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Kim Elton exhilarated, exasperated in D.C. job

Posted: Sunday, May 24, 2009

Every day, he's so excited to get to work," says Marylou Elton, describing her husband, Kim, the top Alaskan on the Obama team at the Department of the Interior.

Elton's main job is to make sure his boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, knows the political lay of the land in the last frontier, and to be the department's Alaska ambassador. A bulletproof vest might be helpful for the latter duty.

Elton, a former state senator from Juneau, rises at 6 a.m daily. He showers, feeds the couple's Australian shepherd, and is out of their rented Capitol Hill home a half hour later. After a subway ride and a stop to pick up a latte and a Washington Post, he's at his Interior Department office by 7 a.m. On the three days this week when I was in a position to observe, Elton never left the office before 6 p.m.

During interviews with Elton, 61, he made it clear that he loves his new job, and he doesn't find 11- and 12-hour days a problem. But he does have his frustrations, one of which surfaced when he tried - with no success - to call up his electronic in-box from Monday. "It's a horrendous system," he commented.

Some things never change: former Alaska State Sen. Drue Pearce, who held Elton's job in the early years of the Bush administration, voiced similar complaints.

Another exasperation, Elton said, is how much of his time is sucked away from working on the administration's environmental and energy priorities by issues created or exacerbated in the final weeks of the Bush administration; a "drill-baby-drill" leasing plan, for example, was released the day before Obama was sworn in.

"Maybe this is normal," Elton admits. "I sure hope we do a better job when we finish."

He plans to shift some of these leftover issues to Pat Pourchot, another former state senator who will soon join Elton's staff in Anchorage.

Keeping up with the news usually occupies Elton's first hour at work. He begins with the Post, followed by the "Early-Bird" news summary from the department's press office. On Monday he was through that by 8 a.m. and turned to answering e-mails. Washington is four hours ahead of Alaska time, so many of the messages were sent from Alaska the previous afternoon, though some he read the night before at home on his Blackberry.

At 9 a.m. Elton walks a few steps to the secretary's conference room for the daily meeting of Salazar's 15 or so senior political staff - assistant secretaries, legislative director, communications chief, and the like. The meeting Monday was chaired by Chief of Staff Tom Strickland and, as usual, devoted to immediate issues. Of interest to Elton that morning was discussion of a February report from the department's own inspector general, and questions stimulated from Anchorage Daily News reporter Sean Cockerham. The report alleges years of mismanagement by Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in Alaska.

Elton's colleagues at the meeting supervise 67,000 employees. Elton supervises only six, five staffed in Anchorage and his assistant in Washington, D.C. Yet that number belies the importance of his job. The Interior Department "owns" more than half of the land in Alaska, and from the other perspective, just under half of the land it manages in the entire United States is in the 49th state.

At 10:30 a.m. Elton gets a break and reads the Alaska papers, usually not online until about 10 a.m. Eastern time.

Elton usually eats a lunch snack at his desk, but Monday's beautiful spring weather enticed him out of the office to a deli up the street. At 1:30 p.m. he met with officials and lawyers from the North Slope Borough on multiple issues, including endangered birds and offshore development. Officials from Doyon, Limited, the Interior Alaska Native corporation, showed up later to discuss a possible trade of potentially valuable federal mineral land for wildlife habitat now owned by the corporation.

Elton hopes he might contribute to resolving some of Interior's long-standing Alaska issues - subsistence, oil exploration in Bristol Bay and the Arctic -- but he is a realist about trying to make big things happen from what is essentially a staff job. "You can't order people, you have to persuade." But every morning he leaps out of bed excited to try. "It's exhilarating - and a little scary."

Author's note: In my April 26 column I said Anchorage High School's class of 1959 was the only class from that year holding an Alaska reunion. Not so. Fairbanks' Lathrop High's Class of '59 and Juneau-Douglas High's statehood class will hold reunions in July. E-mail me for details.

• Juneau economic consultant Gregg Erickson is editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report. E-mail him at gerickson@alaska.com.



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