- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

DENVER When asked to describe Gale A. Norton, President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for interior secretary, Coloradans who have worked with her over the past decade tend to use words like "intelligent," "fair," "pleasant" and "amiable."

And those are her critics. "We can talk to Gale Norton, that's true," acknowledged Tina Arapkiles, the Sierra Club's southwest regional representative in Boulder. "She's a very intelligent person, so the dialogue would be there… . She was always willing to discuss things with us."

So when the national Sierra Club denounced her last week as "James Watt in a skirt," vowing to fight her nomination to the bitter end, even Coloradans on the other side of the political fence squirmed at the comparison with President Reagan's first interior secretary. "It's not fair to say she's the same as James Watt. She's not," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli, who led the Colorado Democratic Party in 1984.

As the state's first female attorney general, a post she held from 1991 to 1999, Mrs. Norton earned a reputation as a fair-minded administrator who wasn't afraid to go after polluters, he said.

"She managed the attorney general's office without regard to political differences," Mr. Ciruli said. "There were Democrats there [when she took office] and she didn't fire them. She was tough on businesses that Republicans might normally favor, like the insurance industry, and on the Rocky Flats cleanup."

If her foes were made uncomfortable by attempts to tar her with the Watt label, her supporters were flabbergasted.

"It's very entertaining to see those kinds of attacks on her because they're attacking one of the best friends the environment ever had in Colorado," said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Golden on whose board of trustees Mrs. Norton serves.

"It shows the hard-core environmental lobby doesn't know what it's talking about," he said.

Mr. Caldara argued that Mrs. Norton had used her office to pursue environmental violators in high-profile cases such as the cleanup efforts at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Rocky Flats and the Summitville mine.

"These are issues that as attorney general she could have easily avoided, but she stepped up and worked for Colorado," he said. "Few people have the skill Gale does to bring people together and find common ground."

So far, her reputation for cooperation hasn't scored her many points with liberal environmental groups. Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) is debating whether to oppose her nomination. "We're not impressed with her environmental enforcement record," said field director Robin Hubbard.

Still, even CoPIRG isn't willing to repeat the Watt smear. "People who have worked with her say she's amiable and bright, but has an extreme anti-environmental philosophy," said Miss Hubbard. "She's pleasant, but it's not productive working with her."

Mrs. Norton has declined to comment before her nomination hearing, said her spokeswoman, Jeanie Mamo. She did point out, however, that Mrs. Norton and Mr. Watt never worked at the department together: Mrs. Norton served as associate solicitor from 1985 to 1987 under Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, who took over after Mr. Watt resigned in 1983.

Her association with Mr. Watt dates back to 1978, when he hired her as a staff lawyer at the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation. She was fresh out of law school, and it was her first job.

"She's somewhat surprised by all this, considering it happened 20 years ago," Miss Mamo said.

More relevant than her association with Mr. Watt is Mrs. Norton's stance on oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), say some environmentalists. Mrs. Norton favors oil exploration in parts of the refuge, as does Mr. Bush, a position strongly opposed by many environmental groups.

For some, fighting Mrs. Norton's nomination is a way of bringing national attention to the issue. "Perhaps it's to let her know that drilling in the ANWR is not a good idea, and that this is a very serious issue," said Miss Arapkiles of the Sierra Club.

Despite the uproar over her nomination among green groups, predictions are that she will win Senate approval. "I do not anticipate any serious problems with her confirmation," Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said in a statement last week. "President-elect Bush has made a great choice, and I am confident the Senate will concur."

Mr. Ciruli agreed. "I'd be surprised if she's not able to answer the questions and cite the examples from her real record that will undermine this obviously very simple-minded assault saying she's a clone of Watt," he said.

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