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Bush asked to nominate Campbell for Interior post

With President Bush already looking West to find someone to run the Interior Department, retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) is being offered as a prime candidate due to his experience with Indian and other issues.

Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, left Congress at the end of 2004 after more than 20 years in public service. At the time, he said he was tired of a grueling schedule that kept him in Washington, away from his family and grandchildren.

The former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee has since taken a job as a lobbyist with Holland and Knight, a top Washington firm. He has said the position enables him to spend more time at home in Colorado while advancing Indian issues.

But if some former colleagues have their way, Campbell could be in the nation's capitol a lot more. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colorado) wrote a letter to President Bush on Tuesday, touting Campbell's qualifications.

"As you know, his work in Congress included time as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and he did extensive work on issues important to the West such as water, forestry, public land management and resource development," the letter stated.

Other senators -- including Ken Salazar, Democrat from Colorado, and Ted Stevens, Republican from Alaska -- are already backing Campbell, according to The Hill newspaper. "It would be a damn good idea," Stevens told the paper.

Campbell will accept the job if it's offered, Allard told The Denver Post. But a spokesperson said the White House hasn't called.

"He'd need to have a call from the White House before he'd give it serious consideration," the spokesperson told the paper.

Campbell faces some competition, with several other Western candidates said to be in the running. According to news reports, Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Idaho), Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R), former Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) and former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (R) -- all of whom were mentioned back in 2000 when Bush won the election -- are being considered by the White House.

Deputy Interior secretary Lynn Scarlett, who has been with the administration since 2001, also has been mentioned as possible replacement for Gale Norton, who is leaving at the end of the month. Norton was the first woman to run the department.

Campbell was one of Norton's biggest supporters when the former Colorado attorney general went through a rough confirmation battle in the Senate. He continued to stand in her corner even as she faced fire from Indian Country for her actions on the trust fund, her reorganization of the Bush administration and her expansion of the Office of Special Trustee.

Campbell ran the Indian Affairs Committee and took on these and other key issues during most of Norton's tenure. "We were lucky to have Gale Norton at the Department of the Interior, and I would like to see Ben Campbell step into that role, which in some way he has been preparing for his entire life," Allard said yesterday.

If the White House selected Campbell, it would be a landmark move. He would be the first Native American to run the Interior Department, the primary trustee-delegate executive agency, and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet official. Historically, the highest ranking Native American in the executive branch was Charles Curtis, a part Kaw from Kansas who served as vice president from 1929 to 1933.

Campbell is already known for making history on his own. When he was elected to the House back in 1986, he was the only Native American in Congress. Since then, there have been two enrolled tribal members who have served in the House.

Campbell, who turns 73 next month, also made headlines when he switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party when the GOP took over Congress in 1995. He was already serving in the Senate at the time. He later went on to become the first, and only, Native American to head the Indian Affairs Committee.

His retirement, announced in March 2004 after months of speculation, sent shockwaves through Indian Country. "I think Ben served us really, really well both as a Democrat and as a Republican," Native activist Suzan Shown Harjo, a close friend, told Indianz.Com at the time.

Born in California to a Northern Cheyenne father and a Portuguese immigrant mother, Campbell served in the Korean War, represented the United States at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and served in the Colorado Legislature. He is a noted jewelry designer and is one of the traditional chiefs of the Cheyenne people.

Currently, the highest ranking Native American at the Interior Department is Ross Swimmer, a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation who serves as Special Trustee. He is considered to be a "level 2" appointee, just one rank below the secretary post.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs currently lacks an assistant secretary more than a year after Dave Anderson, the Ojibwe/Choctaw entrepreneur resigned amid controversy. Two non-Indians are holding the top two positions at the agency.

Indianz.Com Lobbying Report:
The Holland & Knight firm (05/23)

Relevant Links:
Holland & Knight -