Talk about networking -- Hazel R. O'Leary is a one-woman CBS.
From the Carter administration to the United Negro College Fund, from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to the nuclear power industry, the prospective energy secretary has forged a very long chain of personal and professional associates who have sent up a loud chorus of praise since President-elect Clinton announced her selection last month.
She is a member of the board of the Minneapolis zoo, the Keystone Center think tank in Colorado and Catholic Charities. She is a member of Links, a nationwide social-service organization of black women; of the Committee of 200, a group of female corporate executives, and of the Business Council for a Sustainable Energy Future, a new coalition of industry and environmental groups aimed at expanding the nation's use of natural gas.
Among friends whose work she has supported are LaDonna Harris, director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, and William H. Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund.
In short, O'Leary knew everyone -- except Bill Clinton, and another old friend and colleague took care of that, through one network O'Leary did not have: Renaissance Weekend.
Like Clinton, Dennis Bakke, president of Arlington-based AES Corp., a power-plant developer, has been a regular at the annual New Year's gabfest at Hilton Head, S.C., for several years. Because of that connection, Bakke said, "I was invited to the economic conference" that Clinton convened in Little Rock, Ark., last month, "and he pulled me aside and asked if I could help him with suggestions for secretary of energy. I was honored to put two friends together."
O'Leary, then known as Hazel Rollins, worked with Bakke at the old Federal Energy Administration in the 1970s. Later, she was a member of the AES board of directors. Those were but two of many positions in government and private industry that have given her experience with almost every aspect of energy policy, regulation and economics.
"Her knowledge of the coal, nuclear and natural gas industries and her experience in government mean she will be able to implement a balanced energy policy and provide strong and informed leadership," said Jerald V. Halvorsen, president of the Interstation Natural Gas Association, the pipeline lobby.
"I've known Hazel for 100,000 years, since she was at FEA," said Ellen Berman, executive director of the Consumer Energy Council of America. "She has a lot of credentials that are important to DOE. She had a long career in public service, went to a utility and now is going back to the agency with her corporate skills. It's a nice combination."
Berman's comments were typical. Within hours after O'Leary's selection was announced, men and women who have worked for her and with her, in government and industry, were calling reporters to volunteer rave reviews. They all described her as knowledgeable, open-minded, approachable and amiable.
She is expected to encounter little, if any, opposition at her confirmation hearing today before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
O'Leary, 55, is executive vice president for corporate affairs at Northern States Power Co., a Minnesota gas and electric utility.
That job embroiled her in public controversies about disposal of nuclear waste and toxic chemicals, but many environmental and anti-nuclear groups have held back on criticism, saying they have been encouraged by her positions on other issues, such as increasing use of renewable fuels.
The most outspoken objections to O'Leary have come from members of the Military Production Network, a nationwide alliance of watchdog organizations around the Energy Department's nuclear-weapons factories.
They said they were "deeply disturbed" because of her "lack of knowledge about nuclear-weapons production and cleanup issues," which consume about two-thirds of the Energy Department's budget.
But according to Robert W. Craig, president of the Keystone Center, even that criticism is misplaced. He said that Keystone has conducted extensive studies of the weapons plants and that O'Leary is "very knowledgeable about the nuclear and defense implications" of her new job.
O'Leary was born Hazel Reid in Newport News, Va., when schools there were racially segregated. When she finished eighth grade, her parents sent her to live with an aunt in Newark, N.J., so she could attend a high school for artistically talented youths.
"We wanted the best for her," said her mother, Mattie Reid. "We knew she had the ability to do anything. She was a very alert child . . . . She was always a person who was quite sure of herself."
O'Leary graduated with honors from Fisk University in Nashville and received a law degree from Rutgers. Fisk is one of the schools supported by the United Negro College Fund, and according to Gray, the fund's president, O'Leary last year recruited the chairman of Northern States Power to head last year's fund-raising campaign.
"I've known her personally for more than 10 years," said Gray, a former member of Congress. "She has been one of our outstanding volunteers . . . . Her long-haul track record has been one of good judgment, consensus-building and moderation."
O'Leary was a prosecutor in Essex County, N.J., and an assistant state attorney general before her first Washington assignment as director of the Federal Energy Administration's Office of Consumer Affairs in the Ford administration.
She then served as general counsel to the old Community Services Administration, which ran what remained of the antipoverty programs established in the "Great Society" era of the 1960s.
In the Energy Department, created during the Carter administration, O'Leary headed the Economic Regulatory Administration, then a major job, with a staff of more than 2,000 lawyers, accountants and engineers enforcing price controls on oil and natural gas.
The deputy energy secretary at that time was John F. O'Leary. Hazel Rollins married him, and they left the department to set up their own energy consulting firm, O'Leary Associates. She was its vice president and general counsel.
The O'Learys got a crash course in problems afflicting the nuclear-power industry when General Public Utilities Co., devastated by the 1979 accident at its Three Mile Island Plant near Harrisburg, Pa., brought him in as chairman to salvage the company.
John O'Leary died in December 1987. Hazel O'Leary folded the consulting firm and joined Northern States Power in April 1989, according to a resume distributed by Keystone.
According to her biographic statement, she ran Northern States Power's environmental, human resources and law departments. The document described Northern States as a conservation-minded, environmentally sensitive utility, committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and generating energy from renewable sources such as wind turbines.
But it also runs three nuclear power plants, the source of O'Leary's principal brush with public controversy.
Running out of space for storage of radioactive spent fuel at its Prairie Island reactors, Northern States sought state regulators' permission to store additional fuel in above-ground casks on a site near an Indian reservation.
O'Leary, the utility's chief public representative in that issue, was strongly criticized by Minnesota-based environmental and Native American groups. She also incurred the anger of some anti-nuclear groups by coming to Washington in favor of legislation that would expedite construction of a permanent nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., over strong opposition in that state.
Finding a permanent disposal site for the 20,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel at the nation's nuclear power plants is one of the most difficult problems O'Leary would confront in her new assignment.
"We're generally optimistic" about O'Leary, said Scott Denman, director of the anti-nuclear Safe Energy Communication Council. "She's a tough-minded, independent thinker. But we do have a few notes of caution and concern, about whether she was reflecting Northern State's power's pro-nuclear position or her own."
Anti-nuclear groups have criticized O'Leary for contributing $1,000 to the reelection campaign of J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), the resolutely pro-nuclear chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. But they also have expressed understanding because Johnston's opponent was David Duke.
Despite the Prairie Island controversy, O'Leary is "not at all indifferent to the Indian agenda," Harris said. When O'Leary had her consumer affairs job in the Ford administration, Harris said, her willingness to work with Indian tribes "changed the whole world for us."
O'Leary helped Harris to organize tribes that own energy-producing lands, Harris said, and "because of what she did, we changed national Indian policy throughout the government. We had fun doing it too."