Federico Pena was about to book passage back to his Denver home when President Clinton unexpectedly tapped his departing Transportation secretary to head up the Department of Energy.
Pena, best known for his embarrassing defense of ValuJet's safety record following last May's Florida airline crash that killed 110 people, is a disappointing choice for Energy. He has no experience in that field.
The most that can be said for Denver's former mayor is that he at least has management and Cabinet experience. It's a shame the administration couldn't find a competent manager to replace Hazel O'Leary, who at least knew a smattering about energy.
This is what happens when diversity is stressed over knowledge and know-how. Pena became a last-minute "affirmative action" choice when Clinton realized he didn't have a Hispanic in his second-term Cabinet.
The reaction of Congress and local residents concerned about the future of the Savannah River Site, which DOE oversees along with other nuclear weapons facilities, is one of puzzlement.
No one has the faintest idea of what to expect. This may cause Pena to run into bumps on the road to confirmation. In any event, those hearings will be crucial in enlightening the public as to what his priorities are for the $16 billion agency.
In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed and be optimistic. Despite his lack of energy knowledge, Pena would be hard put not to improve on his predecessor's performance. O'Leary came to DOE with both management and nuclear energy experience she learned in the utility industry. But it didn't do her much good.