A DC job for Kerlikowske

Rumors swirl over whether Seattle’s chief, who served under Clinton, will get a call from Obama

By Eric Scigliano February 9, 2009

Is a DC gig in Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske’s near future? Rumors that the chief would get a top job in the Obama administration have simmered for a month or so. Now they’re heating up—boosted perhaps by King County Executive Ron Sims’ recently receiving a similar call after months of rumors and denials.

Of course, the Great Mentioner also flagged Governor Chris Gregoire twice for jobs under Obama, first, in December, as EPA administrator, then last month as attorney general. Nothing came of either rumor.

But Kerlikowske’s circumstances make the speculation about him especially intriguing. He served in Bill Clinton’s Justice Department as deputy director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS for short). He knows the new attorney general, Eric Holder, an assistant attorney general under Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden, formerly the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s already been in Seattle eight-and-a-half years, longer than the usual tenure of big-city police chiefs. In December the City Council shot down Mayor Nickels’ plan to dramatically raise Kerlikowske’s salary (and those several other top-paid agency heads). And after years of hugs and kisses the chief’s job has got to seem less fun, as gang-related homicides and public outcry climb.

Kerlikowske was “in the running” for the directorships of the Drug Enforcement Administration and, perhaps, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firerarms, says one strategically placed observer. He might have been able to get a lower posting but "was only interested in the top job.” New rumors have him taking the helm of COPS, where he was Number 2 under Clinton. That program languished under Bush but is due for a boost under Obama. “So if they are re-energizing that office sufficiently, maybe that would be big enough to make him happy.”

Kerlikowske has neither confirmed nor denied the rumors that he’s talking to the Obamites. “His response has been joking about it, saying he’s keeping his phone lines open to the Obama administration,” says SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb. “These types of rumors are fairly common.”

If they pan out this time, some veteran officers would bid Kerlikowske a fond adieu. So would Seattle Police Guild president Rich O’Neill: “I would very much like to wish him the best of luck in a new position. So I don’t want to say anything that might jeopardize the appointment.”

And if Kerlikowske does leave, who might succeed him? For more than three decades, Seattle has looked nationally rather than locally for chiefs, partly to avoid the inbred corruption that rocked the department in the late 1960s. But O’Neill and some other officers praise the caretaker leadership of former assistant chief Herb Johnson, who returned from retirement to serve as interim chief between the departure of Norm Stamper in 1999 and Kerlikowske’s arrival in 2000—and hope the city will consider an in-house veteran for the job next time. Hard times might make City Hall glad to avoid the cost of a national search.

“I can think of half a dozen [captains and assistant chiefs] who would get a lot of support” in the ranks, says O’Neill. Of course the Guild “would hold off naming anyone, to avoid giving the kiss of death."

*UPDATE: On February 10, the Times and P-I websites reported that Kerlikowske had told his top staff that he would become director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a.k.a. "drug czar."

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