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Product Safety Nominee Seen as 'an Original Thinker'

Politics: Former New Mexico attorney general is known for not backing down from controversial fights.

November 23, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Harold "Hal" Stratton, a former New Mexico attorney general who is President Bush's latest choice to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has a reputation as a conservative Republican who does not shy from controversy, even if he bruises powerful political egos.

For instance, as state attorney general in the late 1980s, Stratton took on his former colleagues in the state Legislature, arguing that their pension plan was illegal. Stratton said the state Constitution limited their pay to daily compensation. The state Supreme Court ruled against him.

Stratton was more successful when he was one of only two state attorneys general to refuse to back a guideline on full disclosure of costs in airline advertising. He said the issue was one for the federal government, and he criticized "some ambitious, high-profile" attorneys general for misusing their state power "to impose their own anti-business, pro-government-regulation views." The U.S. Supreme Court upheld his view.

"Hal is an original thinker, not part of any herd, political or otherwise, not afraid to voice his opinion even if it's unpopular," said Chuck Peifer, an Albuquerque lawyer who was Stratton's chief assistant attorney general.

Stratton is Bush's second choice to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission, one of the government's smallest agencies, with a $55-million budget, 480 employees and a mission to oversee the safety of 15,000 consumer products.

Bush's First Choice for Job Rejected

Mary Sheila Gall, Bush's first nominee, was rejected in a party-line vote of the Senate Commerce Committee in August. Gall has been a member of the three-member commission since 1991, and Democrats said her hands-off regulatory record made her ill-suited to head the agency. Gall remains a commissioner.

Stratton was co-chairman of Lawyers for Bush in New Mexico during the presidential campaign. Described as "very conservative" by critics and supporters, he has been in private practice over the last decade, specializing in commercial litigation and administrative law.

Stratton, 50, declined to be interviewed for this article and referred inquiries to the White House. There, spokeswoman Anne Womack said Bush appointed Stratton because "he has experience managing a large consumer agency and built a strong record as a consumer advocate. [He also] shares the president's compassionate conservative philosophy."

Stratton's background checks have not been completed, so his nomination has not been sent to the Senate.

Unlike Gall, Stratton has no record on product-safety issues. Consequently, his confirmation hearings most likely will focus on his record as state attorney general and his subsequent affiliations with advocacy groups.

He has been an advisory board member of Americans for Technology Leadership, a group founded by Microsoft and several other computer makers and retailers. Among its principles: "Consumer choices, not government management of innovation, are the best marketplace regulators. New regulations and unnecessary lawsuits against technology companies will stifle innovation and result in consumers paying higher prices."

Stratton 'Follows the Law Very Seriously'

Stratton also is president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a group he founded last year "to assist New Mexico leaders in developing policies based on a limited government and free-market approach."

Duncan Scott, an Albuquerque lawyer and foundation director who worked with Stratton in his first year as attorney general, said: "The key to understanding Hal Stratton is that he follows the law very seriously. He believes free and competitive markets are a consumer's best friend, so long as a business follows the rules and the law."

Several former Democratic and Republican state attorneys general who worked with him said Stratton's nomination surprised them. Some noted that, in addition to voting against the airline advertising guidelines, he voted against similar disclosure rules for car rental companies and rules to regulate mergers between companies that produce similar products.

"Among the attorneys general I've dealt with over the years, he's the least likely nomination I expected to fill this job," said John K. Van de Kamp, a Democrat who was California attorney general from 1983 to 1991.

Ernie Preate Jr., a Republican who was Pennsylvania's attorney general, praised Stratton for often going it alone. "He stuck by his convictions, and I admire him for that. He wasn't part of the 'in crowd,' and it didn't bother him."

"As far as being a strong, aggressive, outspoken consumer advocate, that was not his pattern," said Jim Mattox, a Democrat who was Texas attorney general. "He views government as having a limited role in regulating the business community, and I wouldn't expect him to be overly assertive."

But, "as far as stopping consumer fraud," Mattox said, "he would do that."

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