By Maurine Jensen Proctor

On August 11, President Bush nominated Utah’s affable LDS governor to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and soon he will be packing his bags and heading to Washington D.C. for what could be a bruising confirmation hearing some time in September.  Democrats hope to use the occasion as a chance to blast President Bush on his environmental policies and stir the political pot, but most media sources see Leavitt weathering the onslaught.

The St. Louis Dispatch reported:

When Congress returns from summer break, Leavitt will find himself answering questions about secret land deals, contributions from polluters and even about the spread of fish disease from his family’s hatchery more than a decade ago.

But Leavitt might prove hard to demonize. His record during a decade in office includes successes in combating air pollution and preserving land, as well as an industry-friendly approach to regulation.

What’s more, allies and critics agree that he brings an operating style that lends itself to the rough-and-tumble of Washington: He’s likable, articulate and tough enough to withstand bruising encounters.

Clearly evident during the confirmation, too, will be the cultural clash between the values of the West with its sprawling outdoors disdain for regulation and the largely urban East.  Another debate-states rights against federal rules. For many Westerners, Washington is the problem, not the solution to environmental issues-folks from far away who think they have the answers.

A former EPA administrator during the Reagan era, Utah GOP Chairman Joe Cannon told The Salt Lake Tribune   that this heading the agency was a “tough, tough job” Cannon described the agency as a “buzz saw,” adding, “It could be called the Environmental Political Agency, too.”

Special interest groups with green in their eyes are vocal, funded and well-organized. 

What will work well for Gov. Leavitt as he faces hearings and then negotiating a difficult job is his record as an articulate, popular governor who has not only won the approval of the voters of his state for three terms, but also the broad support of both Republican and Democratic governors.

The Associated Press reported

Democrats and Republicans gathered at the governors’ summer meeting said Leavitt is widely respected and they expect he would be an advocate for state interests as the nation’s top environmental officer.

” He’s a man of great intelligence, always a consensus builder,” said Washington Gov. Gary Locke, chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association,. “I have the highest regard for Mike.”.

“We would do whatever we can get him confirmed,” said the Republican governor of Nebraska, Mike Johanns.

” Not only will I talk to our delegation but I would be happy to talk to others if he asks me to,” said Republican North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven.

So how are the nation’s newspapers weighing in on Governor Leavitt’s nomination?

The Deseret Morning News sees Gov. Leavitt’s star on the rise and emphasized how a politician who hails from a small town in a usually politically light-weight state caught the eye of the President.

Over the years, Leavitt has methodically crafted a national attention-getting effort, not content to confine politics and influence to the Beehive State.

He’s been chairman of the National Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association, the Western Governors Association and has served on three national committees, the result of White House or congressional appointments.

His past exposure as the nation’s longest-sitting governor involved in numerous platforms led him to a relationship with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The two, as representatives of their respective states, sat elbow-to-elbow at a table at the Republican Governors Association, sharing an impatience for long meetings and trading jokes when possible.

It was a friendship that would be cemented in 1998, when Leavitt quickly accepted an invitation to visit Israel and the Holy Land once he found out Bush was also going.

In a Deseret Morning News interview conducted soon after his return to the states – Leavitt professed to still be suffering from jet lag – the governor talked about the emerging friendship between him, wife Jackie, and George W. and Laura Bush.

The Deseret Morning News also suggested  that “ what likely led Leavitt to a top Bush administration slot was that trip to the ancient land and a quiet personal moment, perhaps even a shared religious experience between the two of them.”

Dan Harrie of The Salt Lake Tribune thinks Gov. Leavitt’s move is a gamble and quotes the governor: “As I talked to my friends about it, among certain of them is a look that could be interpreted as ‘What were you thinking?’ “  Why would anyone give up a job he says he “loves every day” for one as inherently dangerous politically as heading the EPA? 

It is true that the environmentalists have already started firing their salvos.  MSNBC said that everybody agrees Mike Leavitt is a “charmer” but beyond that “opinions splinter.”  They report:

His staff and admirers paint Leavitt as a moderate who has come up with King Solomon-like solutions that have encouraged development while protecting Utah’s magnificent vistas.
But in rural areas, some say Leavitt is not conservative enough, often placing “green” concerns ahead of his constituents’ desires.
  And environmentalists say Leavitt is a Humvee in camouflage, a ruthless politician whose charm disguises a militantly pro-business agenda.
LaVarr Webb, who served as Leavitt’s deputy on policy issues and was a campaign manager, dismisses such complaints. “It’s impossible for a western governor to be elected and supported by a majority of citizens and keep the Sierra Club happy,” he said.

Some environmentalists complain about Leavitt because the Bureau of Land Management was making moves to carve out 6 million acres of Utah (a parcel roughly the size of Vermont) as wilderness and Leavitt successfully sued to stop the BLM, reaching an April settlement to stop such strict restrictions on the land which would have banned roads and other development in the area. Environmentalists are mad that Leavitt wouldn’t deed Utah to them.

They also whine about the Legacy Highway that Leavitt was pushing through a section of the wetlands near the Great Salt Lake, a move they say would have damaged a fragile ecology.  They say that having Leavitt as chief of the EPA is like assigning a fox to every chicken.

Despite these detractors, however, Leavitt is widely seen as a moderate, balanced in his approach to the environment, and he has contributed to important accomplishments.

A Knight-Ridder reporter noted of Leavitt’s environmental record:

It includes successes so great that everyone wants to take credit for them and failures that have everyone pointing fingers in blame.

One Leavitt success story is visible on the edge of Great Salt Lake: the plant site for U.S. Magnesium. In 1992, U.S. Magnesium ranked No. 1 in the nation in toxic air pollution, spewing 36,000 tons of chlorine into the air. This year, the plant is on track to emit less than 2,000 tons of chlorine, years before a federal standard goes into effect.
Leavitt has stopped nuclear waste disposal on Indian lands in Utah, improved the water quality of the state, but most noteworthy with other Western governors, he has developed a new approach to environmental issues called “enlibra.”  It is the sort of give and take on issues that President Bush admires.

Chicago Tribune reporters describe it:

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, President Bush’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is a little-known figure in much of the country, but he has been a central figure in promoting principles of cooperation and flexibility in environmental regulations in recent years.
In the late 1990s, Leavitt and other Western governors spelled out the principles – and made up the word Enlibra to name them – calling for dialogue and consensus in the environmental arena rather than regulation and litigation.

Despite objections of environmental groups, the National Governors Association ultimately adopted Enlibra as part of its environmental platform in 1999, when Leavitt was chairman of the group.

The key concept is that by giving local officials authority to address problems, all interested parties can sit down and agree on rules that reward companies for protecting the environment instead of punishing them for failure to do so.

Washington Post columnist David Broder announced, “I have to confess that I am an unabashed Leavitt fan”  He said, “If anyone can revive the badly eroded tradition of bipartisan support for protection of God’s natural gifts to this nation, Mike Leavitt has as good credentials as could be found.”

Broder said, “What I can vouch for is that he consistently takes the long view of the needs of his state and nation and is almost invariably creative and constructive in seeking consensus.”

Earlier this year, Frank Luntz, a GOP consultant, wrote a memo in which he called the environment “the single issue on which Republicans in general and President Bush in particular are most vulnerable.”

President Bush called Leavitt a “trusted friend.”  It seems that is what he needs in this politically-delicate position.