Tribal leaders and Indians affairs officials are expressing optimism at President Barack Obama’s choice of Michael Connor to become the next Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior.
Obama announced July 30 that Connor, current Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at Interior and former top aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) at the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 2001 to 2009, is his nominee to fill the position. David Hayes resigned from the job in June.
If confirmed by the Senate, Connor would become the second in command under Secretary Sally Jewell at the agency.
An Interior official, speaking on background, said Jewell is impressed with Connor’s leadership style and strong connections on Capitol Hill, and she believes he possesses the necessary balance of policy expertise and management experience.
“She also liked that Mike has worked on some of the most difficult, intractable issues at Interior and (still!) enjoys the respect of his current and former colleagues and employees,” the official said.
Connor has roots with the Taos Pueblo, although he is not an enrolled tribal citizen. His maternal grandmother was an original member of Taos Pueblo’s water rights task force, and his mother was half Taos, but she was not an enrolled citizen of the tribal nation, the Albuquerque Journal reported.
According to Interior, Connor would be the first person with ties to Indian country to serve in the number two position at the department, which oversees many of the nation’s federal Indian affairs.
Tribal officials seem generally pleased with the nomination. Said Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, in a statement: “Throughout his career, Commissioner Connor has been a strong advocate for Indian country and issues affecting Indian country, particularly Indian water rights. His pragmatism and problem solving skills have earned him supporters from across the political spectrum. The Pechanga Band strongly supports Commissioner Connor’s nomination and hopes the Senate moves quickly to approve him as Deputy Secretary.”
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) also applauded the nomination in a statement: “Mr. Connor’s work with tribes in his role at the Senate Energy Committee demonstrates he is well prepared for the important duties of the Deputy Secretary to uphold the federal trust responsibility. We are confident that Mr. Connor will be a strong partner for Indian country, and we look forward to working with him to advance our nation-to-nation relationship.”
Compared to Hayes – who received considerable scrutiny from tribal leaders for his work on some Indian issues, including the stalled Carcieri fix, the flawed Cobell settlement, and internal organizational issues – Connor has a much stronger Indian affairs knowledge base coming into the position, said Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker.
Stearns, through his knowledge of Connor’s work while working in the Clinton administration and on Capitol Hill, said he “was a relentless supporter of tribal rights, especially when it came to defending the federal trust responsibility.” When Connor worked on the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as a staffer under Bingaman, he worked to preserve trust responsibility to tribes in the bill, Stearns recalled.
“When I worked with him…you didn't have to explain the trust responsibility, reserved rights, implicit divestiture or anything—he already knew it,” Stearns said. “And he knew that tribes were fighting for those rights because they were also fighting for their culture.”
Beyond his work in the Senate, Connor served at the Secretary of the Interior’s Indian Water Rights Office as director from 1999 to 2001 and as deputy director there from 1998 to 1999. He worked as a lawyer at multiple offices at Interior from 1993 to 1997, including the Southwestern Regional Solicitor’s Office, the Division of Indian Affairs, and the Solicitor’s Honors Program. He was a research assistant in the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado from 1991 to 1993, and he worked as a professional engineer in a variety of roles from 1984 to 1990.
Connor received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from New Mexico State University, and he is a Colorado Law School alumnus, where he studied Indian law under such notables as Charles Wilkinson and David Getches.