22 to Know

Our Picks for an Obama Cabinet

In These Times Editors and Contributors

David Bonior, Ellen Laipson and Earl Blumenauer (clockwise from left) -- three ways an Obama administration could bring <i>real</i> change to Washington.

In 2007, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll asking Americans if they could identify a man named Robert Gates. As the Iraq War raged, fewer than one in four respondents knew he was the secretary of defense. Is this a sad commentary on whether the public is following events in Iraq? Perhaps. But more likely it’s a reflection of the overall obscurity of our government’s top decision makers.

In a media environment that portrays presidents as the sole messianic implementer of their agenda, the steep drop-off in name recognition is predictable – even if it belies how power really works.

Far more than a brain trust of advisers, the U.S. Cabinet has been the instrument by which political rhetoric becomes public policy. From Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (under FDR) to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (under Ford and Bush II), Cabinet officials have been the chief sculptors and enforcers of the best – and worst – presidential policies. 

In many ways, administrations are the sum of their Cabinets’ work, and that axiom would be especially powerful should Sen. Barack Obama win the 2008 election. With just four years of federal legislative experience, the Illinois senator would be the antithesis of the old Washington hands who tend to occupy the Oval Office – and based on his campaign themes, he will likely enter office with a mandate for progressive change. 

Which raises the question: What would a truly progressive Cabinet look like? There has been no such thing in at least a generation (if not longer), so it is a difficult – but critical – question to answer. After all, who heads our federal government’s major departments will have an impact on all issues, from Africa policy to zero-tolerance criminal sentencing. 

In These Times asked its editors and writers to suggest their top progressive choices for a potential Obama Cabinet. We asked that contributors weigh ideological and political considerations, with an eye toward recommending people who have both progressive credentials and at least an arguable chance at being appointed in an Obama White House.

This group of people would represent at once the most progressive, aggressive and practical Cabinet in contemporary history. Of course, it is by no means a definitive list. It is merely one proposal aimed at starting a longer discussion about the very concept of a progressive Cabinet – and why it will be important to a new administration, especially if that administration is serious about change.

—David Sirota

Energy: Dan Reicher

Climate change and America’s fossil-fuel dependency are two of the biggest challenges an Obama administration will face. Ironically, the job of energy secretary is ill-suited for tackling them. Most of the Energy Department’s $25 billion budget goes toward maintaining the nation’s nuclear-weapons stockpile and handling waste disposal – leaving only a fraction for developing alternative energy sources. It’s tough to direct a clean-energy revolution with that portfolio.

Still, there’s room for improvement. Under the Bush administration, the department has abandoned many of its successful partnerships to boost efficiency and curb emissions in dirty industries, while prioritizing costly clean-coal and hydrogen fuel-cell boondoggles that have achieved little.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has voiced interest in this position, but a head-cracking superstar like him might be better slotted in a new climate czar” role. After all, the task of de-carbonizing the U.S. economy will be so titanic that someone will need to coordinate all the different agencies – from agriculture to transportation. 

The Energy Department needs a smart manager who values sound research and understands the importance of efficiency – the cheapest, quickest way to curb our carbon output. Over the past year, Dan Reicher, a former assistant secretary of energy under President Clinton, has been doing just that – as head of Google’s new climate and energy fund, seeding innovative projects across the country, from geothermal research to plug-in hybrids. His recent congressional testimonies have smartly laid out how better federal policy could spur trillions in private investment toward cleaner and more-efficient technologies – just the questions the department should be obsessing over.

–Bradford Plumer

Labor: David Bonior

Obama’s best choice for secretary of labor would be David Bonior, who from 1976 to 2002 served as the progressive congressman from the Macomb and St. Clair County suburbs outside Detroit – the famous district of Reagan Democrats. During his tenure, Bonior championed unions, opposed trade agreements like NAFTA, and criticized both President Reagan’s Central American counter-insurgency policies and President Clinton’s civil liberties policies.

After Michigan Republicans re-drew his district in 2000 and he lost a bid for governor two years later, Bonior became chair of American Rights at Work, a labor-sponsored coalition of non-union groups advocating worker rights, especially the freedom to organize unions.

That work bolsters his credentials for pushing one of organized labor’s top legislative goals: the Employee Free Choice Act. The measure would provide for union recognition when a majority of workers in a workplace sign cards indicating they want a union, increase penalties for labor law violations and guarantee access to arbitration to establish a first contract if employers refuse to bargain seriously.

Leaders on both sides of the AFL-CIO/Change To Win divide respect Bonior, who managed John Edwards’ presidential campaign. Bonior’s time as party whip for a decade gives him experience working with Congress for what will be a tough fight on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act, even with a large Democratic majority. And his stature would guarantee a strong voice in Obama’s Cabinet for both unions and broader workers’ interests, from the local workplace to the global economy.

–David Moberg

Transportation: Earl Blumenauer

Last summer, as Congress wrestled with energy legislation, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) offered a simple, $1 million proposal to encourage bike commuting. To his disbelief, the plan was ridiculed by a number of Republicans, including Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who called two-wheelers a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.” In a prospective Obama administration, Blumenauer should get the last laugh.

An eco-friendly labor advocate from Portland, Blumenauer couldn’t be more representative of his liberal district, which he’s served since 1996. In the Oregon legislature and later on the Portland city council, Blumenauer helped direct Portland’s planning renaissance, championing bike lanes, light rail and streetcars. He brought his emphasis on smart growth to Washington, advocating for high-speed rail and launching the Congressional Bike Caucus. In fact, nobody in his congressional office applies for a parking permit.

An early and vocal supporter of Obama, Blumenauer could be tapped as transportation secretary, a post that will undoubtedly grow in importance as the United States grapples with rising energy prices and climate change. He seems to be preparing for the role. In July, he co-wrote a substantive energy bill that subsidizes telecommuting, public transit and transit-friendly affordable housing. 

But the biggest challenge facing the new transit guru will come next year, when Congress revisits the Transportation Bill. If Blumenauer can redirect more revenue from the nation’s gas tax to alternative forms of transit, he’ll be laughing his way to a future where Americans live better with less oil.

–Adam Doster

U.S. Trade Representative: Marcy Kaptur

Polls show the public overwhelmingly opposes America’s NAFTA-style trade policies, and Obama has committed to reforming those policies as president. Part of doing that means naming a fair-trade voice as his lead trade negotiator – and no voice for trade reform has been more dogged than Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-Ohio).

A 13-term House member, Kaptur serves on the Appropriations Committee – one of Congress’ most powerful panels. As Toledo’s representative, she has seen firsthand the devastation that comes with unfair trade pacts, and has led the fight against every major lobbyist-written deal that has come through Congress – from NAFTA to China PNTR to CAFTA. 

That personal connection to the trade issue would serve Kaptur well in international negotiations where compromise too often means selling out the American worker. Similarly, Kaptur’s longtime experience in the House would be critical in powering fair-trade deals through what remains a corporate-dominated Congress.

Presidents of both parties have treated the trade representative position as an ambassadorship to a banana republic, appointing go-along-to-get-along hacks – such as former Clinton campaign chairman Mickey Kantor – who use the department as a taxpayer-funded training program for their post-government career in the corporate whorehouse.

Kaptur would be far different.

–David Sirota

Head of EPA: Daniel Kammen

To head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Obama would make a smart choice with University of California, Berkeley, public policy professor Daniel Kammen. 

A senior energy and environmental aide to the Obama campaign, Kammen is the founder and director of the school’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, which designs, tests and disseminates renewable energy systems for industrialized and developing nations. He is also co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, which looks at environmental problems and their solutions. 

At 46, Kammen signals the kind of youthful vitality the EPA needs. And as someone outside the Washington bubble, he hasn’t been tainted by the political wranglings that have screwed up U.S. environmental policies for so many years. 

As someone with a background in environmental issues and a primary focus on energy, Kammen has the necessary experience to address the two-headed beast of sound energy and climate policy. 

He was also a coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, which means that, unlike the current political appointees in the EPA, Kammen is well aware of the significance and urgency of this threat.

–Kate Sheppard

Federal Reserve Chair: Marion or Herbert Sandler

Firing up the printing press at the U.S. Mint and handing over billions in cash to Wall Street con artists isn’t a serious monetary policy – but that’s been Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s response to the housing and credit crisis. When Bernanke’s term expires in 2010, either Marion or Herbert Sandler would be a welcome replacement. 

Over four decades, the husband-and-wife team built Golden West Financial into one of the most stable and successful mortgage companies – and they did it through the kind of responsible lending practices that the greed-is-good crowd mocked. 

As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2007, Golden West historically had very low levels of bad loans, which Mr. Sandler has attributed to his bank’s careful vetting of borrowers and their credit.” Indeed, the Journal noted that the Sandlers were frequent critic[s] of competitors who required no down payment, set interest rates that reset quickly at high rates and sold bundled loans to far-off investors.” They also spoke out against the lax lending practices that pervaded the industry for the past few years – even writing a letter to federal regulators last year in support of tighter standards.” That’s precisely the kind of foresight America’s bank of banks desperately needs.

What’s more, the Sandlers are about as progressive as bankers come – and they put their money where their politics are. Their foundation underwrites, among others, the Center for Responsible Lending and the National Women’s Law Center. 

A Federal Reserve chairperson with a vague familiarity with – much less a connection to – such groups would inject a populist perspective into an institution whose secrecy and insularity has made it one of the elite’s most reliable weapons in the class war.

–David Sirota

Defense: Sarah Sewall

Admittedly a long-shot candidate, Sarah Sewall should be the next defense secretary. 

During the Clinton administration, Sewall served as the first deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. 

Currently the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and a lecturer in public policy, Sewall also directs the Center’s program on national security and human rights. 

Sewall has worked at a variety of defense research organizations. In addition to writing the introduction to the University of Chicago edition of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007), she has written widely on U.S. foreign policy, multilateralism, peace operations and military intervention. She currently focuses on civilians in war, facilitating dialogue between the military and human rights communities on the use of force.

One of the biggest challenges facing our country today is recognizing – and adequately responding to – the broad spectrum of threats we face in our globalized world. That includes environmental changes and disease pandemics that are contributing to global conflicts. It also includes the weaponization of space; the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and the extravagance of bloated military budgets – while our schools crumble and nearly 46 million Americans go uninsured. 

The mindless use of military might – at the expense of meaningful diplomacy – has left the United States much disliked today. America seems to have lost its moral compass and with it, the ability to lead by example – once a hallmark of our nation. 

With Sewall’s extensive background in policy, defense and national security, she understands these challenges and would work to restore American leadership.

–Jody Williams

Commerce: Margot Dorfman

For decades, the Department of Commerce has represented the interests of the U.S. global business elite to the detriment of healthy and sustainable commerce. 

Since the 80s, the department has done little to abate the destruction of Main Street enterprise, the collapse of our manufacturing base, the looting of our public infrastructure, massive global outsourcing of jobs, and rampant tax shifting to overseas tax havens.

A prospective Obama administration should nominate Margot Dorfman for secretary of commerce. Dorfman would advocate for Main Street, not Wall Street, and for business owners and employees, not absentee shareholders. She would support high-road enterprise that encourages real investment and healthy growth, not speculation, outsourcing and exploitation.

As CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Dorfman has supported sustainable business development, durable economic policies, community entrepreneurship, worker education, and small business development for women and people of color. Prior to that, Dorfman worked for General Mills and several small enterprises.

When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce led the fight against raising the federal minimum wage in 2007, Dorfman and the Women’s Chamber led the fight to raise it. We all lose when American workers are underpaid,” she said. She has been a leading voice with Business for Shared Prosperity, a national network of forward-thinking business leaders. 

Sub-appointments: Van Jones, of the Ella Baker Center, to direct the Commerce Department’s new green jobs initiative,” and John Arensmeyer, of Small Business Majority, to oversee the economic development administration.

–Chuck Collins

Interior: Susan Williams

The most serious challenge facing the new secretary of interior will be the bureaucratic mayhem that politicians have created. Worse, many of these lawmakers still fail to recognize Native people as part of true sovereign nations, especially in relation to the United States. 

Susan M. Williams – a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota tribe – would help untangle this mess. Her commitment to the environment and her involvement in civic affairs make her an excellent choice for the post.

After getting a degree from Harvard Law School (and working there as a lecturer), Williams worked in firms committed to Native law and served on boards that focus on improving relations between the federal government and tribes. 

Typically, the Interior Department oversees efforts to uphold treaty rights and agreements with the federal government. What’s at stake for Native people is the right to live on healthy land, have access to clean water and maintain control over their natural resources. The department also assists Indigenous tribes in creating a sustainable future for themselves.Williams lobbied for amendments that affected tribes’ water rights and tax status.

Add to this résumé Williams’ membership in various bar associations – the American Bar Association, District of Columbia Bar, New Mexico Bar and the U.S. Supreme Court Bar – and she couldn’t be better qualified for the position.

–Winona LaDuke

FDA Commissioner: David Blumenthal

For Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, the pick should be Dr. David Blumenthal, director of the Institute of Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

One of the top issues the next commissioner will face is regulating the pharmaceutical and medical-device industries.

Under the Bush administration, FDA scientists have been beset with low morale and widespread concern that they cannot do their jobs without risk of inappropriate political interference. 

This decade, Blumenthal has shown independence from the pharmaceutical industry. He is a critic of detailing, drug-makers’ use of salespeople to pressure physicians to prescribe their most expensive medicines. He supports government use of drug formularies, which is an effective way of negotiating lower drug prices and protecting access to needed medicines. Blumenthal also advocates for comparative effectiveness research – an approach to studying the safety and efficacy of medicines that could save many lives. 

Blumenthal was the founding chairman of AcademyHealth, the national organization of health services researchers. From 1995 to 2002, he served as executive director for the Task Force on Academic Health Centers at the Commonwealth Fund – a foundation whose goal is to improve healthcare quality for low-income people, the uninsured, young children, people of color and the elderly.

–Raman Castellblanch

Director of National Intelligence: Ellen Laipson

For director of national intelligence, President Obama should nominate Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center – a nonprofit public policy institute that focuses on peace and security issues. 

I worked with Laipson at Stimson for four years and I know she values the knowledge found inside the bureaucracy – even if that knowledge can be difficult to extract. As director, Laipson would modernize the institution so that the intelligence community is the best information resource in government. 

From 1997 until 2002, Laipson was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council. Before that, she was special assistant to the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. She has had stints working for the Congressional Research Service, on the policy planning staff of the State Department and as a policy director at the National Security Council, giving her an invaluable perspective on policy. 

In 2000, Laipson was responsible for one of the most forward-thinking public documents on intelligence and national security: Global Trends 2015, which pointed out transnational threats like criminal networks and terrorism. It remains highly relevant today.

Successful intelligence gathering in the coming years will require mending international good will. In that regard, Laipson’s U.N. experience will serve her well. More importantly, her expertise lies in the Middle East – especially Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. 

As director of national intelligence, Laipson must restore Americans’ trust in its intelligence agencies. She can do this by working to resolve concerns about torture and surveillance, by putting a stop to the privatization of intelligence, by including Congress in the dialogue, and by communicating with Americans to build mutual understanding and respect. 

–Lorelei Kelly

The Energy Department needs a smart manager who values sound research and understands the importance of efficiency -- the cheapest, quickest way to curb our carbon output
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.

–Phyllis Bennis

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.

–Jessica Clark

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. 

–Barbara Miner

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.

–Laura Washington

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.” 

–Salim Muwakkil

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.

–David Moberg

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. 112001.) 

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.

–Moustafa Bayoumi

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.

–Rob Richie

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.

–Ramon Castellblanch

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

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Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

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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.”
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