Instead of Hagel, Consider Mabus for Secretary of Defense

As the old saying goes, it's better to be for something than against everything.

Recently, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) announced its opposition to the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for the top job at the Department of Defense (DoD). Their reasoning is clear: The man has made disturbing public statements about gays in the past and should not be put in charge of the world's single largest employer.

The DoD desperately needs reform in order to stem retention problems with lesbian and gay military personnel. We need a Secretary of Defense, not a Secretary of Defending Bigotry.

But rather than fighting against Sen. Hagel, HRC and pro-gay Democrats should push for a better candidate. The candidate should be someone who has a history of being pro-gay within the DoD and who has real service credibility. But if not Sen. Hagel, then who should be chosen for the top military post? The current Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, may be a candidate more pleasing to all sides.

As far as gay-rights benchmarks, the Navy was the first branch of the U.S. Armed Forces to get behind the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." As department head, Mabus kept the Marine Corps from dragging its feet.

Equally important is Mabus' nack for getting ahead on big issues. Embracing the traditional role of the Navy as an innovator, Mabus led on the idea of a "Great Green Fleet." He summoned the historical image of President Teddy Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet," the first American fleet to sail around the world.

The green fleet effort proved the viability of biodiesel and alternative fuel use and started to get the Navy off foreign oil. Mabus made it happen. Unfortunately, after the Republican insurgence of 2010, the green fleet idea was scrapped, despite biodiesel costs going down year after year.

Yet with massive military spending cuts in the near future, the country needs to take a second look at Mabus' ideas. Out of the approximately $1 million it costs per year to deploy a single soldier to Afghanistan, almost half of that is in fuel and energy. With real vision and a new look at green technology, Mabus' proven leadership could cut long-term costs dramatically, avoiding larger layoffs or a reduction in investment in military research and development.

While people like Sen. Hagel hae spent much of the last decade focused on the Middle East and the conflicts of the past, our U.S. foreign and military policy is shifting to the Pacific. Mabus has experience in the kind of emerging conflicts of today. Mabus displayed his leadership most recently in the 2011 nuclear tsunami disaster in Japan, where the Navy led the most complex and largest humanitarian aid operation in human history, "Operation Tomodachi."

Most importantly, Mabus has real street cred with the troops. I've personally seen him handle tough questions from Sailors and Marines who are concerned about the way cuts will be implemented. Mabus' personal military experience makes him an empathetic leader, and helps guide his real-world understanding of budget cuts. Mabus is also the first service secretary to embrace social media. When he has to explain the major changes that will take place over the next 10 years, social media skills will be crucial in keeping up morale in a downsized military.

Equally importantly, Mabus has shown conviction in fighting for heroes, like his long battle inside the DoD to award Sgt. Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor, despite opposition within the military bureaucracy.

If the HRC wants to oppose Sen. Hagel, that's fine. Most people in the gay community, and allies of the gay community, support them. However, if the HRC is going to be successful, they and other opposing Democrats need to get behind a viable alternative.

It's time Ray Mabus got his second look.