ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Michael Connor, a New Mexican nominated by President Barack Obama to be second-in-command at the U.S. Department of Interior, received glowing reviews and friendly questions at his Senate energy committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
Connor, whose nomination is expected to clear the committee easily, grew up in Las Cruces and attended New Mexico State University before earning a law degree in Colorado with an emphasis on water policy. He is currently director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages federal water projects in the western United States. Connor served as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., from 2001 to 2009.
Bingaman, an energy policy expert at Stanford University in California, returned to Washington Tuesday to introduce Connor. He characterized his former employee as deeply knowledgeable about federal water and land policy. He also described Connor as “a first-rate manager” well-suited to help lead the sprawling Interior Department, which includes the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies. As deputy secretary, Connor would serve as chief operating officer of the department.
“The president, in my view, could not have chosen a better nominee for the position,” Bingaman told the committee.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also testified on Connor’s behalf. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the energy committee, also spoke favorably of Connor’s nominationTuesday.
In questioning Connor, senators largely stuck to parochial issues and none indicated any displeasure over his tenure as director of the Bureau of Reclamation. Heinrich asked Connor about his position on water leasing, noting that the arrangement enables farmers in drought-stricken places like New Mexico to irrigate their crops while keeping river flows healthy.
“Water leasing is absolutely one of the most critical tool we have in addressing the challenges we have with respect to water resources in the West,” Connor said. “Facilitating the movement of water between users and also make it available for environmental purposes to address our responsibilities I think improves the situation for all water users.”
Connor told the committee that growing up in southern New Mexico has helped him reach a better understanding of federal land and water policy. He also pointed out that his maternal grandfather was a leader with Taos Pueblo. Connor’s mother is descended from members of Taos Pueblo, though she was not an enrolled pueblo member. Interior officials believe Connor would be the first person with such Native American roots to serve so high in the Interior Department, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“It has been said if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are,” Connor said. “I would like to think that knowing and understanding where I am from has helped me better understand the Department of Interior and the people we serve.”