The Wanted: Who Might Fill a Kerry Cabinet

Posted July 23, 2004 at 6:19pm

If the super-secret process used by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to choose his running mate is any guide, little will be known of his picks for a first-term Cabinet until Kerry himself is ready to announce them.

Still, party insiders and associates who are familiar with the candidate’s thinking suggest that the universe of top candidates has already taken shape — at least to a degree. And the way things look, few current Members of Congress are near the top of the A-list.

“This is not the same situation as a governor coming in without the contacts on the Hill, without the relationships,” said Hunter Johnston, a party strategist and Kerry fundraiser. With two veteran lawmakers — Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — topping the ticket, “This isn’t like Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan,” who had both served as governors but never in top positions in the nation’s capital.

Johnston cautioned that it is far too early to make firm predictions. But he added, “It’s a different matrix of considerations. In fact, I’d think [Kerry would] want to expand beyond the Congress for his administration.”

Practical considerations could also nudge Kerry away from picking lawmakers for his Cabinet. It is likely, for instance, that Kerry would have to rule out Members from states with Republican governors who have the power to appoint a replacement.

This could effectively rule out such prominent Democratic Senators as Chris Dodd (Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jack Reed (R.I.).

For now, the only sitting Senator who is a consensus pick for Kerry’s short list of potential Cabinet Members is Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who is frequently mentioned as a prospect for secretary of State. Another, less likely possibility is Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

A more likely scenario, say Democratic insiders, is for Kerry to look to the ranks of former Members of Congress. At the top of this list is former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who is often pegged as a potential secretary of Defense. Party insiders also tout former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who headed up the Veterans Affairs Administration during the Carter presidency. Since losing his Senate seat in a bitter battle in 2002, Cleland has provided Kerry with crucial outreach to fellow veterans.

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists often mention former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) — both of whom are members of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — as possible short-list contenders for director of the CIA. In addition, outgoing Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is considered an outside contender for that job.

Setting the Tone

Even if the ranks of sitting Senate Democrats are unlikely to be tapped for Kerry’s Cabinet, Senate Republicans are a different story.

Democratic Party insiders share an almost unshakable conviction that a President Kerry would seek a Republican for a key slot, probably a job in foreign policy or defense.

This belief immediately invokes consideration — whether they are interested or not — of Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), two Senators who have at times broken with President Bush on military and foreign-affairs matters. Then there’s former Sen. Bill Cohen (Maine) — someone who’s already gone through the experience of accepting a party-bending appointment as Defense secretary for President Bill Clinton. Cohen has had a close relationship with Kerry from their Senate days, Democrats say.

“I think, immediately, one of those three [Republicans] would be considered for Defense, potentially secretary of State,” said former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), a top party strategist. “I would expect Kerry to put a Republican in one of those positions.”

The Pentagon would seem to be more likely than State as a venue for a GOP pick. Kerry advisers and associates suggest the president-elect will want someone in Foggy Bottom who would “restore” alliances that Kerry claims have been damaged by the Bush administration’s aggressive approach to world affairs.

Along with Biden at the top of this list are former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), a party mandarin who brokered the successful Northern Ireland peace talks for Clinton.

Kerry has “actually mentioned Holbrooke and Mitchell in the past in reasonably public settings as people he would like to include in his administration, but he didn’t specify in what jobs,” said a close Kerry associate. “Holbrooke would almost have to be State, and I know [Kerry] trusts Holbrooke a lot.”

“Nothing else is going to begin to compare” with secretary of State — except, perhaps, Treasury secretary — in terms of its importance to setting the tone for the incoming administration, the associate said.

Wesley Clark, the retired general who challenged Kerry in the Democratic primaries, is often mentioned for a top foreign-policy job, perhaps as secretary of State.

Treasury Picks

As with State, the universe of possible Kerry picks for Treasury has already begun to take shape. At the top of the list is Jim Johnson, the former CEO at Fannie Mae who ran Kerry’s vice presidential selection process.

Yet insiders also cite investment banker Roger Altman, a veteran of the Clinton administration who has advised Kerry on economic policy. Dark-horse candidates include Clinton-era budget directors Gene Sperling and Franklin Raines, the current chairman at Fannie Mae, as well as Wall Street veteran Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.).

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Altman wound up with something — I’d think Treasury, but you never know,” a Kerry adviser said. “Early in the campaign, when Kerry was still trying to figure out how to put everything together, including his policies, he visited with Altman up in New York quite a lot and talked about him in speeches.”

Party Diversity

For Democrats, cobbling together a Cabinet is, by custom, a thorny process. The activist wing of the party is made up of a range of interest groups, from organized labor to environmental organizations to civil rights groups. Should a Democratic candidate win the presidency, each of these groups is poised to claim a share of the credit for victory — and a share of the spoils.

The incoming president’s Cabinet offers a first-round opportunity for party interests seeking their rewards. An incoming Kerry administration is expected to cast its gaze toward the House. “When diversity is a goal — as it always is — where do you look for leaders? You look to the House, because that’s where the diversity is,” one top Democratic strategist said.

Two key party sectors are black and Hispanic caucuses. The strategist, who conceded that he has no inside information about Kerry’s thinking, suggested Reps. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), William Jefferson (D-La.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) — all prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus — as strong possibilities.

The rub, though, is finding a job that would be a good fit for each. Jefferson, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, is an established authority on trade matters in the party, which may make him a candidate for U.S. Trade Representative or perhaps secretary of Commerce. But Commerce has increasingly gone to big party money men — think Ron Brown for President Clinton and Don Evans for President Bush — and Jefferson’s free-trade record would be tough for unions to swallow if he became USTR.

Ford, for his part, is already a star inside the party, and he was an early Kerry supporter. But he has not yet identified himself with any one policy area. One female House member who could get tapped for Homeland Security secretary or, less likely, the CIA is Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). Another possible woman, perhaps for Labor or Health and Human Services, would be Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Kerry ally who chaired the Democratic platform committee this year.

“Leon [Panetta] is a classic example of the grid you have to get through to be [a Cabinet-level choice],” one Democratic strategist said, referring to the former California lawmaker who left Congress to become director of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton. “There was a Member with some substantial seniority, chairman of the Budget Committee, safe seat. … You’re not going to appoint someone if you are going to have difficulty defending the seat.”

That problem could hamper Rep. John Spratt (S.C.), the top Democrat on Budget. Spratt has emerged as a favorite among Democrats for a senior slot in a Kerry administration, though he is seen in more of an advisory role than a Cabinet position. Spratt, like Panetta before him, would likely fit best at OMB.

“John is extremely credible — he’s from the South, he’s somebody who is concerned about balanced budgets — not spending what you don’t have — and that’s where Kerry comes from,” Coelho said.

One question on the mind of party insiders is whether there will be a role for former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.), an erstwhile Democratic primary rival who will retire from Congress at the end of the current session.

The early consensus is that Gephardt, who enjoys enormous popularity inside organized labor, would be a shoo-in for Labor secretary. Other Democrats point out that the Missouri lawmaker, who sat on Ways and Means before he took over the leader’s job, has had a career-long interest in health care policy — which might put him on the list for Health and Human Services, which is generally considered a more prestigious post.

But several people — such as outgoing Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), in the unlikely event he decides to eschew a lobbying career — are considered ahead of Gephardt in that queue. And some raise doubts about whether Gephardt would be interested in a Cabinet job at all, having just come off a tumultuous eight years at the helm of the party.

“If I were Kerry, I would try to get Dick in the Cabinet, because I think there are a lot of roles Dick could play, and he would be very helpful to Kerry,” Coelho said. “But if I were Dick, I would say, ‘I’ve done my public service. It’s time maybe for me to go out and take care of my family, my grandkids and so forth.’ I think it’s time for Dick to think of himself for a change.” If Gephardt does take a pass on Labor, the job could go to former House Minority Whip David Bonior (Mich.), another union favorite.

Other House Picks

Elsewhere, the House could be a source of talent for some of the less-visible departments and agencies. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, could be a good fit at Transportation.

Retiring Rep. Cal Dooley (Calif.), a farmer and longtime leader of the party’s moderate wing, is regarded as a natural choice to lead the Agriculture Department, as is Rep. Charlie Stenholm (Texas), who is currently the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. Stenholm would only come into play if he loses in November in a district recently redrawn to elect a Republican, one senior party strategist said.

One department that seems unlikely to draw its names from the Congressional pool is Justice. There, the most talked-about potential nominees are two attorneys in private practice who have served as solicitor general: Seth Waxman and Walter Dellinger.

Good Governors

Given their executive experience, governors or former governors are always in demand for Cabinet posts. Former governors who made education a major agenda item include Jim Hunt of North Carolina, Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Shaheen could also be up for an even bigger post, such as HHS, given her early endorsement of, and close ties to, Kerry.

Three current governors bear watching. Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) is stepping down in January after two terms. Not only has he been a respected governor but he’s also Asian-American, business-friendly thanks to ties to home-state company Microsoft, and a strong supporter of Kerry. “As USTR, I can see him returning to his ancestral village in China, and then going to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to talk about intellectual piracy,” said Joel Connelly, political columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

A second governor to pay attention to is Tom Vilsack of Iowa. Though he lost Kerry’s vice presidential derby, Vilsack, who’s in his second term, emerged with glowing reviews. “Most Iowans anticipate he’ll get a Cabinet post,” said University of Iowa political scientist Peverill Squire.

A third governor who’s limited to only one term, Mark Warner of Virginia, has a background running a telecommunications company, which could be a good basis for a slot at Commerce. Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University, suggests Warner as a good fit at Transportation — but perhaps not at the beginning of the Kerry administration, since he’d have to give up the governorship a year early to do so.

At Interior — a Cabinet spot usually reserved for Westerners — natural candidates would include former Nevada Gov. Robert Miller, or else Reps. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) or Tom Udall (D-N.M.) — cousins who are scions of a fabled clan of western environmentalists. The Energy Department is a little harder to read, though New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman — who is ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and whose state is home to several major national laboratories run by Energy — would be well-qualified for the job. And a former mayor, such as Dennis Archer of Detroit, is considered a possible pick for Housing and Urban Development.

Then again, no one cited in this article should crow about their chances. In the words of one Democrat, “One thing I know about John Kerry is that he doesn’t like people jumping out front of him on things like this.”

Louis Jacobson and Mark Preston contributed to this story.