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'Nation's largest landlord' finds democracy messy

A year into the job as the nation’s largest landlord, Washington, D.C., outsider finds that “democracy is messy.”

First Published Apr 13 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 14 2014 11:10 am

Washington » Just off the traffic-snarled George Washington Parkway, over a small footbridge and across from the Lincoln Memorial, lies a natural island unscathed by the development of the nation’s capital.

American Indians fished here. Slaves worked a plantation here. Union troops camped here.

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And this is where Sally Jewell wants to chat.

The Interior Department secretary has one of the most spacious government offices in Washington, a 1,120-square-foot suite with a wraparound balcony and killer views. But Jewell, essentially America’s largest landlord, is the walk-and-talk kind. On this day she wants to take a hike on Roosevelt Island, fittingly since the national park is dedicated to President Teddy Roosevelt, who pioneered the effort to preserve America’s treasured lands.

After one year as secretary, the businesswoman-turned-government-leader has shaken up top staff at the department, launched a youth initiative, pushed renewable energy and focused on climate-change solutions. She’s not the Georgetown cocktail-party type, nor the stuffy pantsuit-wearing, PowerPoint-flashing, Blackberry-clinging power broker.

Her official Cabinet secretary photo doesn’t depict her in front of the standard U.S. flag backdrop but rather donning a fleece vest at Great Falls National Park in Virginia. Her conversations with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough often come not in his office, but in a walk through the Rose Garden and the South Lawn.

"For a lot of reasons, when we’re out in nature, it just creates a different kind of relationship; it creates a deeper more authentic conversation," Jewell says, rounding the south point of Roosevelt Island, covered in plants and trees trying to recover from a harsh winter. "There’s the actual walking side by side with someone versus staring at them face to face; it changes the dynamic of the conversation in a way that I think is less intimidating."

Washington is intimidating but Jewell is a novelty in this town, an outsider who is used to a workforce she hired and not responding to the 535-member board otherwise known as Congress. She is the first interior secretary in a generation who didn’t hold elective office before taking the job.

To some critics, though, Jewell is another tree-hugger who cares more about protecting some species of flora or fauna than creating jobs, a secretary that does the bidding of the White House without regard to impacts on ranchers or farmers or businesses. Her supporters say she’s been a willing listener, a pragmatist not a politician, and that she’s pushed forward important projects started by her predecessor, Ken Salazar.

She’s also been willing to buck the traditional malaise that sets in with Washington decisions.

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During the government shutdown last October, White House press secretary Jay Carney was lambasting Republican attempts to reopen certain popular programs, calling the piecemeal approach a "gimmick," just as news broke that Jewell had negotiated with several states to throw open the gates at national parks.

During the 16-day standoff, the shuttered national parks were the most visible reminder of the historic shutdown, and she worked to end it.

It’s been an interesting 12 months for the Washington newbie.

Welcome to Washington » That stint has been hampered by the inability to get her handpicked aides in place. She took office April 12, 2013, but it took nine months to get her chosen deputy, Mike Connor, through the Senate, even though he was approved 97-0.

Six nominees — not counting Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze who was confirmed last week — are still awaiting votes, including top officials for Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and Land and Mineral Management.

"That’s been really frustrating and not like anything you see in the private sector, where you can put your team together," says Jewell, who left as head of outdoor retailer REI Inc. to move to Washington.

Some of those appointments are bogged down in the slow Senate process while others are being held up for political reasons. Jewell has been called up to Capitol Hill frequently to answer questions about parochial issues members of Congress have for their areas. It’s something Salazar got used to when he had the gig.

"Interior is one of the most difficult jobs in the Cabinet, and that’s because it is a place where very difficult issues land and decisions have to be made and there are powerful interests that will line up on either side of the equation, and that includes the members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate," says Salazar, who now works for an international law firm.

Salazar notes that Jewell has brought a perspective he didn’t have.

"We all bring our life experiences to the job," he says, "in her case having been the head of REI but also having been associated with the national parks for a long time, she’s bringing that world of experience, which is not a world of experience that I brought to interior."

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