Originally created 01/03/01

Energy nominee evaluated



Few Savannah River Site watchers know much about Spencer Abraham, but that didn't keep people from talking about him Tuesday.

President-elect Bush nominated Mr. Abraham, a former U.S. senator from Michigan, for energy secretary Tuesday. Most local observers said they weren't sure what the nomination would mean for the federal nuclear-weapons site.

"He's an unknown," said Ernest S. Chaput, a former Energy Department official at Savannah River Site who is now special projects coordinator for the Economic Development Partnership serving Aiken and Edgefield counties.

"I really have no understanding or insight into his specific energy background, but what you need is somebody who has the confidence of the president in that job," Mr. Chaput said. "Obviously he has that, from being nominated."

But some observers voiced concerns about Mr. Abraham's resume, which boasts service on prominent Senate committees but is light on experience in nuclear-defense issues and the energy industry.

"It sounds like they picked more of a figurehead than they did a leader," said Don Moniak, an Aiken resident and community organizer for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, a watchdog organization that monitors SRS issues.

"This is one place where they really needed somebody strong," Mr. Moniak said. "If they don't pick somebody strong for that position, the bureaucracy runs itself, and there's a lot less accountability. You've got to have somebody who knows what's going on and is willing to take the heat."

Energy Department officials at SRS offered no comment about the nomination, but the site's top contractor pledged support.

"We look forward to developing a working relationship with Mr. Abraham and inviting him to visit the site and the area as soon as possible," said Will Callicott, spokesman for Westinghouse Savannah River Co.

Mr. Abraham, 48, was defeated in November by U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., after serving one term in the Senate. He had been the first Republican elected to the Senate from Michigan in 22 years.

The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Mr. Abraham has enjoyed a prodigious and precocious career in politics. He became chairman of the Michigan Republican Party at age 30, steering the party through a period when it gained control of the state's Senate and governorship.

Like many of his fellow Cabinet nominees, Mr. Abraham served in the previous Bush administration, as deputy chief of staff to former Vice President Dan Quayle.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994. During his tenure, he served on the budget committee, judiciary committee, small business committee, and the commerce, science and transportation committee.

Before being nominated for energy secretary, Mr. Abraham was rumored as possible nominee for transportation secretary. That job went to Norman Y. Mineta, a Democrat who now serves as commerce secretary for President Clinton.

Mr. Abraham holds a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.