Knowles going to D.C.?

Other candidates for energy secretary drop out; spokesman denies contact with Bush team

Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Unattributed news media speculation about the presidential transition still has Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles as a possible pick for energy secretary, but as of midday the governor's spokesman was saying there's nothing to it.

The Associated Press today reported former U.S. Sen. Bennett Johnston, a Democrat and former chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, took himself out of the running. The AP story said President-elect Bush wants a Democrat for his Cabinet and listed Knowles as the only remaining Democratic possibility for the Department of Energy.

Knowles dismissed such speculation Friday when asked about it by reporters during his news conference on the state budget. He said he hadn't been contacted by Bush's transition team, although when pressed by a reporter he didn't flatly rule out accepting the position if it were offered.

"It hasn't changed," gubernatorial spokesman Bob King said today. "He has not been contacted by the Bush administration. He keeps showing up on these lists, which are unattributed to anyone. I expect these rumors will continue, at least until Bush names an energy secretary."

Politicians "never say never," but Knowles' expectation is that he will serve out the remainder of his second term as governor and push for construction of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, King said. The governor's support of the oil and gas industry is probably behind the speculation about the Department of Energy, he said.

Juneau Republican Paulette Simpson, who's serving as an Alaska liaison to the transition team, said she has heard no mention of Knowles being under formal consideration.

Knowles also was mentioned as a possible energy secretary in recent reports by the Anchorage Daily News and the ABC SuperStation, neither of which attributed the speculation to anyone.

Meanwhile, Bush looked to fellow Republican governors for his Cabinet-in-the-making, with Christie Whitman of New Jersey poised to take over the nation's top environmental post and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin the front-runner for secretary of health and human services.

Bush advisers said the postings were tentative, but could be finalized soon.

Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, one of the first state executives to encourage a Bush presidential bid, visited the president-elect in Austin, Texas, today and was a leading candidate for attorney general or another senior administration post, advisers said. His chief rival for attorney general was fellow GOP governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma.

On a day Bush was announcing his nominees to head the treasury, agriculture, commerce and housing agencies, the Texan worked behind the scenes to piece together the rest of his Cabinet.

Johnston, in taking himself out of the running for energy secretary, said he withdrew for personal reasons but said he would have enjoyed the "privilege of working with the Bush team."

Robbin Higgins, veterans' affairs director in Florida, emerged as a candidate for U.S. secretary of veterans' affairs. She is an ally of Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and was interviewed Tuesday by transition aides.

Republican officials said outgoing Sen. Spence Abraham of Michigan was the top contender for transportation secretary, though Bush's team did not confirm the speculation. Elaine L. Chao, former deputy transportation secretary in the first Bush administration, was not out of the running.

Arizona education superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, a Republican ally of Bush, emerged as a top candidate for Education secretary, though Bush may not pick a Republican for the post.

A senior Republican close to Bush's team said veterans' affairs could yield a Democratic secretary, adding that Rep. John "Ike" Skelton, D-Mo., and Rep. Norman Sisisky, D-Va., were under consideration. However, Bush would have trouble recruiting Democrats from a House split almost evenly.

Bush hoped to fill most of his Cabinet before Christmas, particularly the top four jobs: secretaries of state, defense, treasury and attorney general.

Former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., is Bush's top choice for defense secretary, according to several advisers. However, they have not explained why Bush has delayed making the official announcement.

Paul O'Neill, chairman of Alcoa and a former Ford administration budget expert, was nominated Wednesday as treasury secretary.

Bush's first Cabinet announcement was to name retired Gen. Colin Powell secretary of state-designate Saturday.

Racicot rallied fellow GOP governors to Bush's side in early 1999 and drew raves during the 36-day election standoff for loyally defending the GOP candidate.

Some conservatives raised objections to Racicot's candidacy for attorney, but Bush has been told by advisers that the criticism would be muted. Keating, a former FBI agent and Justice Department veteran, is the favorite of conservatives as well as many career Justice employees.

Racicot also could be offered a senior White House post or interior secretary, said GOP officials who were uncertain whether he would accept either.

In New Jersey, allies of Whitman were telling associates that the governor has accepted Bush's offer to head the Environmental Protection Agency. There was no immediate confirmation from the Bush camp, though advisers said she was the clear front-runner and could be nominated within days.

A number of Republican officials familiar with the deliberations said Bush had tentatively settled on Thompson for secretary of Health and Human Services. They said the nomination could be made official in the next week barring a change of mind.

Bush has not formally offered the job to the nation's longest-serving governor, they said.

Thompson himself said he is considering a position in Bush's administration, noting that there is "more than one in play." He has also been mentioned for the transportation post, but senior Republicans said that was doubtful.

"You all know how much I love Wisconsin, how much I love the people, how much I love being governor. Need I say any more? That in and of itself tells you the dilemma I'm in," Thompson said during a state commission meeting in Wisconsin.

Empire staff writer Kathy Dye and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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