SALT LAKE CITY — As President-elect Joe Biden looks to fill thousands of positions in a new Democratic administration, his supporters in Utah want to make sure he has a long list of potential appointees from the GOP-dominated state to consider.
"From a Utah perspective, we've got outstanding talent," Scott Howell, a former Democratic state Senate leader who served as Biden's leading surrogate in Utah, said about the list of candidates he's putting together for the president-elect's transition team.
At least one Utah Democrat, University of Utah law professor and gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson, is already being talked about as possible pick by Biden, as a long shot to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he worked as a special adviser to the director under President Barack Obama.
And former Utahn Lily Eskelsen Garcia, a Democrat who served as president of the nation's largest teachers union for six years, is considered a top contender to head the U.S. Department of Education. She was a president of Utah Education Association and ran for Congress in 1998, losing to then-incumbent GOP Rep. Merrill Cook.
So far, though, the names that Howell is suggesting — including other Utah Democrats who, like Peterson, ran and lost in the Nov. 3 election as well as longtime state lawmaker Patrice Arent, who didn't seek reelection — aren't surfacing in discussions about the new administration.
Howell said they're more likely to be looked at for jobs below the Cabinet-level posts that attract the most attention as a new administration is put in place. Plus, he said, Biden's transition team is "laser-focused" right now on gearing up to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, already naming a COVID-19 task force.
Other appointments are "taking second priority right now," Howell said. "That's where they're putting all their energy"
Asked about the likelihood of a Utahn serving under the president-elect and when to expect more appointments to be announced, a transition spokesperson told the Deseret News "the Biden-Harris transition team has not made any personnel decisions at this time."
The most high-profile appointment of a Utahn by a Democratic president came in 2009, when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was named U.S. ambassador to China by Obama and stepped down as governor. Huntsman, though, was a Republican and went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Russia under GOP President Donald Trump.
Utah Democrats with posts under Democratic presidents include Mickey Ibarra, the head of a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., who was President Bill Clinton's intergovernmental relations director; and Pat Shea, Bureau of Land Management director and deputy assistant secretary of Interior for land and minerals under Clinton.
Jason Perry, who served two of the state's GOP governors in key positions and is now director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, noted a Utahn hasn't held a Cabinet-level post since former Gov. Mike Leavitt served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under fellow Republican President George W. Bush.
"I think that the Biden administration should consider some Utahns, but that has not been the history for our state," Perry said. Still, he said he expects to see some Utah names end up at least on the shortlist for the president-elect's leadership team in the coming weeks.
Although the state has long been dominated by Republicans and has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, Perry said, "Utah is not a state that is just ignored in that respect. There is a 'Utah way' that people are interested in."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant is optimistic there will be some Utah Democrats headed to Washington, D.C.
"I definitely think we'll get at least a few people that will join the administration. That's always a positive for the party," Merchant said. "People with our values and our views will be part of the administration, part of the decision-making process. It also opens up opportunities for people here from Utah."
Peterson, who lost the governor's race to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox but still managed to win more votes than any other Democratic candidate for the office, was mentioned in American Banker magazine shortly before the election as a "dark horse" choice to head the federal consumer protection bureau set up by now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
People with our values and our views will be part of the administration, part of the decision-making process. It also opens up opportunities for people here from Utah.
–Jeff Merchant, Utah Democratic Party Chairman
Warren is seen as a possible pick for treasury secretary. The industry magazine said Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and Rohit Chopra, a former assistant director at the bureau and a current member of the Federal Trade Commission, are the top names being floated.
Peterson and Michael Barr, a former treasury assistant secretary in the Obama administration who also served in the Clinton administration and is now a University of Michigan law professor, are both described as "dark horse" candidates.
The post would be a return to the bureau for Peterson, where his focus was on stopping what his campaign called "deceptive and abusive practices by banks, payday lenders and debt collection agencies," including against members of the military.
"I believe in public service, so it would be an honor to even be considered by President-elect Biden," Peterson said. "Right now I am also excited to return to teaching and research at my alma mater, the University of Utah."
Arent, a state representative from Millcreek who also served in the state Senate, could be considered for posts in the Environmental Protection Agency or the Bureau of Land Management because of her experience on air quality and public lands issues, Howell said.
She said it is "a little premature" to talk about which option is more likely.
"When I leave the Legislature, I am not sure what my future plans will be, but I continue to have a desire to provide public service in meaningful ways," Arent said, adding that working in the Biden administration when her term ends at the start of the year is "one of many possible options."
Other Utah Democrats that Howell believes should be considered for the new administration include former state Sen. Pat Jones, attorney general candidate Greg Skordas, and congressional candidates Kael Weston, Devin Thorpe and Darren Parry. Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, remains locked in a close race.
"You never know, " Howell said of the chances a Utah Democrat will join the Biden team. "Nothing is official. Nothing at all. I haven't even had a chance to turn in the names that I would recommend. But I would hope that the transition committee would recognize the West. It's so important."
Howell said there could also be roles for Utahns who aren't Democrats in the Biden administration, such as Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, or even Evan McMullin, who ran an independent campaign for president in 2016 as a conservative alternative to Trump and is now a Republican.
Whether Biden is interested in any Utah Republicans remains to be seen. But Romney, who was considered for secretary of state by Trump and is up for reelection in 2024, told reporters recently he has ruled out working for the new Democratic president.
"The answer is no, I have not been approached, nor will I be approached, and I'm not going to be part of the Biden administration," Romney said, adding, "I'll be serving this term and who knows maybe even another one representing our great state."
McMullin, who endorsed Biden in this year's presidential election, also intends to stay put in Utah.
"It's critical that Americans come together over the four years to solve major challenges facing the country, including the pandemic, economic hardship, health care and cultural division. President-elect Biden campaigned to unite the country and lead us through this difficult time," he said.
McMullin said he hopes "to be helpful to that important cause, but expect to remain in Utah and continue working to help ensure unifying, effective leadership here and a thriving future for the state."