Former Utahn James O. Mason will become the top aide to Louis O. Sullivan, President Bush's controversial selection as secretary of Health and Human Services, the Deseret News learned Thursday.
The move is apparently part of a deal to appease anti-abortion groups who are unhappy about Sullivan's appointment.Word of Mason's appointment came first from aides to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and was later confirmed by Mason himself. Mason is the former director of the Utah Department of Health and for the past five years has directed the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
A White House spokesman said Thursday morning that the appointment was not yet official, but "it could come at any time." Mason said he was told it would be announced almost immediately.
Sullivan upset many anti-abortion groups this week by reportedly telling some members of Congress that he does not want to see the Supreme Court overturn its 1973, pro-abortion Roe vs. Wade decision.
The furor forced him to hold a meeting late Wednesday with conservative senators, including Hatch, to tell them he really supports President Bush's anti-abortion stand. Sullivan had to hold similar meetings after he was first nominated, when he also was quoted saying he personally favored abortion.
Conservatives are satisfied enough with Sullivan's explanations that they are defending him, saying his statements had likely been misconstrued and confused because he has said he would continue to enforce present laws, which allow abortion.
But to quell fury among anti-abortion activists, the Bush Administration let it be known it would appoint a strong anti-abortionist as Sullivan's top aide. That's where Mason comes in.
"I strongly believe that abortion is a pretty poor way to solve the problems of the nation. Abortion basically is wrong; it is a tragedy. It is being used essentially as a form of contraception in the United States today," Mason told the Deseret News Thursday.
"I have my own personal fundamental religious beliefs about it, but I see it as a social problem. It is a tragedy that the way we handle unwanted pregnancy is through abortion. The fundamental, deep-rooted problem is unwanted pregnancy _ and we need to handle it better."
Mason may owe his new job to the influence of Hatch.
"Sen. Hatch pushed for his nomination very hard," said Paul Smith, Hatch's secretary. "He has wanted Mason all along."
Hatch is the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings on Sullivan. Hatch's support there would be crucial for Sullivan, who is Bush's only black cabinet nominee.
Mason said he did not seek the new job but let it be known that he would accept it. He said he has enjoyed his five years at the Centers for Disease Control but is looking forward to his new challenges.
Some of the major challenges he sees Health and Human Services facing in the next few years include researching a cure for AIDS, working to solve problems with infant mortality _ especially among minorities _ and setting health goals for the year 2000, including trying to achieve a smoke-free society.
"I think combatting AIDS is moving along and making progress. Smoking is unfinished business, of course that would be part of the year 2000 objectives," he said.
Mason is a Salt Lake native. He received his bachelor's and medical degrees at the University of Utah. He later received master's and doctorate degrees in public health from Harvard.
Mason was appointed director of the Utah Department of Public Health in 1979. He stepped down from that position in 1983 to assume the directorship of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. He is also administrator of the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.
Mason hinted at a job change in an interview with the Deseret News in December. "I have never stayed any more than about five years in any job," he said. Mason served as commissioner of the Health Services Corp. of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1970 to 1976. He was deputy director of health for the Utah Division of Health from 1976 to 1978. He left that job to become chairman of the Division of Community Medicine in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Utah, a position he held until 1979.
This is not Mason's first stint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. During most of 1985, he served as acting assistant secretary of health with the department.