The incoming Biden administration has announced its nomination for Secretary of the Department of the Interior: U.S. Representative Deb Haaland, a Native American from New Mexico who would replace Trump administration appointee David Bernhardt, a Coloradan termed "the ultimate swamp monster" by environmental groups.
Haaland’s nomination is undeniably historic. If confirmed, she'd be the first Native American to head the very federal agency that since 1849 has been managing — and often mismanaging — the U.S. relationship with the nation’s tribes. “A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland said in a tweet. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Haaland's selection is a stark departure from Bernhardt, who just tested positive for COVID-19, necessitating the closing of the Washington Monument because he'd led a recent after-hours tour there for other Trump cabinet members. That wasn't Bernhardt's most ill-advised appearance. In July he accompanied inexplicable Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump to Rocky Mountain National Park.
What are the other differences between the two? Here's just the start:
Haaland was born and raised in a military family in the Southwestern United States; she's a member of the Laguna Pueblo people, who have lived on the land that is now the state of New Mexico for over 800 years. Her work experience spans everything from owning her own small salsa company to law school to tribal management, which led to her political involvement on a local and national level. She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, where she quickly distinguished herself on several important House committees, including Armed Services, Natural Resources and Oversight.
David Bernhardt grew up in Rifle; he worked in state conservative politics and, later, for a lobbyist firm in Denver before being picked by the second Bush administration to work in the Department of the Interior. When that position ended in 2009, Bernhardt went directly back to that Colorado lobbying firm as the chairman of its natural resources law practice, where his clients included Halliburton, Cobalt International Energy and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and farmers fighting fish lovers in California. He de-listed himself as a lobbyist in 2016 so as not to appear to violate Trump’s then-ban on lobbyists joining his administration, which is the sort of situation for which the term “technicality” was coined. After several positions related to the Trump DOI, he was nominated to Deputy Secretary of the Interior under Ryan Zinke, whose scandals involving the egregious private use of public funds eventually brought about his resignation, and promoted to Secretary in 2019. Aside from moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Bernhardt’s tenure perhaps has been most notable for being Trump’s “designated survivor” during the 2020 State of the Union address, an achievement he earned by being picked last in Trump’s political kickball game.
In April 2017, Bernhardt was receiving a $20,000-a-month retainer from the San Joaquin Valley's Westlands Water District ,where he’d long served (and supposedly already stepped down) as a lobbyist.
In contrast, Haaland was still paying off her student loans from law school when she ran for U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.
Haaland got her start in tribal politics as the first chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, a Native-owned business created to strengthen the tribal community and its economic future.
Bernhardt’s first foray into politics was similarly local: At the age of sixteen, he argued in front of the Rifle City Council to avoid paying taxes on arcade video-game machines.
Policies and Practices
Bernhardt, as his client base might suggest, was decidedly pro-business in his work in natural resources, a “drill, baby, drill” guy. He worked both in and out of government on many of the same issues despite claims to the contrary — mainly, the prioritization of the agribusiness, oil, gas and mining industries over any credible environmental concerns. While he claimed at a confirmation hearing that he “implemented an incredibly robust screening process” to guard against conflicts of interest, Bernhardt was found by the General Accounting Office to have twice broken federal law; this finding was later overturned by Trump’s own Interior Department, with no sense of irony whatsoever.
Haaland, in contrast, is well known for working on behalf of both indigenous populations and the natural environment. An example of both: In 2016, she went to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to join tribal leadership in opposing the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Haaland was able to not only bring support from New Mexico labor unions, according to the Washington Post, but also homemade tortillas and green chile stew.
That's the difference between the two Americas today, illustrated in consecutive Interior secretaries: One brings warm homemade soup to a grassroots organization supporting the protection of the land and all that lives upon it. The other might as well drive a coal-burning Hummer with a bumpersticker that reads “MY MONEY > YOUR FISH.”
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