Becoming secretary of Health and Human Services would be an even higher, more challenging job in the Bush administration for former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, but what could it mean down the road?
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Is it a springboard to a run for the U.S. Senate in 2006 or 2010? Or for becoming CEO of a major U.S. company after leaving federal work?
At least for the next few years, Leavitt will be a part of an "aggressive" domestic program, believes Bud Scruggs, one of Leavitt's oldest personal and political friends in Utah.
"Along with tax reform, health care and welfare should be one of President Bush's concentrations in his second term. I think we'll see Bush implement compassionate conservatism" something that really couldn't be done after 9/11 since the Iraq war and re-election political battles molded his first term, said Scruggs, who is president of Leucadia Asset Management Group but who teamed with Leavitt in the mid-1980s in a local political consulting firm.
Leavitt will take over one of the largest and most bureaucratic federal departments that makes up a quarter of all the spending of the federal government.
It's a huge challenge, said both Scruggs and Pat Shea, a local attorney who was head of the Bureau of Land Management and deputy Interior Department secretary in Bill Clinton's administration.
What heading HHS really means, assuming Leavitt is confirmed, is a high-power job in the private sector when he leaves federal employment, said Shea, who also ran for governor and the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in Utah.
Leavitt, already a millionaire through his family's Leavitt Group insurance firms, "will have a good chance to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 firm," Shea said. "He clearly is ambitious, and this will be a chance to take care of his family (financially)."
"People forget that before he ran for governor (in 1992), Mike was one of Utah's and the Mountain West's leading business executives," said Scruggs, who also predicts Leavitt could hook up with a major firm when he leaves government.
But being head of the federal government's largest welfare programs may not sit well with conservative Republicans back in Utah a detriment should Leavitt seek a top GOP nomination here later on, said LaVar Webb, another Leavitt friend and political ally. Webb heads the Exoro Group, a lobbying/political consulting group, and co-writes a political column for the Deseret Morning News.
"Overall, (any Leavitt run for office in Utah) depends on how well he does in his new job," says Webb, who served as Leavitt's deputy for policy in the governor's office on the 1990s.
There could be a downside politically for Leavitt should Bush and congressional Republicans allow welfare to grow too much over the next four years or if big, new welfare programs are begun, Webb said. "But I don't think we'll see that in the conservative Bush administration."
Just like in 1992 when Leavitt was urged to run for the U.S. Senate by retiring GOP Sen. Jake Garn but chose instead to run for governor any open Utah U.S. Senate seat will see a lot of good GOP candidates, Webb said.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, just won a third, six-year term. He's 71.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, 70. also R-Utah, faces a record-setting sixth-term re-election in 2006. While Hatch has had GOP challengers before, Leavitt is a long-time friend (he ran Hatch's 1982 re-election campaign) and would never challenge him.
But Webb says Leavitt was never attracted to legislative work. He said Leavitt likes being an executive who can form an agenda himself and push it without the inevitable compromises required in the Utah Legislature or Congress.
Leavitt has also been criticized by Utah's GOP right wing. "And Utah has a cultural tradition of taking nicks out of people who are not here to defend themselves," Shea said.
The right wing of the Utah Republican Party was not happy with their governor in the late 1990s. Leavitt was booed at the 2000 state GOP convention, the year he sought (and won) a record-tying third term. He was challenged by unknowns and forced into a primary election.
Leavitt tried to mend his political fences, but several good GOP candidates let it be known during the summer of 2003 that they'd challenge Leavitt if he ran for a fourth term. Instead, Leavitt received Bush's invitation to join the EPA.Comment on this story
Dan Jones, Utah pollster and a co-director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said there are political risks associated with Leavitt's new position. "He's got a tough assignment. It could be very hurtful" to him later.
In any case, Leavitt clearly did the job that Bush wanted at the EPA, working to calm the environmental issues during Bush's re-election year.Being head of the EPA, with an aging, entrenched group of top administrators, is the single toughest job in Washington for a Republican, Scruggs said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche