By Joel Connelly
U.S. Secretary of Commerce-designate Penny Pritzker is a billionaire Chicago hotel and real estate mogul, and lynchpin of the Windy City's "Ladies who lunch" group that fostered Barack Obama's political career. She was Obama's national finance chair during the 2008 campaign.
Up before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday for a confirmation hearing, Pritzker was given an easy ride even by such ungentlemanly lawmakers as Texas' Sen. Ted Cruz. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, got off the day's best line when she told the Cabinet nominee: "It's obvious you're not here for a paycheck."
The jollies ended when Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell began questioning Pritzker. The Secretary of Commerce, among other duties, is boss of the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- the key federal agency that overseas preservation and recovery of salmon runs.
Cantwell was able, at least, to lay down a marker that Pritzker had best bring herself up to speed as a weather manager, and as protector of the great Bristol Bay salmon runs in Alaska. A huge, multi-billion-dollar mineral project, the Pebble Mine, is proposed between two of Bristol Bay's premier salmon spawning rivers.
"I want to know what your thoughts are on the Bristol Bay Pebble Mine," said Cantwell.
"It is at the head of the largest sockeye fishery and the second largest Chinook fishery, which is basically the headwaters for the Puget Sound salmon (fishing fleet). So we want to make sure you are going to be very adamant about good science leading the way to protecting against undue development that might impact those fisheries."
Pritzker parried. "Senator, I know the importance of salmon . . . to your state and frankly our country, and to my dinner plate at times," she said. "Finding a balance is to make sure we protect the salmon is very important to me."
Cantwell pressed a bit. "What I'm interested in is whether you'll have good science in the process."
"Absolutely," Pritzker replied. "The importance of science and technology used throughout the agency is really important and particularly in that area."
Cantwell doesn't like the mine proposal. She has suggested that the Obama administration use its authority under the Clean Water Act to stop it. And she has closely followed a "revised watershed assessment" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has outlined possibly severe damage that a giant mine could do to the Bristol Bay fishery. The EPA has come under fire from Alaska politicians.
Cantwell brought up the weather as well. Forecasters in Europe were days ahead of their U.S. counterparts in predicting the course of Hurricane Sandy as it slammed the New Jersey Coast and Long Island last fall.
"As the last couple of days (in Oklahoma) showed us, the difference between knowing 15 minutes ahead of time and an hour is a uge difference: So what do you think you can do to help us modernize that?" Cantwell asked.
"Making sure our weather service is best-in-class is something that I would make a high priority,"Pritzker responded.
Not headline making stuff, but a clear indication that Bristol Bay salmon -- and storm forecasting -- had better be on Pritzker's plate.