Over the past decade, as Bill Richardson made his way from the House of Representatives to the United Nations and now to the Department of Energy, reporters knew the two-word formula for finding him on short notice: "Call Stu."
That's shorthand for Stuart C. Nagurka, the soft-spoken and unflappable aide to one of the most visible and talkative politicians in the capital. Nagurka has been at Richardson's side since making the switch from broadcast journalism to public affairs in 1988, first as Richardson's congressional press secretary and later as deputy director of public affairs for him at the United Nations and at Energy.
His work has landed him in the middle of high-profile stories and sensitive national security controversies, the latest involving allegations of Chinese spying at the nuclear weapons labs under DOE's control. Despite the pressure of the hot seat, Nagurka counts himself among the fortunate.
"I think I have one of the easiest press jobs in Washington," he said during an interview in his Independence Avenue office, which overlooks the Smithsonian castle. "He is a doer, a natural newsmaker. He's accessible, he's understandable. He's really the perfect principal for a press secretary."
But does he ever worry that Richardson, who seems to appear on camera as much as any member of the Cabinet and who has a reputation for returning phone calls to reporters, is too visible and accessible? Nagurka answers carefully: "We've had conversations. But more often than not, we really can't control the news value of what he's doing."
"He's loyal and he works like a dog," Richardson said, adding that Nagurka is one of the few people who can "tell me to my face that I'm wrong." The latest example came recently when Nagurka told Richardson he should shave off his four-day-old beard. So far, Richardson has ignored the advice.
Even as a member of Congress, Richardson attracted considerable press attention, particularly after a series of solo diplomatic missions that resulted in the freeing of prisoners in North Korea, Iraq, the Sudan and Cuba. But Nagurka said nothing has compared to the intensity of the story about Chinese attempts to steal nuclear weapons secrets from DOE labs.
"How can you strategize [for dealing with the story] when you don't know what bumps are still out there on the road?" Nagurka said.
Although he has been required to learn more about foreign policy and now complex energy and nuclear weapons questions since leaving Capitol Hill, Nagurka quickly points out that he is a public affairs officer, not a policy expert.
"The secretary's always had good people surrounding him," he said. "I've never felt the pressure or the need to be worried about being the policymaker. Different press people operate differently. I don't view myself in any way as a qualified policymaker."
Nor has he assumed the top public affairs role at either the United Nations or Energy, despite his close relationship with the boss. At the world body, Richardson tapped Calvin Mitchell, who had worked at the National Security Council, to run the public affairs office, and at Energy, he inherited Brooke Anderson, who is director of public affairs.
"I don't want him as a full-time manager," Richardson said. "I want him as my personal eyes and ears. . . . I can have him do whatever I need him to do without having to worry about his management responsibilities."
But Nagurka sees major differences between life on the Hill and at a Cabinet agency. "You have to know how to fight the bureaucracy to work in the executive branch," he said. "You need a reporter's skill to work your way through the maze of the bureaucracy to find the right person who has the information that you're looking for."
Nagurka and his wife, Pamela, have three sons under age 6. When the call came to Richardson to succeed Madeleine K. Albright as U.N. ambassador, they decided not only to accompany him to New York but also to make the most of the experience by living in Manhattan rather than the suburbs. That posting lasted about 18 months.
"New York is a very difficult place to live in with a family on a government salary," Nagurka said. "It was a fascinating experience that I was ever-so-pleased was abbreviated by the Energy appointment."
Now they bike the C&O Canal and Nagurka has the chance to tend to his vegetable garden, which has produced a bumper crop of lettuce, string beans "in full force," peas and carrots. "We're a little slow on the tomatoes," he said.
Stu C. Nagurka
Title: Deputy director, Office of Public Affairs, Department of Energy.
Education: Bachelor's degree, broadcast journalism and marketing, Syracuse University.
Family: Married, three children.
Previous jobs: Anchor/reporter, WHEN-AM, Syracuse, N.Y.; anchor/reporter, WILM-AM, Wilmington, Del.; anchor/reporter, WMDT-TV, Salisbury, Md; reporter, Washington Radio and Press Service; bureau chief/reporter, Sun World Satellite News; press secretary to Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.); deputy director of communications, U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
Hobbies: Gardening, bicycling, photography.
On the job: Bill Richardson has "always had good people surrounding him. I've never felt the pressure or the need to be worried about being the policy maker."