The political education of Serena McIlwain
Serena McIlwain, Maryland’s new secretary of the Environment, has seen the very best of environmental activism and innovation in government, and it informs her work in Maryland today.
For four years, McIlwain was undersecretary at the California Environmental Protection Agency during Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first term. After decades of working for the federal government, being able to push a bold agenda at a well-funded agency, with full buy-in from the state’s top leaders, was an eye-opening experience.
“I didn’t realize California’s Environmental Protection Agency had so much power,” McIlwain said in an interview last week. “I was just blindsided by it. I thought that was empowering, that we could do so much.”
But McIlwain has also seen up close some of the worst of government intentions and performance when it comes to protecting the environment. She was for a brief period a high-ranking official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration — and that experience also informs her work in Maryland.
Now, McIlwain is the Moore administration’s point person for achieving the state’s lofty goals for combating climate change — not to mention expanding environmental justice policies, protecting the Chesapeake Bay and accelerating the state’s decarbonization efforts. Admirers say she’s poised to make a tremendous impact on the state’s future.
“I think she’s the right person at the right time and in the right position,” said Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Who is this lifelong government bureaucrat in whom Gov. Wes Moore (D) has invested so much faith and hope? And what are her plans for the vital position she holds?
For starters, she’s a trailblazer. In the most diverse gubernatorial cabinet in Maryland history, McIlwain is the state’s first Black Environment secretary, and just the third woman to be confirmed by the state Senate for the position (the first woman of color to hold the job was Jane Nishida, who served from 1995 to 2002).
Former colleagues describe McIlwain as “amazing.” One former boss says she once chased down a thief and helped him recover a stolen bike.
Except for seven nonconsecutive years in California, McIlwain, 54, is a lifetime resident of the Washington, D.C., area, including several years in Prince George’s County. She grew up in Alexandria, Va., and joined the federal government, as a program analyst at the National Institutes of Health, at the age of 19, when she was still in college. She earned a business degree and two master’s degrees and envisioned a long and fulfilling career as a high-ranking administrator.
“I thought, OK, I’ll be a CEO one day,” she said.
But as she rose through the ranks of the federal government as an operations administrator for several agencies, Mclwain felt something was missing. Increasingly, in her personal life and activities, she was becoming more and more aware of the declining health of the planet and her own carbon footprint, and she worried about the future for her two children.
“I need to be part of an organization where my passion is,” she recalled thinking.
So early in the Obama administration, McIlwain transferred from a job at the Architect of the Capitol’s office to a position at the U.S. Department of Energy, first in charge of major personnel initiatives, then as chief of operations in the fossil fuels office. That put her in the policy space for the first time — and it put her in regular touch with officials at the U.S. EPA.
“I became interested in energy, renewables — I was responsible for policy issues, and I had to learn quickly,” she said. “After that, I decided I’m going to stay in the environmental protection and energy world.”
From there, McIlwain was hired to become the deputy administrator in the EPA Region 9 office in San Francisco, which implements and enforces federal environmental laws not only in California, but in Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific Islands, and 148 tribal nations. Her boss during those 3 1/2 years was a high-profile environmentalist and policy strategist named Jared Blumenfeld.
“She’s got unbelievable gravitas and that’s backed by knowledge of complex systems and what makes big government agencies work and not work,” said Blumenfeld, who now heads a new climate-oriented organization in the Silicon Valley called the Waverley Street Foundation, bankrolled by Laurene Powell Jobs. “At U.S. EPA, she was literally able to bring order to chaos.”
When President Obama was replaced by Donald Trump, McIlwain was asked by EPA’s new leaders to leave San Francisco and come back to Washington to help them streamline operations at the agency. Trump’s first EPA chief was Scott Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma who had frequently sued the EPA during the Obama years in an attempt to overturn many climate and environmental regulations.
McIlwain was torn — and the politics and priorities of the Trump administration were only part of the equation.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I loved California. But I accepted the job and moved back home.”
McIlwain said she eventually agreed to come to EPA headquarters because she figured a veteran government manager who supported the mission of the agency could limit the damage the Trump administration was trying to do to internal operations and could also save many positions from the chopping block. Her official title was director of the Office of Continuous Improvement.
“I’m a true professional,” she said. “I was a career [government] executive. We work for different administrations, Democrat and Republican. It doesn’t matter.”
But McIlwain acknowledged the challenges, and said she was forced to have many difficult conversations with her bosses and agency employees.
“Scott Pruitt — his idea was to chop EPA in half,” she said. “Because I was a career executive, I knew that my colleagues and all the career professionals needed me. And so I came back there to really save everybody’s job. So I told people, ‘I’m here to make sure you are efficient so that if we are cut, we can still do what we need to do for the American people.’ It moved me to want to come back home, because I thought, they need me. I need to be here.”
The Trump years were not kind to the EPA. Pruitt’s own leadership style was erratic. According to multiple media reports at the time, he demanded a round-the-clock security detail; installed a $25,000 phone booth in his office, to ensure his phone conversations remained private; spent liberally to sweep his office for surveillance devices; refused to release his schedule to the public and the press; and lived in a Capitol Hill condominium owned by a fossil fuel industry lobbyist.
In addition to attempting to reverse many Obama-era policies, Pruitt and his political lieutenants sought to cut agency staff dramatically, slow-walked many of the EPA’s everyday environmental enforcement functions, and tried to drastically cut the budget, including Chesapeake Bay clean-up programs — though Congress largely resisted. Pruitt resigned under fire after 16 months on the job, and was succeeded by his deputy, Andrew Wheeler, who previously had been an attorney in the coal industry (and now is an environmental adviser to Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin).
“It was painful,” McIlwain recalled. “But I just had to stay focused. I had to remember why I was there — to protect U.S. EPA as an agency and all the loyal bureaucrats that were there.”
Henry Darwin was chief of operations at the agency at the time and was responsible for bringing McIlwain back to Washington.
“Serena was head and shoulders above anybody else we considered internally for the job,” he said.
Like McIlwain, Darwin, who has developed a system to run lean government agencies, agreed to take the job on the understanding that he’d focus on operations rather than policy. He said that together, he and McIlwain navigated the internal dynamics of the Trump EPA to concentrate on protecting the environment, even with the political pressures.
“We did our best to weather the political turmoil and the things that were being said and the things that were being done,” said Darwin, who is now the city manager in Peoria, Ariz. “We were committed to making an agency as effective as possible in protecting the environment…We did feel like we were there to save the core functions of EPA.”
Darwin said McIlwain’s willingness to make personal sacrifices and move back to D.C. for the EPA headquarters position illustrated her dedication to the environment. “She is an amazing professional.”
McIlwain said she felt uncomfortable being in meetings with all the Republican political appointees at the EPA, but believed they trusted her and knew she would not betray confidences. “But it wasn’t easy, because I would hear things that they wanted to do and I didn’t agree with. So I always told the administrator and the administration, ‘Just don’t ask my opinion, and we’ll be OK. Just let me do what I need to do and never ask my opinion.'”
But then Blumenfeld, McIlwain’s former boss at the EPA Region 9 office, threw her a lifeline. Newsom had just been elected governor, and Blumenfeld was set to take over as head of the California EPA. Did McIlwain want to be his deputy?
“I had no doubt that I wanted her for the job,” Blumenfeld said.
‘California operates like its own country’
While she fretted about the prospects of moving cross-country again for the second time in 13 months, McIlwain leapt at the opportunity, and relocated to Sacramento. And that’s where she learned how a robust environmental regulatory agency operates. She was struck by the fulsome funding, and by some of the brazenness of the agency’s leaders, who paid little attention to federal dictates that ran counter to California’s own mission and priorities.
California has long been a national leader on air pollution and the climate, laying out trend-setting standards on vehicle and power plant emissions, setting aggressive carbon reduction goals, and mandating bold targets for sales of electric vehicles that are being replicated across the country, including in Maryland.
“California operates like its own country,” McIlwain said, describing the state’s EPA as “an empire” of unsurpassed resources, with 6,500 employees and a $14 billion annual budget. She said that when the Trump administration sought to roll back Clean Water Act standards, “California was like, we could care less. I would hear all the other states complaining, and I would think, [it] doesn’t impact us.”
Part of California’s independence and innovation on the policy front comes from its sheer scale and the size of its operating budget, and the breadth of agencies that play a role in the battle to protect the environment. But leadership also matters.
Even so, McIlwain conceded, “the politics sometimes were hard.” California has a full-time legislature with Democratic supermajorities, eager to push the envelope on environmental policies. Statewide ballot initiatives, which take on a life of their own, often shape the political narrative. Several agencies, not just the state EPA, are responsible for protecting the environment, leading to inevitable institutional tension. And environmental advocacy groups and nonprofits are very vocal and aggressive.
Still, it was an invaluable learning experience, McIlwain said: “I know what being a leader in environmental protection really means.”
Blumenfeld said McIlwain was a steady hand at California EPA during some of the state’s biggest crises: COVID, wildfires, and more. She was often stationed in the agency’s emergency operations center, where she was cool under pressure.
“One of the things I loved about Serena was her sense of humor twinned with her ‘no bullshit’ attitude,” he said. “She’s kind of unflappable.”
McIlwain even helped Blumenfeld recover his stolen bike. One night, he recounted, they were walking down the street in Sacramento when he saw someone ride by on what he thought was his missing bicycle. McIlwain instantly took off down the street, caught up with the rider, and shamed him into returning it.
“You always want her on your side,” Blumenfeld said.
The call home
Late last fall, McIlwain was preparing to serve in Newsom’s second term when she was contacted by someone on Wes Moore’s transition team, urging her to apply for Maryland Environment secretary. The person, who McIlwain declined to identify, told her that her skills and experience aligned well with the job — but cautioned that several talented people, including members of the General Assembly, would also seek the appointment.
“You’re just going to be another name,” the tipster warned McIlwain.
The very notion of trying to become MDE secretary hadn’t even occurred to McIlwain. But the idea immediately appealed to her.
“Why am I spending my expertise and my time making California better?” she started to think. “I’m not from California. I’d rather be in Maryland if given the opportunity. My sisters are here, my best friends are here, my entire network is here. And I thought, yeah, I need to protect us. I didn’t think I was going to get the opportunity, so I had to go for it.”
McIlwain was contacted about an interview with Moore’s transition team while she was on a two-week trade mission in Japan with other California officials. Because she would be coming a few weeks later to some meetings in Washington through the Environmental Council of the States, an organization headed by former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Environment secretary, Ben Grumbles, she arranged to meet with transition leaders then. After two rounds of interviews during the course of that week, McIlwain had a hastily arranged sit-down with Moore at an office in Baltimore, just before she left town to go back to California.
“It was amazing,” McIlwain said of her initial conversation with the governor-elect. “We talked about the Climate Solutions Now Act. I laid out a strategy for him [for implementing it]. He was concerned about whether it was actually achievable. I said, ‘it’s going to be hard — and it’s achievable.’ He was very passionate about environmental protection and that made me feel good. I could see that he was sincere about it. A lot of people aren’t sincere. I’ve worked with governors and I’ve worked with other politicians and I’ve seen that. He had a lot of knowledge, too, about environmental protection, which surprised me, and we were able to have a conversation about it. And I was just inspired. I thought, I want to work for him. I want to make Maryland the best environmental place to live.”
Moore was equally impressed.
“It was clear her application received a tremendous amount of support,” the governor said in an email. “I even called Governor Gavin Newsom about her, who sang her praises. Serena’s background and experience were unmatched. From day one, I knew she would be able to meet the ambitious goals we had set.”
Maryland environmental leaders were excited that a California official was coming to the state to implement climate policy — unaware, in most cases, that McIlwain in fact had lived here for so many years. This mistaken impression has simultaneously irked and amused her. And yet, there is no doubt that she views what California does on the environment as the gold standard — and says she’s determined to have Maryland equal if not surpass the work in the Golden State.
“Because I was in California, I’m really able to push the agency to be more innovative,” she said. “My job is to make Maryland innovative like California is. They have an empire. My job is to get us in Maryland more money, so we can become an empire and build and do great things for Marylanders. We don’t have the same resources — I have to remember that. We are small but we can be mighty. I have to be more strategic in what I do and how I’m thinking and how I’m moving the agency.”
Within days of becoming acting Environment secretary, McIlwain found herself testifying before legislative committees on an array of topics. She seemed measured, almost tentative at times. But behind the scenes, McIlwain was furiously learning, reaching out to stakeholders across the state, pulling in experts for conversations, and identifying key strategists both within the agency and outside of government who could help her with her mission.
“I have found her to be incredibly insightful,” said Coble, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters chief. “I have a sense that there’s a really strong skillset and knowledge base there.”
Earlier this spring, McIlwain hosted Moore and other state officials outside MDE headquarters in South Baltimore for a ceremony marking the state’s renewed commitment to following California’s standards for the sale of electric vehicles. She, Moore and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) took celebratory drives around the office parking lot in shiny new EVs.
And in more recent public appearances, McIlwain has become more animated, almost evangelical, about the imperative of addressing climate change.
“We’re moving from rhetoric to results,” she asserted at a climate forum held earlier this month at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, co-sponsored by Maryland Matters.
Job No. 1 for McIlwain will be implementing the Climate Solutions Now Act, the sweeping climate legislation that the General Assembly passed in 2022 and that, among other things, calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 60% by 2031. The MDE is expected to release a draft report on how to achieve key elements of the legislation next month, with a final plan of action due out by the end of the year. That will likely help the Moore administration formulate a legislative battle plan — and a comprehensive sales pitch.
McIlwain is conferring regularly with her deputy, Suzanne Dorsey, and Chris Hoagland, head of MDE’s air and radiation office — both holdovers from the Hogan administration — on early analysis and strategy.
“We’re sitting down and really trying to decide, what kind of changes do we have to make?” McIlwain said. “Some of it is legislative changes, changes in behaviors, funding. We’re going to have to push the needle.”
But McIlwain’s to-do list goes way beyond achieving the state’s climate goals. Also high on the list is strengthening the state’s environmental justice efforts. She’s already created an environmental justice office within the agency and recently set up a council of experts to advise her privately of what the state ought to be doing and where it’s falling short (MDE also oversees the work of the state’s Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities). Recently she met with community leaders in Curtis Bay, the Baltimore neighborhood that’s home to the largest medical waste incinerator in the U.S. and other toxic hazards.
“To me, she’s already doing more for environmental justice than the previous administration did in the last eight years,” said Sacoby Wilson, professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and one of the state’s leading environmental justice advocates.
But while Wilson praised McIlwain’s open-door policy, and noted that “she’s getting out there, she’s saying the right words” on environmental justice issues, he said he’ll wait to see what the results look like in a few years before passing judgment. Wilson would like the Moore administration to embrace legislation that requires a look at cumulative environmental impacts of projects when decided whether to grant them permits. McIlwain said she supports the idea.
Moore said he’s seen a rapid culture change at MDE in just the few months since McIlwain has been in charge.
“Our state is already seeing a transformation in how MDE prioritizes performance and efficiency to improve enforcement, clear out backlogs, fast-track hiring, and dramatically expand the climate program,” he said. “She is putting environmental justice first and has an aggressive strategy in place to meet our climate goals. It’s also just great to work alongside her.”
‘This can’t be all on Serena’
More than ever, Maryland’s efforts to respond to climate change is going to be a multi-agency endeavor. Beyond MDE, no less than eight cabinet agencies, along with the Maryland Energy Administration, are taking climate into account as they assess projects and programs — and several state boards and commissions also play advisory roles. Moore is still planning to appoint a chief climate and resiliency officer soon, a spokesperson said last week, though it isn’t altogether clear what that official’s portfolio will look like.
“This can’t all be on Serena,” Planning Secretary Rebecca Flora said at the UMBC-Maryland Matters climate forum.
But it’s clear that the bulk of the burden will be shouldered by McIlwain — Moore has said as much.
“Addressing climate change is an all-hands effort, with MDE having a special role to lead this work,” he told Maryland Matters. “The strategy to deliver on our climate goals begins with Secretary McIlwain getting everyone together — from our own state leadership to our citizens — to achieving the bold goals we’ve set. MDE is responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions and helping us meet our nation-leading climate goals. Secretary McIlwain is the right person for this job. She is so capable, so determined, and so decisive in getting things done.”
Darwin, her former colleague at the EPA who once served as director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality — and also worked there as Grumbles’ deputy — said the key for McIlwain in working through the administration’s climate agenda is “building coalitions, building relationships.”
“Make sure that everyone knows how you’re going to implement those policies and how you’re going to interpret the freedoms you’ve been given in your position,” he said.
McIlwain recognizes the challenges and says she’s ready to “navigate and negotiate” when it comes time to sell the climate bill’s solutions. She expects to have a powerful advocate in the governor himself.
Last week, McIlwain spoke at a virtual conference alongside fellow state environmental regulators from Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. After laying out her ambitious climate goals for Maryland, she paused for a moment — partially to collect her thoughts, and partially for dramatic effect.
“Wish me luck,” she said.
Blumenfeld, her former boss, said McIlwain won’t need it.
“She could run the country,” he said.