Category: Archive

Sullivan takes over as U.S. ambassador

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Markey

For Michael Sullivan it has been a hectic six months.

Since July last year, when President Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. ambassador to Ireland, Sullivan has shuffled between State Department ambassadorial seminars, consultations in Washington and briefings on the Irish situation, while trying to close up cases in his Wyoming law practice.

But his greatest challenge came in August. During a routine health check for the posting, Sullivan was told he had heart disease and would require a bypass operation.

"I already feel I have been blessed by Ireland," Sullivan said last week, two days before he was scheduled to leave New York to take up his new position in Dublin.

Recovered from the operation, and little more wary of his health, Sullivan, who’s 59, was optimistic about his new job.

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"What red-blooded Irish American boy would not be interested in this job?" he said. "I was complimented to even be considered. I recognized the importance and the challenge and the romance of the job."

Sullivan’s appointment was not so well received in other quarters. One publication questioning the levity of posting a relative unknown Wyoming Irish American to Dublin. Sullivan is acutely aware of his low profile in Irish-American circles.

"I understand it that I was not well known in the Irish-American community," Sullivan said. "I had friendships in the Irish-American community, but I had not been directly involved and I think it came as a surprise to some people that there were even Irish Americans in the West."

While Irish America may have heard scarce detail about Sullivan’s qualifications for his new diplomatic posting, colleagues and former political opponents alike painted a portrait of a conservative democrat and devout Catholic who places high value on personal loyalty and family. The former Wyoming governor was, they said, a cautious centrist whose skill in forging compromise and close relationship with the president would bring much to Phoenix Park.

Sullivan worked in the oil fields before attaining his law degree and eventually joining state’s most prestigious law firm, in which he later became a partner. His first foray into politics came after almost two decades in law when in 1986 he decided to run for governor on a democratic ticket in what was widely regarded as a Republican state.

At that time, Wyoming was suffering from a dramatic drop in oil prices, a disaster for a state so dependent on the energy industry. Such was the state of the local economy that one observer wondered why anyone would want to run as governor of a "wasteland," said Jason Marsden, a reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune who worked on Sullivan’s unsuccessful 1994 senate bid. Sullivan decided to run for governor anyway.

"He did well in debate, he was a straight talker and was frank about what he knew and what he didn’t know," Marsden said.

Conservative Democrat

Sullivan has established himself as a conservative Democrat with many connections in the Republican camp, and one who showed a willingness to work with business interests, Marsden said.

"After 23 years working in law and trial procedures, I wondered whether there might not be more to the role of a professional in that I could contribute something. I decided to run for governor, and was fortunate to get elected twice," Sullivan said of the start of his political career.

He ran for a second term as governor in 1990 and won by the largest majority of any gubernatorial candidate in the state, Marsden said.

During his two terms, Sullivan was constrained by the economic difficulties facing Wyoming, which left him with little room for creativity, said Hugh Duncan, a Wyoming attorney and Republican who sought the governorship against Sullivan in his second term.

"But he was very well regarded by the people," Duncan said.

But political difficulties beset Sullivan in 1994 when he attempted to run for senate, losing in the Republican landslide victory.

Aside from his two successive terms as governor, Sullivan has held no other political office. He was for one semester a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he taught a weekly class in Western American politics and encouraged undergraduate students’ interest in government.

How will a Western governor and lawyer relate to the feisty personal politics of Ireland, and, in particular, the harsh realities of Northern Irish situation?

"The dominating issue is, of course, the peace accord that the president has an investment in, and I will do whatever I can to make sure that that moves forward. How I relate to each of those roles is yet to be seen," Sullivan said.

America’s role will continue, he said, to be "one of encouragement and support. There is remarkable wealth of good will throughout the country for the process and it is recognized that the process has to be implemented."

Guarded on decommissioning

On the current negotiations and impasse over decommissioning of arms, Sullivan is more guarded.

"I wouldn’t presume to speculate on what needs to be done," Sullivan said. "I think that it is not my role to start telling people how they conduct themselves. But it has come so far that it seems it’s important that it gets resolved."

While Wyoming politics may be more civilized than many places, Sullivan said the skills he learned as governor can be applied elsewhere.

"I think what I learned as governor is that you have to be a good listener, and in order to solve problems you have to be inclusive. Compromise is not a bad word," he said.

Those who have worked with Sullivan agree.

U.S. Attorney for Wyoming David Freudenthal, a close associate of Sullivan, said the ambassador has an ability to work his way through difficult issues with a patience to include all those involved.

"He brings that to everything he does. It was there in his law practice and it was there in his terms as governor," Freudenthal said.

But for the ambassador, there is more beyond the challenges of the new position. For Sullivan and his wife, Jane, Dublin brings them closer to one of their three children, a daughter who lives in Germany with two of her children. And then there is the ambassador’s residence.

"Everyone talks about the house, Phoenix Park. I said to Jane, ‘You’ve never been in a place that had a growing season of longer than 55 days, you’ll be in heaven.’ She loves plants and gardening," Sullivan said.

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