Jun 18, 2010 10:49 AM by Melissa Canone
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama's point man charting a
new future for the oil-poisoned Gulf Coast will do the job
part-time. Some environmentalists said the job demands someone's
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who oversees 900,000 Navy and Marine
personnel, is inheriting an amorphous second job as the Obama
administration's leader of long-term environmental and economic
planning. His task is no less than rebuilding a region still
suffering after Hurricane Katrina and beset by decades of
Mabus won't resign from his Navy job. When President George W.
Bush picked Donald Powell to lead the recovery after Hurricane
Katrina, Powell resigned as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance
"The president talked to the governor about this, and they both
agreed that he had the ability to do both," White House press
secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday after Mabus met with Obama at
the White House.
That prompted quick criticism from the Defenders of Wildlife,
which is working to save animals from the oil that has gushed from
an offshore BP oil well for nearly two months.
"The idea that he is only going to work on this part-time is
disturbing," said Robert Irvin, the group's vice president for
conservation programs. "If this is the equivalent of war, as the
president has been saying, it needs a full-time general."
In his year at the helm of the Navy, Mabus has called for a
cleaner, more energy-efficient fleet. But he is largely unknown
among environmental groups dealing with the worst environmental
disaster in U.S. history. After Obama named Mabus in a speech
Tuesday night, environmental leaders called around, asking each
other for insight.
"I don't know what demands being head of the Navy requires, but
from what I've heard he's got a good head on his shoulders," said
Jill Mastrototaro, the head of the Sierra Club for the Gulf region.
While Obama selected Mabus for his ties to the Gulf Coast, the
wealthy businessman also has had financial ties to the oil
industry. Environmentalists want to know more about that from the
man charged with helping remake the coastal economy.
When Mabus joined the Obama administration, energy investments
were among the largest holdings in his portfolio. Between $350,000
and $750,000 was invested in partnerships trading energy
commodities such as crude oil and natural gas. He also owned
between $15,000 and $51,000 in Exxon Mobil stock and as much as
$69,000 in energy mutual funds.
Mabus, whose net worth is millions of dollars, sold all his
energy holdings upon taking office, Navy spokesman Thomas Oppel
The White House has not said exactly what Mabus' job will be, so
it's unclear what sway he will have over the future of Gulf Coast
environmental regulations and economic development policies, two
things that could affect the coastal oil industry.
"Nothing in his background would suggest he will do anything
but put the interests of the people of the Gulf first as he
completes this critical mission, and the president has full
confidence in his leadership," White House spokesman Ben LaBolt
Mabus was one of the Democratic Party's rising stars when he was
elected Mississippi governor in 1987. He had exposed county
government corruption as state auditor and campaigned for governor
with the slogan "Mississippi will never be last again."
But Mabus had a strained relationship with lawmakers. In a state
where legislators, not the governor, have the most power, Mabus saw
many of his proposals snubbed. At his urging, lawmakers expanded
Medicaid coverage, but other efforts such as spending more money on
early childhood literacy never materialized.
In his new job, Mabus must build consensus across the region.
Already there are signs that won't be easy. Louisiana's former
Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer declared that Obama "could not have
picked a better man," but Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour,
was quick with a barb.
"If this is really what it sounded like - that is, the federal
government is going to make a long-term plan for the Gulf states -
then it's a terrible idea," said Barbour, a possible Republican
candidate for president in 2012. "Mississippians will decide about
Oliver Diaz, who was elected to the Mississippi House from the
Gulf Coast the same year Mabus took office, said that despite
growing up in northern Mississippi nearly 250 miles from the Gulf,
Mabus developed strong political ties to the coast that will help
him in his new job. Mabus is usually friendly but can be tough,
"He exercised the strength of the governor's office when he had
to. That's just part of the job, and it's going to be part of this
new position that he's been appointed to," Diaz said. "He's going
to have to exercise some control, whether it's with oil company
executives or people affected by the spill. I think he's a guy that
is going to take control."
In his only major environmental decision as governor, Mabus
angered politically powerful farmers in 1989 by opposing a plan to
build the world's largest pumps to drain water from flood-prone
areas in the Yazoo River basin in rural western Mississippi. Mabus
said the proposed federal project would have damaged sensitive
wetlands to help agricultural interests.
The project was discussed for decades, and the EPA eventually
killed the $220 million proposal in 2008.
Mabus' decision to allow dockside casino gambling along the
Mississippi River and Gulf Coast became his unexpected legacy.
Millions of dollars poured into Mississippi's budget, but in a
state with historically weak environmental regulations, the
decision allowed widespread development in sensitive coastal areas.
Mabus angered many of his own supporters - including,
critically, the Legislative Black Caucus - by closing Mississippi's
three charity hospitals, which for decades had cared for some of
the poorest people in the nation. He never recovered politically
and lost the 1991 governor's race to Republican Kirk Fordice, a
During the re-election campaign, Mabus received $1,000 each from
oil companies BP America, Shell and Chevron. Each gave the most
allowed by law, a tiny fraction of a $3 million campaign that got
much broader support from bankers and lawyers.
An early supporter of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's presidential
bid, Mabus landed in the Clinton administration as ambassador to
Saudi Arabia. He was the top U.S. diplomat to the oil-rich nation
from 1994 until shortly before the deadly Khobar Towers terrorist
attacks in 1996.
After helping with Clinton's re-election campaign, Mabus stepped
out of politics. But he was cast into the public eye in 1998
because of a messy divorce with his wife, Julie. The divorce became
national news because Mabus secretly recorded his wife's
conversation with a priest, catching her on tape admitting
Before being tapped as Navy secretary, Mabus sat on corporate
boards and charities. As CEO of Foamex International Inc. from 2006
to 2007, Mabus steered the polyurethane foam products company out
of bankruptcy. He owns more than 4,700 acres of Mississippi
timberland worth between $5 million and $25 million.
He was an early supporter of Obama's presidential campaign,
endorsing him in 2007 and surprising some political observers who
had expected Mabus to support Hillary Rodham Clinton because of
Mabus' past political ties to Bill Clinton.
Political savvy may be the most important aspect of Mabus' new
job. Steven Peyronnin, executive director of the Coalition to
Restore Coastal Louisiana, said Mabus can learn quickly about
environmental problems. The cleanup effort so far has been dogged
by criticism that nobody is in charge. Peyronnin said the coast
needs someone who can make decisions and get things done quickly.