Somebody has to do it. We're lucky it's her.
If there was one thing, one precious thing, that Lisa Jackson's mother wishes she could have saved before the hurricane came—when Lisa stood over her bed on the eve of Katrina and said, "Mama, wake up, we have to go, we have to go now," and gently helped her diabetic mother into her wheelchair and then to the car for an 18-hour drive out of hell—it wouldn't have been her sacred rosary beads or her silverware (both of which miraculously survived) but that photograph. Of Lisa at age 3. In Washington, D.C., in 1965. Oh, it was a big deal back then to go to Washington, D.C.—to drive all the way from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, at a time when black people still had to worry about what might happen if they stopped at the wrong traffic light. But Lisa's parents were determined to show their daughter, "our little jewel," says her mother—the baby they brought home from an orphanage when she was two weeks old—everything they possibly could about the world.
"My husband, Benjamin, took this picture of her, in front of the White House," says Lisa's mother, Marie Perez Rieras, who is now 82. She remembers it so vividly, her beautiful toddler Lisa, whom she loved to dress in ruffles and lace, posing so proudly. "And he said, 'Look at this, my little girl. One day she will be in the White House.'
"We just laughed it off then," Marie says.
Marie thought about that photograph and her late husband's words when she returned to Washington, D.C. 45 years later, five years after Katrina, to meet her daughter's new boss, President Obama. "We got the whole VIP treatment at the White House," Marie says, approvingly. Obama had named Lisa to his cabinet as the first African-American to head the Environmental Protection Agency, overseeing a staff of more than 17,000 and a budget of roughly $10 billion. How does it feel to have a daughter in such an exalted position? "I feel like my chest is gonna burst wide open," Marie says.
Jackson's appointment was history-making, for sure. That was the good news. It would also catapult her to the head of one of Washington's most controversial agencies, the perennial punching bag of both the Right (some of whom view the EPA as a hippie holdover and meddlesome money waster) and the Left (which often thinks the EPA isn't doing enough to regulate polluters). As difficult jobs go, running the EPA is near the top of the list—now more than ever, as the economy sputters and phrases like "global warming" and "climate change" spark ferocious debate. Focus on the EPA, particularly from those you wouldn't call fans, has never been more extreme. And the stakes never higher.
The agency Jackson leads was built on drama that has scarcely abated in its 40-year history. By the 1960s, American industries exploited an atmosphere of lawlessness, in which the dumping of industrial waste and the pumping of factory smokestack emissions went practically unchecked. But by 1970, consciousness had been sufficiently raised to turn environmentalism into a movement: On April 22 of that year, 20 million Americans hit the streets and parks for the first-ever Earth Day. (As Jackson likes to say, when it comes to the environment, the biggest strides start at the grassroots level, with people saying, Enough already.) Even President Nixon heard the drumbeat—by July he would propose the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, with a mission to ensure clean air and water through research, regulation, and enforcement. That same year, landmark legislation had come in the form of a revamped Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act was overhauled two years later.
Yet for all the good it has done, the agency has long been viewed with skepticism and worse by foes of big government—particularly industry, which abhors regulatory intervention on principle, but also for the toll it says it takes on profits: It can be an expensive proposition, performing the tests, buying new equipment, and exploring less-toxic sources of fuel in order to meet EPA standards. Conservative demands that the agency be reined in have become a motif on Capitol Hill—even in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, with Newt Gingrich calling for its abolishment entirely.
EPA headquarters is a grand affair of marble and columns, a few blocks from the White House. Massive bronze statues of men on horses greet visitors in the reception area. With its three-story ceilings, dark butternut-paneled walls, and buffed marble floors, Jackson's own office would be daunting if not for her personal touches. And Jackson herself.
"It's freezing in here," she says, with a warm hug hello, on a crisp December day. "If you want a jacket, just let me know. Do you want some coffee? Tea?"
In a snazzy departure from the ice cream–colored power suits one typically associates with women in government, Jackson is wearing black stiletto ankle boots, a well-cut tweed suit, dangling earrings, and a wide black Michelle Obama–style belt. Her hair is still wet from her morning workout. "I'm all about showing people that environmentalism isn't just Birkenstocks," she says with a laugh. "I mean, we love Birkenstocks, but we've moved on." Banishing the retro, tree-hugger perception of the EPA is, for Jackson, a priority. "This job is about outreach and trying to make sure that you're accessible to a broad swath, including industry, enviros, folks that really don't see themselves in our mission at all. Because part of my message is, 'You should know what we're about.'"
There is plenty of artwork on the walls—"You can borrow paintings from the National Gallery," Jackson says, noting an enviable perk of the job. "So I tried to get all paintings that were by either women or people of color. And I tried to make it modern, because this office is so, um..."
"Yeah, that's the word."
There are also the requisite framed photographs of Jackson with the president, with the president's aides at Camp David, which Jackson quickly bypasses, eager to show me a cluster of pictures on the shelves. "This is my Saints corner," she says, referring not to the bleeding martyrs of her Catholic faith: "That's Drew Brees," quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. She is such a fan, in fact, that she threw a big Mardi Gras party at her Silver Spring, Maryland, home "when the Saints were marching to victory," says secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius, one of the guests that night. Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, hobbled over on crutches, having broken her ankle playing tennis. Hilda Solis, the secretary of labor, was there as well, and remembers the food as being spicy even by Latina standards (cooking—with a glass of Chardonnay and Zumba music blaring—is how Jackson decompresses after a long, hard week). "Red beans and rice, great music, great friends," says Sebelius—"not your typical stodgy Washington who's who list." Jackson's warmth has proved to be a strategic asset: The women of the cabinet say she has subtly changed the culture of the place with her ability to find common ground, to coax agencies to work together without worrying about turf. "Lisa always has a sense of joy about what she's doing," Sebelius says. "It's pretty infectious. You can't be around her and feel bad." According to Solis, the first Latina to serve in a presidential cabinet, "Our passions are the same in that we want to get things done, we know how to do them, and we know that the most vulnerable populations are our own: women and people of color."
"This is Dorothy Height, who just died," says Jackson, continuing the office tour. "She was the only woman to stand with Dr. King on the platform when he made his 'I Have a Dream' speech." She pauses. "And this is my father—he died when I was in high school. That was in front of Martin Luther King's grave before they built the King Center. We took a car trip to Atlanta."
Jackson's parents adopted her from a Catholic orphanage in Philadelphia in 1962. As family lore has it, they were "going for a boy," Jackson says, but when her father first held her, Jackson looked up at him with the most beatific smile ("It was probably gas," she jokes), and he was hooked. "It was no thinking or nothing," her mother, Marie, recalls. "It was just like she was ours." They also adopted a 14-month-old boy the same day; Marie gave birth to another son five years later. Jackson never bothered to inquire about the woman who'd deposited her in the arms of the nuns at the orphanage. "I never wanted my mother"—Marie—"to think there was something missing," she says. "Like most adoptive parents, they changed my life, with one unselfish decision."
Benjamin worked his entire life as a mail carrier without complaint, despite his considerable intellect. "There weren't a lot of jobs for the extraordinary black men coming from WWII in the still-segregated South," Jackson says about her dad. He also toiled at a second full-time job at night, as a hardware clerk at Sears, to save for his children's education. Every night when he came home, he'd put a little bag of cashews—Jackson's favorite—on top of the radio by her bed, while she was asleep. Then at 49, the age Jackson is today, he died of a massive heart attack. "Lisa took it very, very hard," Marie says. "She sat at my feet and cried and cried and cried. I'd say, 'Let it out, honey,' and she'd say, 'I just miss Dad so much.'" The day Benjamin died, Marie sat her children down. "I said, 'Daddy's gone. But you will still have the best education that you can. And the best doctors.' That's all a mama can offer. 'Don't you worry about anything.'"
A National Merit scholar, Jackson went on to nearby Tulane, working for Shell Oil Company during summers in the sexy-sounding "gas plant maintenance"—"She wore overalls and a hard hat, and she had these big iron-toed shoes, big men's shoes," Marie remembers. The only other woman there, Jackson recalls, was the plant secretary. Jackson graduated summa cum laude in chemical engineering, the only female in her class to do so, and headed to Princeton for a master's (she has a photo of herself wearing large pink hair rollers while packing the car for the Ivy League: "That was the hot thing—pink rollers, baby"). But as her mother tells it, Jackson has always been exceptional. "She came out with things that other children didn't," Marie says. "The nuns were amazed." Like the time in third grade when Jackson wrote a letter to President Nixon asking him to make the world a more peaceful place, and, prophetically enough, to "care for the planet." Or in her high school valedictory speech when she summed up her philosophy of life by quoting Jesse Jackson: "If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it."
Back in Jackson's office, she moves on to more pictures. "That's the lead singer of the Flaming Lips," she says. "I just thought that photo was the coolest thing. And this"—pointing to a picture of a very tall, very handsome guy in a silver frame—"is Kenny."
Eighteen years ago she met Kenny Jackson, her second husband and the father of her two teenage sons, Marcus, 16, and Brian, 14, on the commuter train from New Jersey to Manhattan, where she worked for the EPA, a few blocks from the World Trade Center. (On September 11, 2001, rushing out of the building after the first tower was hit, she saw a panicked coworker in a wheelchair and proceeded to push the woman 49 blocks to safety). Kenny, who tests software for Bank of America, often works from home—"which means the kids come home to a parent," says Jackson. "We didn't like the idea of them returning to an empty house."
Clearly, if you're a member of the cabinet, it helps if your spouse is a multitasking mensch. "He's a great, great dad, and a great support to Lisa and her career," says Jackson's best friend of 18 years, Kathleen DeLemos. "But he also keeps her grounded. I think we both do. 'Yeah, yeah, you're a cabinet member, blah, blah, but your hair is sticking out on top of your head.'"
Jackson glances at the clock and jumps up, teetering on her stilettos—time to prepare for the EPA's 40th anniversary party. ("It's sort of good fortune to have a multiple of ten while we're here," she notes. "I wish it were 50, but, you know, 40 is cool, too.") Already hundreds of her employees are jamming a majestic auditorium in a neighboring building to hear their leader speak. As celebrations go, this could have been a total wonkfest, befitting the booths and displays lining the halls detailing the EPA's greatest hits, such as how Three Mile Island was ultimately contained, and a chemistry experiment involving rock salt and baking soda. Jackson, however, envisioned something a little more, well, Lisa Jackson, so she invited her friend Dionne Warwick to fly in as a surprise guest and perform. (They met through their mutual hairdresser in New Jersey.) "These days are so much about building esprit de corps," she explains. "It's hard to work here—especially when you're under attack by Congress, lobbyists, and special interests."
It's always been hard. Fifteen months after Jackson was sworn in, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and spewing nearly five million barrels of crude into the Gulf. It was the largest marine spill in oil industry history and, for the woman recently charged with protecting our air and water, a baptism by belching fire and smoke, as the EPA, working with the U.S. Coast Guard and other entities, searched for a way to contain the spread of oil to the thickly populated shores Jackson knew so well. While President Obama was attacked for not acting quickly enough, Jackson was accused of not being well enough informed about the cleanup options, particularly the long-term effects of using chemical dispersants on the toxic clots oozing through the Gulf. At a certain point she even seemed to recede from the media, although as she explains it, "When it was going on, especially when it was gushing even in the weeks after they capped it, my schedule was entirely different—I would not have scheduled [speaking engagements], because it would have been disrespectful to the people down there who were watching this horrible thing unfold."
The epic disaster took a huge toll on local business; it killed fish, birds, and marine mammals by the thousands, disrupting the region's delicate ecosystem, possibly for centuries to come. It also blew the EPA debate wide open: Was there too much environmental regulation on industry or (as the oil spill seemed to indicate) not enough? Would requiring businesses to adopt new, cleaner technologies spur economic growth (as the EPA believes) or send jobs fleeing overseas (a conservative refrain)? The following fall, when Republicans took control of the House and expanded their reach in the Senate, it wasn't surprising that the agency would be on their hit list of "big government" factions that should have their sails trimmed, although no one anticipated the degree to which the EPA would be singled out.
Within months, not only did the House pass a bill to cut the EPA's budget by nearly a third (a saber-rattling measure unlikely to get through the Senate), it also proposed a ban on the agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gases. So began a four-week period, from mid-February to mid-March, when Jackson was called to testify before congressional committees no fewer than seven times—more than any other federal agency head. More than Kathleen Sebelius, whose domain includes the president's ferociously contested healthcare bill; more than Janet Napolitano, who oversees that hysteria-inducing concern, homeland security. And the hearings were often pointless, even loopy, with congressmen accusing Jackson of wanting to regulate everything from "cow flatulence" to farm dust and spilled milk. During one House hearing, Illinois Republican Tim Johnson called her agency "the poster child for usurpation of legislative authority" and asked Jackson if she even had a background in agriculture. "I eat food and I eat meat and I drink milk," she deadpanned. During another hearing, Texas Republican Joe Barton, whose campaign was largely financed by gas and utility companies, accused the Obama administration and the EPA of trying "to put the American economy in a straitjacket, costing us millions of jobs and billions of dollars a year." In yet another face-off, Barton questioned Jackson's estimate that power plants emit "tons and tons" of mercury. "You might want to check your record on that. The amount [from] a given power plant is in pounds per year, not tons per year," he said. "Per plant, yes, sir, but if you aggregate them and add them up, you get pounds, and two thousand pounds equals a ton," Jackson said, deploying her much-admired cool under fire. (Some see it as her secret weapon, although Jackson says, "There is no secret weapon. The only thing is the truth, and the idea that this agency's job is not a nefarious one: It means protection of the environment, because the environment has such a huge impact on public health.")
Undaunted, on March 16 Jackson announced that, as part of the Clean Air Act, the EPA was proposing limits on the amount of mercury, arsenic, nickel, and other toxic by-products power plants routinely release into the environment—emissions that have been shown to aggravate asthma, cause neurological problems in fetuses, and trigger heart attacks. The prospect of yet more costly regulation incited a predictable uproar. But even with lawmakers trying everything they can to curtail the EPA's efforts, Jackson is up for the fight. "The politics are one thing," she says. "I got used to tough politics in New Jersey," where she was commissioner of that state's Department of Environmental Protection. "And I like the give-and-take of a real democracy. But I like hearing from real people, not special interests. It's what I came to D.C. to do—to ensure that the EPA protects the average American, not corporate profits. The hardest fights are the ones that I see happening in a 'fact-free zone.' Facts matter. And politics shouldn't trump science and public health."
Among the other challenges she's squaring up for: Jackson is determined to protect air quality and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and to restore health to the Chesapeake Bay, a major waterway currently being smothered by nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural runoff and air pollution. The cleanup is now 25 years behind schedule; House Republicans are proposing a 20 percent reduction in the funds it would require.
Jackson's to-do list is ambitious, particularly given how much time she could be spending defending herself. But that's not her style. She'd rather stay focused on the things that matter. "Our challenges are serious," she says. "The longer we wait to deal with our deteriorating atmosphere, the harder and more expensive it may get to address it. I am also a woman of faith, so I believe that we have a moral obligation to care for creation and future generations.
"The conundrum is that the richer and more prosperous we become, the more we think that the environment is all taken care of," Jackson says. It's simply not the case. "I have seen land completely ravaged by pollution. Environmental protection is not a spectator sport."
On a gray morning in Atlanta, Lisa Jackson arrives at the Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy, where 500 middle school girls—all decked out in pink and brown, their school colors, and packed into an auditorium—are so giddy, so excited to see her, you'd think they were waiting for Rihanna. Or Beyoncé. But the head of the EPA? Since when does the nation's top environmentalist have groupies?
Jackson peeks out from the wings of the stage, through an enormous bouquet of pink and brown balloons, at the girls who've come to meet her, and looks like she's about to tear up. The schoolgirls, between the ages of 11 and 14, are resplendent in hair bows and jewelry. "Atlanta women," Jackson says. "They got it going on."
Since opening its doors four years ago, the academy has become a marvel of the Atlanta public school system. The first girls to attend were previously at the city's lowest-ranked middle school. This year the school's eighth graders earned one of the highest scores of all public schools in Atlanta on a state exam.
They're Jackson's sweet spot, these kids. African-American girls, who, like her, may have faced obstacles but are full of promise. "Listen," she says, "if these young women don't grow up strong and talented and committed to our environment, then our country's gonna suffer, not just them."
Her speech hits home: "You have a right to clean air and clean water," she tells the girls, touching on one of her core initiatives, environmental justice—that is, to give a voice to the people, usually poor minorities, who are most severely affected by environmental hazards and calamities. "You have a right to have a healthy school to learn in." But such heady rights come with responsibility. The girls must be willing to do their part, she tells them—to blow past the wheezing stereotypes that only young men wearing pocket protectors are good at math and science, and that black women don't set policy or lead. "You will bring clean air to your community," she tells them. "Which you can't do if you don't have the education."
Or, for that matter, if your mind hasn't conceived it and your heart can't believe it. Yes, Lisa Jackson, a new EPA administrator for a new and deeply volatile era, faces an uphill battle bucking big business and gimlet-eyed congressmen for the simple promise of clean water, clean air, and good health for all. It will be tons, not pounds, of work, but who's counting?