A good man went to work for a bad man and I applauded

A man I’ve known and trusted for 30 years has taken a post in the Trump administration. Rather than being appalled, I am delighted and relieved.  And there may be some lessons for all of us in this Era of Tough Choices.

2013 BNSF Casselton ND [ABC News photo]
The man is Howard “Skip” Elliott. The post is Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It’s a job that has real economic importance for many parts of the country. It’s also a job that has real life-and-death implications for many people who never had a choice, who never knew they were living near massive amounts of materials that could potentially destroy their health, homes and lives.

It’s also a job that has been vacant for far too long. As deadly hurricanes ripped through the oil, gas and chemical intensive Gulf coast in August and September, I shouted impotently at my TV asking why Skip wasn’t on the job to help protect those people.

I’m glad the DOT Secretary chose to put a professional and not a political appointee in this post. I’m glad Skip made the choice to take this post. He’s extraordinarily qualified on the substantive aspects of the job. More importantly, I have complete faith in Skip’s ethical and moral approach to the job. Over 30 years, Skip and I haven’t always agreed; frankly, we often disagree. When we do, often (not always, but often) he’s right. But he’s always been clear, thoughtful, and honestly faced the implications of his decisions. If I didn’t know Skip and just saw the press, I’d be worried: the oil and gas industry supported him while issues were raised about positions he took in his years of working for industry. All I can say is, if my town, family, and livelihood all stood in the path of the kind of decisions PHMSA makes, I’d want Skip making the decisions.  When my wife (whose politics are far left of mine) heard of Skip’s appointment, her immediate visceral response was “Thank God.”

I don’t know if I would have made the same choice Skip did. I’ve made tough choices in my day, from which clients to work for (would I work for Philip Morris? For pharmaceutical giants?), to which governors to work for (in Illinois where they don’t all go to jail, just most of them), to whether to leave a job I loved because of actions I was being told to take which I found objectionable (as I did after 15 years with Conrail).  But you never really know what you would do until you actually have to make the decision with real consequences. I would have respected Skip’s decision, no matter what he chose.

So what? The man already has the job and has been confirmed. Why does this matter now?

  1. Because we’re all facing tough choices these days. Which official, company or cause will we work for – or refuse to work for? Will we say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, even if it puts our job at risk? Will we protest things we find morally objectionable, even if others find our protest morally objectionable? In this Era of Tough Choices, we need to make our choices thoughtfully, learn from the choices others make, and especially respect those choices.
  2. Because we’re all jumping to conclusions these days, moving to binary judgements of who is right or wrong, who is good or bad. On paper, I would assume Skip is yet another industry hack being put into a critical non-political job by an incompetent and corrupt administration (usually I say “Regime”). I would be wrong: Having seen Skip under incredible pressure in real-life situations with communities at risk, I have complete faith in him.  But that’s a useful cautionary tale: if I would be wrong about Skip, what – and who – else am I wrong about?

None of this changes what I think of the Administration Skip is going to work for. It does make me wonder why they can’t fill other important jobs (South Korea ambassador, anyone?) with well-qualified people. But they got this one right.

[Opinions in this blog are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of Nadler Strategy’s clients or partners, or those cited in the post. To share this blog, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to nadlerstrategy.com.]

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