Healthy Competition for the Top FDA Post

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Obama administration, though a tad slow on nominations this month, is moving with some dispatch to fill the post of Food and Drug Administration chief. After all, the FDA has a huge part of the action when it comes to ensuring that the food we eat and the drugs we take are safe. And we've just tallied nine deaths and hundreds more sickened from bad peanut butter.

Word is that President Obama's team has winnowed a fairly large field down to two finalists. One is Joshua Sharfstein, former health policy adviser to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and current Baltimore health commissioner, who's focused on things like safe medicines for kids. The other is Margaret Hamburg, who served as assistant secretary of health and human services for policy and evaluation in the Clinton administration and before that was New York City health commissioner.

Each candidate has some heavy-hitting champions. Sharfstein's list includes Waxman and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), while Hamburg's includes Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Ford and the Volvo Guy?

As Obama hunts for his third nominee for commerce secretary, there's some chatter that he may turn to Harold Ford Jr., the former congressman from Tennessee. Ford, 38, who gave up his seat in 2006 to run unsuccessfully for the Senate, has been a cable news analyst and chairman of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.

Ford, who comes from a prominent political family in Memphis, was a special assistant at the Commerce Department during the Clinton administration. Elected to his father's 9th District seat in 1996, he served five terms in the House.

At Commerce, meanwhile, folks are abuzz that former Virginia lieutenant governor Donald S. Beyer Jr., the car dealer, could join the administration as a deputy secretary or undersecretary of commerce. Beyer, 58, was an early backer of Obama's campaign, stumped for him in the critical swing state of Virginia and raised megabucks as well.

The Ex-AG's New Gig

Although it's not always easy for former attorneys general to find a job in this market, Bush Justice Department chief Michael B. Mukasey said yesterday that he's joining the New York-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton as a partner, starting later this month.

Mukasey, a retired New York federal judge, will handle corporate investigations for the firm, joining government and international heavyweights such as former Manhattan U.S. attorney Mary Jo White and onetime British attorney general Lord Goldsmith.

Mukasey left his post as the nation's chief law enforcement officer last month after spending more than a year in Washington. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers praised him for limiting contacts between prosecutors and the White House and for helping to improve morale at a demoralized department.

Mukasey was heartily endorsed by some Democrats, led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), but they were somewhat disappointed early on -- at his confirmation hearing, actually -- when he declined to call waterboarding torture.


The Obama team has developed some interesting methods for announcing nominations. There was Obama senior adviser, David Axelrod, trying to duck a question by Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" about the Federal Communications Commission's fairness doctrine with this response.

"I'm going to leave that to Julius Genachowski, our new head of the FCC, to -- and the president to discuss," Axelrod said. "So I don't have an answer for you now."

We've been putting Genachowski in the paper from time to time as the new FCC chairman, but he hasn't officially been nominated. Guess now he has.

Another Byline Goes Bye-Bye

Add one more to the list of journos defecting to the pols. Scott Shepard, a veteran national political correspondent for Cox Newspapers, will work for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as a speechwriter. During the course of his 32-year journalism career, he covered Kerry in Congress and covered his 2004 presidential campaign.

Shepard is the latest scribe to take a job in the Obama administration or Democratic politics, and he is the second to join Kerry's team. Doug Frantz, a former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, recently signed on as chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Kerry.

With Philip Rucker

Notice how empty the town seems of late? How rush-hour traffic seems much reduced? It's not just because Congress is in recess. It's because lawmakers are off finding facts everywhere, but mostly in Europe.

We've gotten the list of those accompanying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her trip to Italy and maybe other places. The all-Democrats group, along with several spouses, includes Reps. Michael E. Capuano (Mass.), Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Anna G. Eshoo (Calif.), John B. Larson (Conn.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.), George Miller (Calif.) and Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.).

The weather's not great, but they're seeing the whole country, from Aviano, at the base of the Alps, to Naples (don't forget reservations at Don Alfonso, that spectacular restaurant just above Sorrento) to Rome to see the pope.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is leading a congressional delegation on a Feb. 13-21 trip to Israel, Syria and Austria. The agenda includes chatting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, as well as an international meeting in Vienna. Joining Cardin are Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Reps. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.).

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