The U.S. congresswoman, from Spokane, has gained favor with President-elect Donald Trump, a person involved in the transition told The Associated Press.

Share story

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, has emerged as a top contender to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior.

President-elect Donald Trump has also been considering others for the post, including Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. But Trump is said to be interested in finding a place for McMorris Rodgers in the administration.

McMorris Rodgers, 47, is the only Republican woman with a leadership role on Capitol Hill.

Interior, an agency with 70,000 employees and a $12 billion annual budget, is responsible for federal lands management, including coal leases, offshore drilling and management of national parks.

McMorris Rodgers met with Trump in mid-November at a New Jersey golf club, and The New York Times subsequently reported she was getting a “hard look” as the next secretary of the Interior. After that, McMorris Rodgers was named a vice chair of Trump’s transition team.

Reaction locally to the potential appointment of McMorris Rodgers was sharply divided. Cattlemen and timber interests in Washington state cheered the possibility of her nomination. Environmental leaders, particularly advocates for national parks, public lands and stricter wildlife protections, panned her.

McMorris Rodgers shares Trump’s view that big energy companies should have more access to federal lands. She also supports opening the Atlantic Ocean for drilling, fought efforts to regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal lands and has sought to expand logging. She has opposed dam removal for wild salmon runs on the Snake River and Endangered Species Act protection for gray wolves.

The Department of the Interior is responsible for federal lands management, including coal leases, offshore drilling and management of national parks.

Trump’s nominee is subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Whoever gets the Interior job would succeed another Washingtonian; former REI Chief Executive Sally Jewell has served as Interior secretary under President Obama since 2013.

“Heartland person”

If she winds up a Cabinet secretary, McMorris Rodgers, who has no management experience in the private or government sector other than holding elective office, will have risen from an unconventional path.

Born in Salem, Ore., she moved with her family at age 4 to remote northern British Columbia, living off the grid in a cabin with no indoor plumbing while her parents built a log home and farmed 320 acres, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

She moved to Washington state in junior high, and is the first in her family to go to college, The Spokesman-Review reported. McMorris Rodgers graduated from Pensacola Christian College and earned an executive MBA from the University of Washington.

She is the married mother of three children, giving birth to all three since her election to Congress in 2004. Her firstborn has Down syndrome and she has been a champion on issues for the disabled, noted Susan Hutchison, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party.

“She is a heartland person,” Hutchison said, who praised McMorris Rodgers’ ties to the land and firsthand feel for rural lives and values.

McMorris Rodgers got her start in politics helping to run the campaign for the late Bob Morton for the state House. When he won the race, he hired McMorris Rodgers as a legislative assistant, and her career was launched.

From there she has consistently been in the right place at the right time. She was chosen by county commissioners to fill the state House seat when Morton was appointed to the Senate. She then ran successfully in 2004 for the 5th District House seat when George Nethercutt chose not to run again.

McMorris Rodgers has been re-elected by wide margins. She is now chair of the House Republican Conference, making her the highest-ranking GOP woman in the Congress.

Tribal praise

Cody Desautel, natural-resources manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said after Washington’s historic fire season in 2015, McMorris Rodgers went out of her way to visit the reservation, and convene local leaders to discuss how better to fight fires and manage forests to reduce the probability of such large fires.

“She had done a good job bringing people to the table to solve the problem,” Desautel said. McMorris Rodgers also supported legislation to return Kennewick Man to Plateau tribes for reburial, the Colville official noted in a news release Friday supporting the nomination.

Others said they would welcome a nominee who knows Western public lands issues and has a feel for life in places where the federal government can be a vast land holder.

“To me the most important factor is there really is a disconnect between east and west … it’s just completely different from a lot of East Coast states, and she has that awareness,” said Travis Joseph, president and CEO of the American Forest Resource Council, in Portland, a trade association of mills and manufacturers using trees cut from public lands. “I’m really pleased that someone from her background would lead the department.”

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said he was hopeful about the possibility of McMorris Rodgers in the top job at Interior.

McMorris Rodgers has sided with ranchers in fights over recovery of wolf populations in the Northwest.

Stand ignites anger

Climate advocates denounced her as a climate-change denier for her answer to The Spokesman-Review on a questionnaire in 2012 that climate science is unclear as to the role of humans in climate change. In fact there is broad, international consensus among scientists that burning fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change documented since the mid-20th century.

McMorris Rodgers also outraged public land and national parks advocates last summer with a bill she sponsored to sell land from the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service, to the highest bidder for shoreline homes. The area was created for public use and recreation following the building of Grand Coulee Dam and the creation of Lake Roosevelt.

“It was very concerning, that in this centennial year of the park service what she wants to do is sell some of the park that is in her district, instead of celebrate it,” said Rob Smith, northwest regional director in the Seattle office of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that supports national parks.

Smith noted that in its recent score card for federal lawmakers on support for national parks, McMorris Rodgers was rated zero.

Similarly, Shannon Murphy, president of Washington Conservation Voters, noted the 4 percent rating by her group’s national affiliate, the League of Conservation Voters. “You have to work hard to get that,” Murphy said.

“She refuses to accept climate science. She has a consistent record of voting to prioritize oil and gas over public access, and clean air and water,” Murphy said. The nomination “definitely concerns us.”

And while she has been gracious and dignified and attentive in meetings, “it’s kind of the velvet shaft,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit conservation group. “Her actions would always be boilerplate, whatever conservative leadership wanted, that is what Cathy has always done.”

If she leaves office before March 7, a special election would be called to fill her House seat sometime this spring or summer.