Next Up On The Hot Seat

The subject was one close to Gale Norton's heart: states' rights. George Bush's nominee for secretary of the Interior was still Colorado's attorney general in August 1996 when she spoke to the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank. One of several speakers introduced as "Heroes of Devolution" for their opposition to federal involvement in local matters, Norton described an epiphany she had as she wandered in a Civil War graveyard in Virginia. "I remember seeing this column that was erected... It said in memory of all the Virginia soldiers who die in defense of sovereignty of their state." She went on to say that slavery had undermined the Confederate cause of states' rights. "We certainly had bad facts [a lawyer's term of art for information damaging to a legal argument] in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery," Norton said. "But we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives."

Until a few days ago, Norton seemed destined for a rough, but ultimately successful confirmation. Environmentalists would howl about her ardently pro-industry record ("James Watt in a skirt") that included opposition to the Endangered Species Act and support for increased logging, mining and oil drilling on public lands. But with John Ashcroft taking most of the bullets from Democrats and liberal interest groups, it appeared that she didn't have too much to worry about. That may be changing. While Norton clearly didn't intend to endorse slavery, she arguably trivialized it with her comparison to "bad facts." The combination of the speech (plucked from the Internet by opponents) and a left emboldened by its sudden impact on the confirmation process has placed her nomination on shakier ground. NAACP chairman Julian Bond said her states' rights commentary "exhibited a wanton insensitivity to slavery," and that her appointment "threatens to divide, not unify, Americans." Late last week, the civil-rights organization joined a coalition of 18 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, in a major lobbying and advertising effort urging the Senate to reject her.

Norton's musings on slavery weren't her only problem with civil-rights groups. As Colorado attorney general, she refused to defend the state against a lawsuit challenging its minority preference program for highway contracts. And in the same 1996 address, Norton trashed the Americans with Disabilities Act (signed into law by Bush's father) for requiring the state to include what she called "this really ugly addition" to the state capitol building: a wheelchair ramp. She'll also be answering questions about her lobbying since she left office in 1998. One of her clients, NL Industries, is a defendant in at least a dozen cases involving children allegedly poisoned by lead paint.

Like Ashcroft, Norton isn't talking before her confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin this week. But Bush took up her defense, scoffing at the attacks as the predictable by-product of Washington confirmation politics. The charges of racial insensitivity, Bush said, are "a ridiculous interpretation of what's in her heart." Bush added that it should come as no surprise that Norton supports ideas like oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Guess what?" he told reporters. "So do I." But privately, Bush advisers are worried about Norton. Unlike Ashcroft, she is a relative stranger to most of the Senate, and that will make her showing at this week's hearing all-important. Senators are reserving judgment, but some are dismayed by what they've read and heard. "I'd keep this one on my watch list," Sen. Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat, told NEWSWEEK. Bayh, a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that will screen Norton, says her positions "warrant very close questioning." One aide to a senior Democrat said that "it wouldn't take much," to trigger an anti-Norton stampede. And the new NEWSWEEK Poll suggests that the debate over Norton is taking place against a backdrop of skepticism about Bush's willingness to safeguard clean air and water. By a 43-42 margin, respondents answered no when asked if they thought Bush was committed to protecting the environment.

There was some evidence last week that, like Ashcroft, Norton was selected by Bush after hard-line conservatives balked at a more moderate choice. The American Land Rights Association, a group opposed to federal ownership of Western lands, sent out a "disaster alert" last month to members warning that John Turner, president of the widely respected Conservation Fund, was under consideration for the secretary's post or another senior position at Interior. Turner refused to comment, and Bush aides did not return calls. This week, they may learn whether Norton is the incipient disaster.