Mike Stoker, well-known in Santa Barbara political circles as a brash and outspoken Republican warrior and perhaps more famously as the man who reportedly launched the first “Lock ‘er Up” chant referring to Hillary Clinton, was unceremoniously deep-sixed as director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s West Coast bureau this Wednesday. Stoker, a former Santa Barbara county supervisor, expressed bewilderment about his termination, stating, “I have no clue,” while in other interviews expressing confidence the reasons were “100 percent personal.” He also suggested that he may have been collateral damage in the escalating political warfare now erupting between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Stoker said he has a letter on his wall signed by Pelosi thanking him for restoring her confidence in the EPA.
Pelosi represents San Francisco in Congress, the district in which the EPA’s West Coast regional headquarters is located. Stoker worked closely with her office about a Superfund toxic cleanup site in her district. Stoker said he felt constrained from speaking more expansively as “as long as the President is still the President,” but he added that people should not be surprised if he one day writes a book titled Inside the Trump EPA.
Stoker was called at eight in the morning this past Wednesday and notified that he had the option of resigning or facing termination. “‘We have to let you go,’” he said he was told. “‘We expect you to resign.’” Stoker said he replied, “‘Hold on, I’m not sure why you’re letting me go. I need some kind of explanation.’ They said, ‘We don’t have to tell you anything.’” Stoker was then told, he stated, that the motivation was in no way personal. Based on that, he concluded it was, in fact, “100 percent personal.”
Stoker acknowledged that he has butted heads with at least one senior official, but he declined to provide any specifics for the time being. Stoker said he announced he would not resign without an explanation, thus forcing his termination. Five minutes later, he said, his work cell phone was discontinued.
Stoker said he enjoyed positive relations with senior divisional leaders within the EPA, even those who identified themselves as Trump-hating liberal Democrats. Stoker recounted that one told him, “I almost hope he [Trump] wins the election because I like working with you.” Stoker said he’d been notified in recent weeks that his good relations with Democrats had “not gone unnoticed.”
Stoker’s refusal to go gently into the EPA’s good night has elicited a dramatic shift in that agency’s public-relations posture. Initially, the agency issues bland statements acknowledging Stoker’s departure and wishing him well in future endeavors. More recent statements, however, charged Stoker with “severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties.”
Stoker was appointed to the post in May 2018 when the ever-embattled Scott Pruitt was still running the EPA. Pruitt would later be forced to resign amid a storm cloud of alleged ethical violations. Stoker served as county supervisor from 1987 to 1994 and later represented Greka Energy in its long and troubled dealings with county enforcement officers over multiple leaks and chronic environmental safety transgressions. Although Stoker seemed to relish high-pitched partisan conflict, he also managed to maintain decent relations with even the most skeptical of Democrats due to a congenial personality.
As a member of the Trump administration, Stoker proved to be far more accessible to local Democratic officials than other representatives of the Trump administration, like former Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, himself a frequent visitor because his wife’s family lives here. Where Stoker is credited by local officials for reaching out, they often reported his message was frustratingly in sync with that of the Trump White House, which was all but in a state of constant political warfare with California over its environmental policies.
Last March, Stoker was the focus of a special report by the EPA’s Inspector General in response to complaints that Stoker traveled excessively and spent little time at the San Francisco headquarters for the Pacific Southwest EPA. The report found that Stoker was traveling for 72 out of 145 days from May 2018 to January 2019. These trips were work related. In that time, he spent just 30 days in San Francisco, 19 out of the Los Angeles EPA offices, and teleworked the other 24. Most of Stoker’s travel took place within California, but there were two trips to Hawai‘i, two to Guam, one to Japan, and one to New Orleans.
Shortly after that report was released, Stoker’s informal understanding that he could work from afar was formally ratified, his superiors signing off on it. A resident of Carpinteria, Stoker said he commuted from there to the San Francisco and Los Angeles EPA offices, where he could be found four to six days a month.
If and when Stoker ever writes that book remains anyone’s guess. In the meantime, Stoker noted that he recently got married and that he hopes to spend more time with his wife. “Since I started this job, I’ve gained 18 pounds. I hope to be able shed some of that and spend more time enjoying my wife,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Stoker worked out of his Carpinteria home; in actuality, he commuted from there to Los Angeles and San Francisco.