Phil Washington says “unfounded partisan attacks” sunk FAA bid

Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington on Monday blamed “unfounded partisan attacks” and obstruction tactics for sinking his nomination to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.

He withdrew his name from consideration for FAA administrator late last week, in a development that became public Saturday night. For Washington, who was first nominated by President Joe Biden more than eight months ago, it was a frustrating end to a drawn-out process that included a combative confirmation hearing earlier this month.

“It’s hard not to take it personally when people are making false accusations and taking cheap shots,” he said in an interview with The Denver Post. “However, I am a professional. None of this really surprised me.”

Washington said he is committed to staying in the DIA job in the coming months — at least until the next Denver mayor decides whether to appoint a new chief executive after taking office in July.

The military veteran and longtime transit executive in Denver and Los Angeles has overseen DIA since mid-2021. Federal law requires that the FAA administrator “have experience in a field directly related to aviation.” He was an unorthodox choice to lead the FAA, but he wouldn’t have been the first leader with experience mostly outside the aviation industry — a background that supporters argued would be an asset for an agency accused of being too cozy with the companies it regulates.

His nomination has faced unified Republican opposition on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. Sen. Ted Cruz, the ranking member, and others questioned his credentials, suggested he couldn’t serve without a congressional waiver because of his military background and highlighted an ongoing public corruption investigation dating to his tenure at the L.A. Metro transit agency.

“I have nothing to hide, senator,” Washington told Cruz about the probe, which concerns the awarding of a no-bid contract for a sexual harassment hotline for riders, during his March 1 confirmation hearing.

But on Wednesday, when the committee’s chair delayed a scheduled vote on the nomination, it became apparent that support from one or two senators aligned with the majority Democrats also was in jeopardy. The Associated Press reported Saturday that independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona was holding up the nomination.

The FAA hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed administrator for a full year, a time that has seen an increase in close calls between planes on taxiways. Ongoing FAA technology woes have included a system failure that briefly shut down takeoffs at U.S. airports in January.

Washington agrees the FAA needs to fill its leadership void.

“Though I am confident in my ability to lead the FAA as a transformative leader, I no longer saw a respectful, civil and viable path forward to Senate confirmation,” he wrote in a statement released by DIA Monday morning. “I faced cheap and unfounded partisan attacks and procedural obstruction with regard to my military career that would have further lengthened the already delayed confirmation process.

“With that said, I decided that for the good of the FAA and the country, I would withdraw my name from consideration.”

His comment about obstruction refers to the argument by Republicans that he needed a waiver because he wasn’t technically a civilian, despite retiring from the U.S. Army in 2000 as a command sergeant major, the top enlisted rank. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s general counsel opined that Washington did not need a waiver.

Washington noted during the interview that senators repeatedly took pains to thank him for his military service before using that service to try to block his nomination.

He said he still was grateful to Biden for nominating him and to Colorado Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet for backing him enthusiastically.

Now Washington’s focus is shifting back to DIA, where for nearly two years he’s overseen major renovation and expansion projects that predated his tenure. That role is in doubt after next week’s open mayoral election, which may proceed to a June 6 runoff as Denver votes select a successor to term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock.

If asked to stay on by the next mayor, Washington says, he’d consider it.

“I’ve made a commitment to the current mayor that I would (stay), and I’m happy to do that,” he said. “We have a great team at Denver International Airport, and my plan is to remain. And then it’s up to the new mayor. We’ll see how that plays out.”

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