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Former Elkader resident Heather Zichal last week spoke at a Clayton County Energy District event.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


Elkader native Heather Zichal has something in common with former First Lady Michelle Obama: Both turned down proposals from the man who became the nation’s 44th president. Michelle refused Barack Obama’s first two marriage offers; Zichal turned down his first two job offers.

“I guess that puts me in good company,” she said, drawing a laugh from a crowd of nearly 50 people who gathered last week at Johnson’s Restaurant to hear her presentation.

Zichal, daughter of Dr. Kenneth and Fran Zichal, Elkader, was the guest speaker at a breakfast event sponsored by the Clayton County Energy District. Her parents are board members of the group, which focuses on local energy issues.

A Central School graduate, Zichal attended Rutgers University where she soon realized a connection between policy-making and politics. As an undergraduate student, she made her first trip to Washington D.C. to lobby for the protection of the Artic Wildlife National Refuge in northeastern Alaska, which is still an unresolved issue.

She was later recruited by John Kerry to work on his 2004 presidential bid.

“Kerry was concerned about environmental issues and that was a concern of mine, too,” said Zichal. “But when you’re running for office, you have to talk about the issues voters care about—and at that time, it was fuel standards.”

Kerry lost the White House to former President George W. Bush but that did little to deflate Zichal’s interest in politics.

“When you’ve worked on one presidential race, it’s easy to get excited about the next one,” she admitted.

An early supporter of Obama, Zichal was approached in 2008 to work on his race. It took three “asks” to get her involved. Again, climate control wasn’t a hot topic—this time because Obama and his opponent, John McCain, had few points of disagreement on the subject. A hotter issue was fuel prices, which had topped the $4 mark.

“The last 2 a.m. phone call that Obama made before his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was to me,” Zichal replied. “He had some comments on energy that ultimately I had to tell him to drop because at that time, well, the truth actually mattered.”

After Obama won, Zichal accepted the position of Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, a position she held for nearly five years. She is currently a Washington, D.C.-based sustainability consultant.

“It’s hard to say one moment was the best,” Zichal said, responding to a question about her White House years. “The fuel economy in the cars and trucks that you drive today is because of something I negotiated, which makes me very proud.”

When asked about the current political climate, Zichal expressed concern over the nation’s non-involvement in the Paris Accord on dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. She also mentioned a big disconnect between authoring bills and getting them to “the floor” for a vote. “Plus, we have a dysfunctional White House,” she added. Despite these concerns, Zichal said she’s optimistic about the future in part due to the growing diversity of the American electorate as well as citizen involvement in grass roots efforts like the Clayton County Energy District.

“On a final note,” she concluded, “through all of this, the thing that has kept me sane and centered are my roots. I grew up not worrying about crime or personal safety, and knowing that people cared about me. That can take a person a long way.”

During a brief Q/A period, Zichal was asked several energy-related questions, including one on tax credits for wind and solar energy. She gave a hat-tip to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, noting that without his support those credits “wouldn’t have happened.” Though much remains uncertain at the state level, she believes “solar tax credits are not in jeopardy at the federal level.”

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