Obama administration, Charles Ogletree Jr. would be a good choice.
Ogletree, a tireless advocate for social justice causes, is the founder and director of the Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, which focuses on issues relating to race and justice, sponsors research and provides policy analysis.
Ogletree is another one of Obama’s Harvard professors-turned-adviser. He counsels the candidate on constitutional and criminal justice issues. He would be the perfect antidote to a justice department poisoned by illegal, politicized hiring, a reprehensible tolerance for torture and a refusal to enforce civil rights legislation.
Before joining the Harvard faculty in 1985, Ogletree served as a public defender in the District of Columbia, a position that helped shape his focus on civil rights and criminal justice issues. He has since earned a reputation as a brilliant legal theorist.
In 1991, he was legal counsel to Anita Hill during the Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas.
Ogletree has also been a prominent media presence, moderating several PBS forums and serving as a commentator on national news programs.
He is author of several books, including From Lynch Mobs To The Killing State: Race And The Death Penalty In America in 2006, and the 2004 book All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education.
Ogletree is co-chair of the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group of attorneys pursuing a legal route to reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans.
In 2000 and 2002, the National Law Journal named him one of the “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.”
Agriculture: Jim Hightower
Two current U.S. senators would make excellent secretaries of agriculture.
One is Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin has been a committee chair and leader on agriculture issues, opposing deregulation and favoring supply management, conservation, antitrust actions and many progressive policies – only some of which he has managed to put into law.
The other is freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), an organic farmer with a distinctive flat-top haircut. Tester is a populist who is sympathetic to environmental issues and critical of corporate globalization. He might push more comprehensive reform than Harkin would.
But here’s the problem: Both are needed in the Senate.
Luckily, Obama can call on Jim Hightower, who is best known for his crusading print and radio journalism and his pithy, punchy, populist proverbs – like his book title, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
But the funny, feisty Hightower also knows his farm and food issues. As Texas Agriculture Commissioner from 1983 to 1990, he promoted organic agriculture, alternative crops (like wine grapes and native plants), direct international marketing by small farmers, strong pesticide control and comprehensive environmental management.
Hightower would be a cheerfully combative complement to Obama’s ultra-cool post-partisanship (although he may have been too post-partisan for some Democrats by supporting Ralph Nader in 2000).
If Obama ever needs a Cabinet member to attack the fat cats who keep the sweet stuff for themselves on the top shelf – out of reach for the little guy – he could send Hightower, who would perform the task with glee.
Homeland Security: Donald J. Guter
Retired Rear Adm. Donald J. Guter, one of the many principled military lawyers who voiced strong opposition to the failed policies of the Bush administration, would make a great secretary of homeland security.
Guter was the Navy’s top lawyer from 2000 until retiring in 2002, after 32 years of service. (He was also in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.)
One of the first insiders to challenge then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Guter waged an internal battle against the military tribunal system, arguing that it was inherently unjust.
In 2003, he was one of three high-ranking military officers to file an amicus brief on behalf of detainees being held indefinitely at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.
Last year, when Attorney General Michael Mukasey was mumbling murky answers about the legality of waterboarding during his Senate confirmation hearings, Guter and three other retired military lawyers sent a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), arguing that “waterboarding is inhumane, it is torture, and it is illegal.” He is currently dean of Duquesne University’s law school.
First order of business for Guter as secretary of homeland security? Change the department’s awful, Third Reich-sounding name. Next, he should work closely with the attorney general to restore the full rule of law, from which true security derives, by abolishing racial and religious profiling, repudiating programs that encroach on the privacy rights of citizens (warrantless wiretapping, spy satellites on domestic targets, and the like), and implementing a humane and equitable immigration policy.
FEC Chairman: Spencer Overton
If Barack Obama is elected, he would take office with arguably more knowledge about what’s wrong with our current election system – and how to reform it – than any president since the framers of the Constitution. At the University of Chicago, Obama taught election law courses covering public financing, the Electoral College, proportional representation and universal voter registration. He has sponsored state legislation to establish instant runoff voting and federal legislation to stop deceptive electoral practices.
As a result, Obama’s choice to head the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which regulates campaign finance legislation and provides a bully pulpit for improving democracy, should be a good one. He could do little better than George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton.
A visionary academic grounded in reality, Overton has served on the boards of Common Cause – a nonprofit that advocates for an open and accountable government – and of Demos – a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization. He has written widely on campaign financing and knows the rules, regulations and needed reforms.
More than one in four eligible U.S. voters is unregistered to vote, and campaign finance inequities are worse than ever. Moreover, our system’s winner-take-all rules make most voters spectators in presidential and congressional races.
With more than 12,000 jurisdictions making independent decisions affecting federal elections – often with limited guidance and insufficient funding – a strong FEC member is needed to revamp the country’s antiquated, voice-suppressing, vote-wasting elections, and to unify a partisan commission. Overton would bring the passion, knowledge and civility necessary to do just that, and ensure every vote counts and every vote matters.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Maj. Ladda “Tammy” Duckworth
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the federal government’s second largest department (after defense). With an annual budget of more than $90 billion, the VA employs more than 230,000 people at hundreds of VA medical centers, clinics and benefits offices that assist many of the 60 million U.S. veterans and their families.
But the Bush administration has woefully mismanaged the department, which is suffering from overcrowded facilities, lenghty waiting lists and a backlog of disability claims. The present state of affairs is the result of poor leadership and a failure to anticipate and allocate the requisite funding to support the needs of an escalating veteran population.
According to Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, “The number of disability claims exceeds 600,000, with another 1.6 million claims expected in the next two years.” Overcrowded VA mental health facilities cannot provide comprehensive care to the hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. Not surprisingly, the suicide rate among veterans and service members is the highest it has ever been.
Maj. Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee pilot of the Iraq War, has the character and credentials to serve as our nation’s secretary of veterans affairs. Her years of distinguished military service and her firsthand knowledge of the VA system – she has served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs since 2006 – would serve her well.
Duckworth is the best choice to deliver what millions of veterans need – and have failed to receive from the current administration.
–Luis Carlos Montalván
Health & Human Services: Kathleen Sebelius
For secretary of health and human services, Obama would do well to pick Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Three major obstacles face the next secretary. One, tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance. Two, any attempt to deal with this crisis will result in the private insurance industry – and its lobbyists – swooping in to turn policy changes into a windfall for itself. And three, for eight years, the department has been crippled by low morale and staff departures caused by Bush administration mismanagement.
The next secretary must have the ability to help undo this damage.
Sebelius has shown independence from the healthcare industry. While serving as Kansas insurance commissioner from 1995 to 2003, she rejected an attempt by Anthem insurance company to buy out Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas. As governor, she has challenged the pharmaceutical industry by advocating for the import of prescription drugs. She also set up a state agency to work on plans to obtain better prices for prescription drugs and other healthcare services.
Sebelius has a strong background in health policy, having served on President Clinton’s Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry.
Most importantly, her experience as a governor could provide her with the needed executive ability to fill this vital post.
Treasury: Elizabeth Warren
If treasury secretaries have legacies, the two with the most memorable in the last 16 years are Clinton Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and recent Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. At different points in their careers, both men championed extremist free-trade policies, had a hand in the deregulatory policies that led to corporate meltdowns; contributed to boom-bust cycles; and spent time heading investment banking behemoth Goldman Sachs. Perhaps the latest financial meltdown will break Goldman Sachs’ death grip – and maybe, just maybe, Elizabeth Warren will be the first woman to head this key department.
A renowned Harvard Law professor, Warren may seem an unconventional choice for a position typically held by a business titan. But a presidency whose economic prospects will pivot on cleaning up conservatives’ laissez-faire wreckage could use a tough-minded regulator at the helm of the government apparatus responsible for collecting taxes and policing Wall Street. Warren fits that description perfectly as one of the nation’s leading experts on the laws and regulations that the treasury department is supposed to enforce, but too often doesn’t.
Having made national headlines as a bestselling author and a leader in the fight against the lobbyist-written Bankruptcy Bill of 2005, Warren would set a new tone for a treasury department that has often been a bought-and-paid-for appendage of Corporate America.
David Sirota is a senior editor at In These Times and author of The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington (Crown Publishers). For a full list of biographies, click on "More Information."