Sutley quiet but highly effective leader

Zahniser is a Times staff writer.

The behind-the-scenes bureaucrat who has been carrying out Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s environmental agenda is poised to take her work nationwide as the presumptive chair of President-elect Barack Obama’s White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Nancy Sutley, the deputy mayor for energy and the environment, has played a role in the mayor’s two main clean-air initiatives -- moving the Department of Water and Power to wind and solar energy and replacing 16,000 diesel trucks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Since sources began naming her as an incoming member of Obama’s “green team,” environmentalists across the country have cheered at the prospect that Sutley will pursue similar efforts with other cities, harbors and electrical utilities.

“She’s not one of those people who gets out in front or wants the big public thing, the big ego reward. She just gets stuff done,” said David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “She is really hardworking and relentless in doing what she thinks is the right thing.”


Sutley, 46, is one of the quietest members of the mayor’s leadership team, working almost entirely out of public view on Villaraigosa’s campaign to make Los Angeles the “greenest big city in America.”

Those initiatives have frequently pushed the envelope of environmental policy, drawing criticism from some business groups and generating debate even among the activists with whom she is aligned.

A solar energy plan heading to voters with Villaraigosa’s blessing had a messy journey to the March 3 ballot, drawing fire from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which argued that it is too heavily weighted toward the union that represents DWP workers.

Sutley also supervised the Million Trees program, which ran into difficulties last year after urban tree advocates complained that it relied too much on tree giveaways -- particularly the distribution of seedlings that have a high mortality rate.

Since then, Villaraigosa’s team has said it has moved to address those problems.

The port clean-air plan unfolded more seamlessly, with the mayor’s appointees on the Board of Harbor Commissioners unanimously finding $800 million to help subsidize cleaner-burning trucks.

By 2012, every truck that operates in the two harbors must have been built no earlier than 2007.

“The city’s approach has changed fundamentally since she got there,” said V. John White, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, an advocacy group. “Instead of the port being the advocate for truckers and shippers, it was an advocate for clean air to the point of being sued.”


The port measure has drawn not just a lawsuit from a group representing truck drivers but also an effort by the Federal Maritime Commission to block it. And despite attempts to move both ports in unison, Villaraigosa’s counterpart in Long Beach, Mayor Bob Foster, split with Los Angeles over employment rules in the truck plan.

Sutley was raised in Queens, N.Y., and is the daughter of immigrants from Argentina.

She is a vigorous meat eater who enjoys the outdoors, according to friends.

Neither Villaraigosa’s office nor Sutley would comment for this article because she has not been officially nominated.


A resident of Angelino Heights, Sutley is one of several openly gay, high-level officials who advise the mayor. Cecilia Estolano, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, is a lesbian and serves on Obama’s transition team reviewing candidates for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sutley served in high-level posts in the EPA during the Clinton administration and in the state EPA as an advisor to former Gov. Gray Davis. Her work in those jobs impressed her peers.

“She immediately emerges as the smartest person in the room who asks the hardest questions and comes up with the best solutions,” said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, who worked with Sutley in the Clinton administration.

At the state’s EPA, Sutley helped to draft a statewide policy on environmental justice, an effort to shield low-income communities from an over concentration of high-polluting projects.


As a Davis energy advisor, Sutley was retained to help the state keep the lights on following deregulation of the electricity industry, said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board.

“It was much less of a disaster than it would have been if it hadn’t been for her efforts,” said Nichols, who worked with Sutley in both the Clinton and Davis administrations.

Nichols was reunited with Sutley in 2005, when Sutley joined the Villaraigosa administration and Nichols headed the DWP board.

When board members disagreed on how to implement Villaraigosa’s agenda, Sutley “made sure they got the word as to what [the mayor] wanted to do,” Nichols said.


Supporters of Sutley are hoping that she will help Obama craft a stimulus package that boosts renewable energy industries and reduces the nation’s reliance on coal. And they warned her opponents not to be fooled by her shy persona.

“People do underestimate her,” said Los Angeles Harbor Commissioner Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza. “Remember, she’s also short. So they see this tiny little person, and I think they dismiss her. And they do so at their peril.”