The Agents of Change on Obama’s Transition Team

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Last week, the Obama transition team announced its agency review teams, which, according to the office of the president-elect, will examine key departments, agencies, and commissions, as well as the White House, to provide Barack Obama and his key advisers “information needed to make strategic policy, budgetary, and personnel decisions prior to the inauguration.” As the media and most political consumers focus on who will get what senior position in the Obama administration, this group of about 130 people will do the nuts-and-bolts work of preparing the agendas for the incoming decision-makers. It’s an important band of policy wonks and government experts. Many of the positions were filled, as might be expected, by Washington players who served in the Clinton administration. For instance, Reed Hundt, who chaired the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton years and who now works for a strategic consulting firm, is leading the team responsible for international trade and economic agencies. And Tom Donilon, a partner at the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, who was assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration, is in charge of the group focusing on Foggy Bottom. (The bio for Donilon released by the transition office neglected to mention his stint as general counsel and executive vice president at Fannie Mae.)

The transition team has its share of lobbyists–despite that Obama once vowed he was “running to tell the lobbyists in Washington that their days of setting the agenda are over.” But while most of the transition team members possess the conventional resumés of Washington insiders—albeit Democratic ones–there are several transition team appointments that stand out as harbingers of change. Or at least potential harbingers. These are people whose careers have been anti-Bushian in a deep and profound sense that extends beyond partisan difference. They are academics or policy advocates who have devoted much—if not all—of their adult working lives to advancing the public interest. Their presence on the review teams—even though the transition could use more of such people—enhances the prospect for change beyond the usual. Here’s a sampling:

Sarah Sewall is leading the transition’s national security team. She is the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. According to her bio, her “research focuses on U.S. national security strategy, civil-military relations, and the ethics of fighting insurgencies and terrorism.” The ethics of fighting terrorism? That’s about as non-Bush (or non-Cheney) as it gets. She also started a project to create “a military concept of operations for intervening to halt mass atrocity.” Not even Bill Clinton did that.

Clark Kent Ervin heads the Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute. He was the first Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security—a Bush appointee. During his tenure at DHS, he released several reports assailing mismanagement and security screw-ups. Not surprisingly, when his appointment expired, Ervin was not re-appointed by Bush. With Rand Beers, who worked on counterterrorism for the National Security Council in both the Clinton and Bush II administrations, Ervin will oversee the transition’s review of the Department of Homeland Security. His participation sends a signal: competence and diligence matter.

Thomas Perez is head of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation. He has spent years as a consumer advocate and civil rights lawyer. He’s also been a law professor specializing in poverty law and public health issues. During the Clinton years, he was a federal prosecutor in the civil rights division of the Justice Department. For the transition, he’s working on both the team in charge of justice and civil rights issues and the unit zeroing in on the Department of Health and Human Services. A Justice Department influenced by Perez will be quite different than one influenced by Monica Goodling.

Theodore Shaw is president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., a prominent civil rights law outfit. He has handled school desegregation and capital punishment cases. Shaw represented a coalition of African-American and Latino students in the historic case involving the use of affirmative action at University of Michigan for undergraduate admissions. The US Supreme Court struck down the school’s undergraduate admissions policy but ruled that race can be considered during the admissions process by a university seeking to foster diversity on its campus. Shaw is part of the transition’s Department of Justice unit.

Cruz Reynoso was the first Chicano person to serve on the California Supreme Court. There, he was a consistent liberal, often ruling in favor of environmental protection, individual liberties, and civil rights. He voted often to overturn death penalty sentences. Largely because of that, Reynoso, along with two other justices, became targets of conservatives and were ousted by the voters in 1986, under the state’s unusual judicial election system. Prior to becoming a state judge, Reynoso was director of California Rural Legal Assistance. Reynoso was a awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. For the Obama transition, he is reviewing the Commission on Civil Rights.

Spencer Overton, a professor at George Washington University law school, wrote the book, Stealing Democracy: The Politics of Voter Suppression. The book’s website says, “Voters don’t choose politicians–politicians choose voters by manipulating election rules. What can we do to restore power to the people?” It continues: “While politicians spew shallow sound bites that describe a ‘free’ American people who govern themselves by selecting their representatives, in reality politicians from both parties maintain control by selecting particular voters. Incumbent politicians maintain thousands of election practices and bureaucratic hurdles that determine who votes and how votes are counted–such as the location of election district boundaries, long lines at urban polling places, and English-only ballots.” Overton is someone who has questioned the fundamentals of the voting system. He has called for “making voting easier for all Americans” and for “removing redistricting power from self-interested partisans.” He’s leading the team assessing the Election Assistance Commission.

For twenty-six years, Alan Houseman has been executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit, public interest law firm that has focused on issues affecting low-income persons. Houseman has tried to develop innovative anti-poverty strategies and to ensure that low-income Americans have access to civil legal assistance. He is the model of a non-corporate lawyer. Houseman is working on the transition team’s review of the Legal Services Corporation.

Pamela Gilbert is a former executive director of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. For two decades, she was a leading consumer advocate in Washington. She served as consumer program director at the US Public Interest Research Group and was executive director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. At the CPSC, she helped coax a 40-percent funding boost out of Congress and the Clinton administration. Then came the Bush years, and the CPSC was hollowed out. She will be reviewing the CPSC—think dangerous toys and poisonous pet food from China–for the transition team.

Bill Corr heads the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one of the leading anti-tobacco nonprofit groups. He joined the outfit after spending 23 years working on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch. That is, he did not become a lobbyist for private interests. He is leading the evaluation of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Xavier de Souza Briggs is an associate professor at MIT. His specialty, his bio says, is “the ‘geography of opportunity’–a policy and research field concerned with the consequences of segregation by race and income and with efforts to respond, such as through ‘housing mobility’ programs that help families exit high-poverty, high-risk neighborhoods in search of better places to raise their kids.” Was there anyone in the Bush administration who had expertise in this field? Briggs is part of the transition unit looking at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Housing Finance Board, and the Interagency Council on Homelessness. (Joining him on that team are Roberta Achtenberg, who during the Clinton years became the first openly lesbian or gay federal official who had to be confirmed by the Senate, and Bruce Katz, a longtime housing policy wonk in Washington, who now runs the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.)

With a presidential transition team led by an academic who has specialized in the ethics of fighting terrorism, it’s clear a major shift is under way in Washington. Certainly, there will be Democrat-on-Democrat policy battles ahead—during the transition and within the Obama administration. Centrist and conventional-thinking Democrats will play critical roles, especially during debates on economic matters. But the composition of Obama’s transition team shows there’s potential for significant change designed by public interest-minded people who possess deep policy expertise and are dedicated to their fields. These folks are the opposite of Michael Brown.

Photo by flickr user Barack Obama used under a Creative Commons license.


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