Why Heller should be Trump’s Interior Secretary

December 17, 2018 4:59 pm

Heller 2018 campaign video screenshot

Later this week Donald Trump could name Dean Heller to replace ethically challenged Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, and Heller might be the best person Trump could possibly name to the job.

Make no mistake, every person who is a possible Interior nominee — at least two Republican politicians from nearly every state in the intermountain west have appeared on one list or another — is ideologically, politically and professionally inclined to favor industry over conservation. They all have roughly similar takes on the concept of “multiple use” of federal lands: natural resource extraction AND commercial development. No one dedicated to conserving natural resources or demanding responsible behavior from industry will be nominated Secretary of Interior anytime soon. It is a Trump Republican administration, after all.

And while there used to be Republican environmentalists decades ago, they are very few and far between these days, and Heller certainly isn’t one of them. Heller is a different kind of throwback, to a time when senators from the intermountain west, almost always Republicans — and always men — spent what little clout they had to protect welfare cowboys from higher grazing fees while complaining that burdensome federal regulations were strangling the mineral industry.

Heller’s got chops on both those fronts. During the Bundy standoff — triggered, remember, because Bundy refuses (to this day) to pay grazing fees — Heller referred to Bundy and his supporters as “patriots.” And as for burdensome federal regulations, there is arguably no issue on which Heller has more expertise than the federal government’s “burdensome,” according to industry, penchant for stifling economic activity by protecting the habitat of those darned sage grouse.

In any Republican administration, Heller, having just lost his Senate seat, would be on the list to fill a vacant Interior Secretary post. It’s the one cabinet position that is almost exclusively reserved for politicians from mostly rectangularly shaped states out west. And during a Republican administration, the Interior Secretary is invariably someone with a history of complaining about “government overreach” and “federal bureaucrats.” That’s Heller all over.

And yet…

Heller did once administer a government department effectively and competently, when he was Nevada secretary of state. Heller over the years has also cast himself as someone who can work across the aisle, and it’s certainly more true of him than some of the others mentioned as Interior contenders (to take one extreme example, Adam Laxalt, inexplicably, is on the list). Remember that “No Labels” noise Heller used to make all the time? It was mostly just show, but it reflected at least some kernel of regard for the concept of common ground and compromise.

For that matter, so was Heller’s vote five years ago, when he was one of only 14 Republican senators to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Rekindling that impulse of compromise and effective governance, and bringing it to Interior — while staying scandal-free, of course — would make Heller something of a Trump administration anomaly: a capable, qualified, and non-grifting cabinet secretary. Oh, the policies would still be mostly atrocious. But they might be less atrocious than under, say, current Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt (or Secretary Laxalt, ha ha).

The prospect of running a federal department, and one that oversees the issues that he knows best and most, is obviously attractive to the soon-to-be-unemployed Heller. It’s not just a job. It’s a shot at redemption.

And yet…

How much trepidation must Heller feel to even consider reuniting his fate with Trump, a man who degrades, ruins and brings misery, disgrace, investigation and the occasional criminal charge to nearly everyone who willingly goes to work for him?

Other than the recently defeated Heller himself, no individual is more responsible for the fact that Heller was recently defeated than Trump.

And while a cabinet post traditionally has been a position of prestige, that distinction, that honor, like so much else, has all but disintegrated under Trump’s maladministration.

Zinke joins Tom Price (Health and Human Services) and Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency) as cabinet officers who have shown to have every bit as much regard for ethics, and love of con, as the man who appointed them. Next to go up in a ball of investigation will likely be Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who, at least according to those who have had the misfortune (literally) of doing business with him, is an inveterate grifter.

Heller, to his credit, has never seemed to be a crook. Well, not much of one, anyway. And should he fill the post at Interior, Heller would instantly be granted the same regard and stature currently reserved for those Trump cabinet officials who have not resigned in disgrace, such as Ben Carson and, of course, Betsy DeVos.

Okay, maybe those aren’t great examples.

But there’s still that bit about running a department effectively, and concentrating on issues that you care about without having to juggle the high-profile, hot-button politics that Heller boggled and hiccupped so very poorly, and at times shamefully, as a senator the last couple years.

Alas, effective, competent governance may not be what Trump is looking for in an Interior Secretary.

E&E News, a journal that focuses on energy and the environment, reported Monday on the prospects of Heller versus those of the aforementioned Deputy Secretary Bernhardt, whose ties to the energy industry are even closer than Zinke’s. On the one hand, just as Trump replaced the disgraced Pruitt with EPA deputy Andrew Wheeler, replacing Zinke with Bernhardt could be “an easy pick for Trump,” E&E reported. On the other hand, “Heller could serve as the ‘vocal mouthpiece’ the president is seeking on issues that have political sway,” an industry source told E&E.

Does the notoriously media-shy Heller want to be a “vocal mouthpiece” for an administration mired in enough scandal, investigation, corruption and controversy to make Richard Nixon seem quaint by comparison?

And despite Zinke’s exit, a new Democratically controlled House Natural Resources Committee intends to continue investigating the consequences of Zinke’s multiple ethical transgressions, and to bring far more oversight to Interior policy than Republicans have.

Heller could be about as good, which is to say not entirely horrible, an Interior Secretary as can be expected during what’s left of Trump’s farce of a presidency.

But if he gets the nod, for Heller to succeed in the job — and earn his redemption — he’ll have to do something he refused to do during his failed reelection campaign: stand up to Trump. If he can’t do that, Heller will spend the next couple years the way he’s spent the last couple, humiliating and demeaning himself for “a terrible human being.”

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.