May 28, 2009
The man thought to be the frontrunner for Texas’ top health and human services job is already being criticized as lacking experience and failing to fully grasp key issues.
Gov. Rick Perry’s office has said Austin lawyer Lowell Keig is being considered to replace Albert Hawkins, who is retiring later this year after six years on the job. Two other people — a Washington, D.C., neurosurgeon and a New York resident who was until recently a federal health official — are also being considered, according to documents obtained from the governor’s office by the American-Statesman under the state’s Public Information Act.
Hawkins — who has said he’ll probably leave in late summer or early fall — has one of the most demanding jobs in state government. He oversees five agencies, 50,000 employees and a $25 billion total annual budget, including state and federal dollars.
“Now, more than ever, we need a highly qualified chief executive experienced in running a complex organization,” said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a member of the Senate committee that confirms gubernatorial appointments. “What I fear is that Mr. Keig is in a long line of political appointees whose only value is loyalty to Perry.”
This has been a tough legislative session for Perry appointees. The Senate earlier this month blocked the nomination of unemployed Burleson banker Shanda Perkins to join the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. And the nomination of State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, who has been criticized for using the board to promote his conservative religious views, barely made it out of committee and faces opposition on the Senate floor. McLeroy began serving as chairman before the legislative session began.
Keig, 46, is general counsel at Youth & Family Centered Services Inc., an Austin company that provides health, education and assisted-living services to children, teens and people with disabilities in hospitals, group homes and residential treatment facilities in eight states.
He is a former chief of the attorney general’s Elder Law and Public Health Division, where he managed more than two dozen people, according to his résumé. But he doesn’t appear to have experience running a large organization, according to his job application.
In an e-mail Wednesday, Keig wrote: “Since no decision has been made, it would be premature for me to answer any questions at this time.”
Though Perry has not formally nominated anyone, his office did submit Keig’s name to Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, Watson said.
“I believe he’s the only person under serious consideration,” Watson said.
Allison Castle, Perry’s spokeswoman, said it’s “part of our normal process to run possible candidates by their senator.” But she added: “No decision has been made. We are still taking applications, and the interview process is ongoing.”
Keig’s fate could rest in Watson’s hands. Traditionally, an appointee’s state senator can block a governor’s choice.
Watson, a lawyer, says he’s known Keig for years through legal circles and that he’s “still evaluating” whether Keig is right for the job.
Watson said he takes his role in the nominations process “very seriously” and that he’s arranged for Keig to meet with several health and human services experts who will then advise Watson.
The health and human services commissioner oversees agencies that enroll Texans in food stamps, run the state’s institutions for people with disabilities and prepare the state’s response to public health events such as the swine flu.
“This is an enormous and complicated agency that has a direct, immediate and significant impact on the lives of Texans, and it’s a mammoth part of the state budget,” Watson said. “The first question of anyone that would be considered would be what experience they have to deal with budget, management and constituent issues.”
Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, chairman of the nominations committee, said that although time is running out for the panel to consider any appointments before the legislative session ends Monday, it could consider them during a special session if the governor orders one.
If Perry doesn’t announce his choice until after that, the committee wouldn’t consider the appointment until the 2011 session. But under the informal arrangement, Watson could nix the candidate before then.
Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said Watson recently arranged for him to meet with Keig. Borel said Keig spoke of his desire to be of service to the public.
“He’s a nice guy,” Borel said. But he added: “He seemed to have not a great grasp of everything that’s going to be involved at (the commission).”
Sen. Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services and a member of the nominations committee, said she has met with Keig but not with other applicants.
“He seemed very smart, capable,” said Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican. She said the next executive commissioner needs to have “CEO-type skills,” but that she didn’t spend enough time with Keig to know whether he has those skills.
Keig has given thousands of dollars to Republican candidates since 2001, including at least $3,000 to Perry’s campaign, according to records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
One of the other candidates is Betty W. Adams of New York, an adjunct professor at Columbia University who until recently served as deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Adams, who advised President George W. Bush on issues relating to Asian Americans, did not submit a formal application but had previously indicated an interest in the job, Castle said. Adams could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The final candidate is Dr. Guy Clifton, who lives in Washington but is on the faculty of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Reached by phone Wednesday, Clifton said he was interviewed by members of the governor’s staff about three weeks ago but has not heard back from them.
“I’m sure I scared them to death,” said Clifton, who said he did not know Perry during their overlapping undergraduate years at Texas A&M University. “I was interested in what I need to do to make the Medicaid program more efficient in this state. It would involve considerable changes.”