Bruce Edward Babbitt

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Bruce Edward Babbitt

Bruce Edward Babbitt (born 1938) was governor of Arizona (1978-1987), a presidential candidate (1988), and appointed secretary of the interior (1993) in the cabinet of President Bill Clinton.

Born on June 27, 1938, Bruce Babbitt was the second of six children born to Paul J. and Frances Babbitt, and grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona. His family had pioneered ranching and operated Indian trading posts in the 1880s, and they had become prosperous over time. From early childhood Babbitt enjoyed outdoor activities, including hiking and horseback riding.

A Roman Catholic, Babbitt chose to attend the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, where he majored in geology, expecting to build a career around Arizona's array of mineral wealth. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1960, graduating with honors. Two years later he completed his Master of Science degree in geophysics from the University of Newcastle in England, which he attended on a scholarship.

However, early in his career Babbitt changed his objectives. He decided, instead, on a career in political service in order to help those less fortunate than he. Babbitt entered law school to prepare for such service and received a degree from Harvard University in 1965. During his law school days he joined in civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. After graduation he worked in the federal antipoverty program as a civil rights lawyer. Babbitt went on to be a special assistant to the director of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) from 1965 to 1967. Leaving government service, he returned to Arizona where he joined a law firm in Phoenix.

Babbitt was elected attorney general of Arizona in 1974. While holding that position he fought against land sale frauds, price-fixing, and insurance irregularities in his quest for consumer protection. In 1978 he became governor of Arizona. The sitting governor had resigned to become an ambassador and the first person to succeed in office passed away. As attorney general, Babbitt was next in line, becoming the youngest person to hold that office in the state's history. Shortly after assuming his new role, he had to campaign for election to a full term. He not only won that race, but sought and won reelection in 1982 for a full second term as well.

As governor, Babbitt showed a moderate ideological approach to politics. He believed that government should be streamlined and show fiscal restraint, but remain protective of civil rights and social justice. He pushed for environmental controls and water management in his first term. In his second term he supported better educational programs and child welfare programs. He also established an Office of the Child, and, having accomplished most of his major goals, chose not to run for reelection for a third full term.

While he was governor, Babbitt became active on the national level as well. He was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council (along with the future president, Bill Clinton), which focused on reforming the party's programs and strategies. He also served as chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association.

Babbitt decided to seek the 1988 presidential nomination in the Democratic Party. He was the first candidate to declare for the race. His issues included increasing taxes to cut the national budget deficit, creating tax incentives for business, establishing day care programs, expanding health care coverage, reforming federal welfare programs, and promoting environmental protection laws. While he attracted interest in his policy issues, his low-keyed, quiet campaign style and personality did little to attract voters. He withdrew from the race in February 1988, after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Babbitt returned home after his short-lived campaign to renew his law practice in Phoenix. He also served as president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit League of Conservation Voters.

In 1993 President Clinton appointed Babbitt to be the nation's 47th secretary of the Department of the Interior, which manages the federal government's large land holdings and natural resources such as oil, gas, timber, and minerals. He brought his intense interest in conservation and environmental protection with him to the position. He believed in the concept of "public use," that the lands must be shared by accommodating environmental and recreational needs, along with the business needs of ranchers, miners, and loggers.

Several months later in 1993, word spread that Clinton was considering Babbitt for an appointment to the United States Supreme Court. He would have been the first nominee in decades not to have previously served as a judge. Environmental groups made a loud outcry to keep Babbitt as interior secretary. They felt that his concern for conservation and his consensus building approach to solving the issues of public land use could not be duplicated by anyone else. Whether or not this outcry affected the president's decision, Babbitt was not nominated as a justice.

As Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt often found himself in the center of debate as he dealt with many controversial issues. Upon entering office he immediately began to lobby for the establishment of a National Biological Service (NBS) to maintain baseline data concerning the country's natural resources, and to publish that information and use it to identify biological trends. His proposal drew a heavy backlash from private interest groups who did not want to see funding appropriations to the NBS. In 1993 he fought hard for a bill to impose land management controls and to increase grazing fees on public lands, but he met with intense opposition. including a filibuster by the Republican congress. During the following year Babbitt was instrumental in concluding a compromise between the environmentalist interests and sugar farmers in Florida over who would fund a massive restoration and clean-up of the Florida Everglades. In 1996 he campaigned to maintain the Environmental Species Act of 1973, which was under reassessment and scrutiny by the conservative majority. He was criticized by some because he relied heavily on moral and religious issues to argue this case. Babbitt, a master of public relations, traveled frequently to promote his agenda. As the presidential election of 1996 drew near, he was accused by both liberals and conservatives of spending too much time "on the road." Critics argued that he was in actuality spending public moneys to fund thinly disguised campaign for Clinton. Many of these controversies were abated when the president was re-elected, and Babbitt continued in his capacity as secretary of the interior.

Known as a family man, Babbitt married Harriet Coons, a trial lawyer, with whom he had two sons, Christopher and T. J.

Further Reading

Babbitt's years in Arizona office are covered in Marie Marmo Mullaney, Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1983-1988 (1989), and in Michael Barone, et al., The Almanac of American Politics (editions between 1978 and 1988). His work as secretary of the interior may be followed in Congressional Quarterly weekly reports, beginning with his term in 1993. Babbitt authored a book, Color and Light: The Southwest Canvases of Louis Akin (1973), and edited Grand Canyon: An Anthology (1978), which reflected his love for the southwestern region. Also see articles in U.S. News and World Report, May 16, 1994, and National Parks, September-October 1995. □

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Bruce Edward Babbitt

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