Alum of the Month August '13
Michael Connor grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico and attended college at New Mexico State University. Connor earned his degree in chemical engineering in 1986, and worked for General Electric after graduation. Connor was enrolled in the company’s manufacturing management program, a two-year program focused on teaching talented recruits how to run a successful business operation. As part of the training program, Connor rotated through different operations centers every few months, and the last of those rotations was in Denver, where he completed the program, working in GE’s power generation service business. Connor was glad to be back in the West, and accepted a permanent job running laboratory operations in GE’s Denver service center.
In addition to running laboratory operations, Connor was also responsible for running the location’s environmental programs and dealing with related issues. Connor, who had developed an interest in environmental and natural resource policy issues during college, welcomed the opportunity to become more involved in these issues as part of his job. Connor eventually grew interested in policy matters as a result of his operation’s role and the need to follow environmental compliance guidelines set by company lawyers. It was then that he began thinking about attending law school. Connor applied to Colorado Law, wanting to specialize in environmental law. At Colorado Law, Connor became more interested in natural resources, taking classes such as water law, natural resources law, and public lands. He worked in Colorado Law’s Natural Resources Law Center for two years, helped edit the late David Getches’ casebook on Federal Indian Law, and earned a JD in 1993.
The economy was not particularly strong when Connor graduated from law school, and so he was “very fortunate,” as he put it, to get an offer from the Office of the Solicitor at the U.S. Department of Interior. Because of the strength of the law school’s environmental and natural resources curriculum, Colorado Law was a priority for the Department of Interior when recruiting new lawyers. Connor was one of only eight new attorneys nationwide to join the Solicitor’s Honors program, which rotated new attorneys through different offices around the country. After his first year in the program, Connor began working full-time on Indian water rights in the Washington, D.C. office, where he stayed for three years. He transferred to the Albuquerque regional office in 1997, where he worked for a year, and then in 1998 moved back to Washington to become the deputy director of the Secretary of the Interior’s Indian Water Rights Office. He became the office’s director after a year, and remained there through the early part of 2001.
In May 2001, Connor went to work for Senator Jeff Bingaman at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, eventually becoming the staff lead for the Water and Power Subcommittee. Connor remained there until 2009, when he was recommended by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and nominated by President Obama to serve as Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Connor’s present post. It was also recently announced that President Obama intends to nominate Connor to serve as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. When he is not busy with his responsibilities as Commissioner, Connor can be found sitting in the stands at ice rinks and swimming pools watching his son, an avid hockey player, and daughter, who swims competitively. He and his family are also on a mission to visit as many National Parks as possible before his kids head to college. Colorado Law is extremely proud to call Connor one of its own, and looks forward to seeing where his career will take him next.
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
The beautiful setting and the great comradery between the students. I thoroughly enjoyed law school (although maybe not every moment. . . .).
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
The importance of understanding all sides of an issue before formulating a strategy or policy to try and address a situation. Much of my career has been spent either developing the law or exercising discretion in interpreting what it should mean. I’m less ideological and much more pragmatic than I was in law school and I think it leads to more sustainable solutions, particularly in addressing natural resource issues.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
Although it may take some time, make sure you end up thoroughly enjoying whatever job you take. There’s nothing better than looking forward to going to work as much as you look forward to taking time off.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
Wow – that’s tough. I don’t think I can pick just one. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have some outstanding bosses throughout my career. Jeff Bingaman is a model for all those in public service with his humble but very effective manner. Ken Salazar is a model for strong leadership with an infectious energy that is highly motivating. I’m looking forward to working closely with Secretary Jewell who has many of the qualities of both. On a more personal level, until I took my current position, I think I consulted with David Getches on every job move I made after law school (and there were many). David was always very gracious with his time, advice, and friendship. I sure miss him. Finally, it’s not just a cliché–there is no way I would be able to have the career and opportunities I’ve had without the support, help, and advice of my wife, Shari.
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
Once again, I find it hard to pick just one – and the accomplishments are certainly not mine alone. From a professional standpoint, I’ve been fortunate to have been tasked with a lead role in resolving a number of thorny natural resource conflicts. Of course, working to resolve Native American land and water claims is always rewarding and among these, the 2003 legislation to address Sandia Pueblo’s land claim to Sandia Mountain in New Mexico stands out given how polarized the issue had become in the 2000-2002 timeframe. Also, the 2009 Navajo Nation San Juan River water rights settlement is noteworthy because of the long-term benefit of potable water it will provide for so many Navajo and neighboring communities in northwest New Mexico. Finally, I would also highlight the 2010 and 2012 historic agreements with Mexico on the Colorado River. These are exactly the kind of new and creative arrangements we’re going to need to effectively respond to current and future impacts of climate change.