Aug. 1, 2002 – For the first time in memory, two men with island backgrounds — both with Samoan connections — have the No. 1 and No. 2 jobs in the federal government's liaison office for the U.S. islands.
The Bush administration, after 18 months in office, has finally cemented the leadership of the Office of Insular Affairs within the Department of the Interior. In the top spots are David B. Cohen, deputy assistant secretary of Interior, and, reporting to him, Nikolao Pula, director of the OIA.
Cohen, a political appointee and a lawyer, is the son of a mainland father and a Samoan mother. He had been active in American-Samoan affairs as well as the Republican Party in California.
Pula, whose appointment was announced on Wednesday by Cohen, is a career civil servant. He was born in American Samoa, the son of two native American Samoans. He was the acting director of OIA when the Bush administration arrived and had been director of policy for the office before that.
Among other positions within the OIA, he has been desk officer for American Samoa and for the Republic of Palau. Before joining Interior, he worked on Capitol Hill for both Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii and former Congressman Fofo Sunia of American Samoa, both Democrats. Inouye has for years been the major promoter of island interests in Congress.
"Many people expected that a political appointee would fill this position," Cohen said in announcing Pula's designation, "but our approach to the territories is entirely bipartisan. Nik has a great amount of credibility with Republicans and Democrats alike, both on Capitol Hill and in this administration."
Further, Cohen said, "Having traveled many times to all four insular areas and the three freely associated states and having worked extensively with their leaders, Nik has an unparalleled personal knowledge of insular issues. He did an excellent job as acting director and has more than earned the right to continue in that position in a permanent capacity."
OIA is the primary point of contact within the federal government for the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the three freely associated states — the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.
In the decades prior to 1994, when President Clinton changed things, the top OIA post had been filled by a succession of minority group mainlanders who had ties to the political party in power but knew little or nothing about the islands as they took up their posts.
The ranking island OIA official had been, for example, a Hispanic Republican man from New Mexico, a Hispanic Republican woman from Texas, and a black woman from the law practice of Clinton's close friend Vernon Jordan. (According to Interior insiders, all three struggled with the job, none making much of an impact. None of the three is active now in island-related affairs.)
Clinton placed Alan Stayman, a mainlander but a U.S. Senate staffer with deep knowledge of the islands, in charge, backed by Danny Aranza, a lawyer from Guam. Aranza moved to the top job after Stayman was promoted to a State Department position. Both left the government with the arrival of the Bush administration.
The Bush White House has given the islands a little more clout in Washington circles than Clinton did, because Cohen carries the rank of deputy assistant secretary, a step up from directorship of the office. At one time, the ranking island position in Washington had been that of assistant secretary. But the position disappeared as a result of a struggle between Congress and Clintons Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, and it appears the title is unlikely to be revived.
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