President Obama has announced his intent to nominate John Norris, currently chief of staff for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a former Iowa regulator, as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, raising questions as to whether Norris, a close Obama friend, will replace Jon Wellinghoff as FERC chairman.

Norris, former chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), was considered a top contender for the FERC chairman slot after the presidential election last November. But he went to the Agriculture Department and Wellinghoff, a favorite of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), was tapped for FERC chairman. Obama named Wellinghoff as FERC chairman in March.

“John Norris would bring a state regulator’s experience — including tough decisions on coal capacity and transmission divestitures — if confirmed by the Senate. However, his nomination also resuscitates questions as to whether he is also a contender to lead the Commission as chairman,” said energy analyst Christine Tezak of Robert W. Baird & Co.

“In the first year of the Bush administration, a serving Republican commissioner was appointed chairman in January [Curt L. Hebert] only to be replaced in September by the person long suspected of being the president’s preferred choice [Pat Wood III]. It is far from clear that history will be repeated here. However Obama administration nominees are being held up somewhat in the Senate these days, so it is not clear how long the gossip will persist or if it will even bear fruit,” she said.

“I think it’s a little too early too tell. I wouldn’t want to go there yet,” said a natural gas source in Washington, DC. “Wellinghoff enjoys the sponsorship and support of the Senate majority leader. President Obama is going to need the majority leader’s help [on a lot of issues]. The White House has to tread very carefully” about potentially replacing Wellinghoff as chairman, he said.

Norris was a board member and chairman of the IUB from March 2005 until earlier this year. Norris’ wife and Obama’s former Iowa state director, Jackie, is First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

Prior to coming to Washington, the Norrises were considered one of Iowa’s premier political couples. John Norris was Sen. John Kerry’s (D-MA) state director during Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and had been chief of staff for Vilsack when he was governor of Iowa. He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002.

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