Third time's the charm? Obama makes another commerce pick

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 25, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Taking note of his Chinese immigrant roots and calling him an outstanding public servant, President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated former Washington Gov. Gary Locke as the secretary of commerce.

If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would become the first Washington state resident in three decades to serve in the Cabinet since the late Brock Adams served as transportation secretary in the Carter administration.

Locke, a two-term governor, is Obama's third choice for the post. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew in January amid disclosures of a grand jury investigation of state contracts. Later, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew, citing "irresolvable" differences with the administration.

"Now, I'm sure it is not lost on anyone that we've tried this a couple of times, but I am a big believer in keeping at something until you get it right," Obama said. "And Gary is the right man for this job."

Obama, joined by Locke and Vice President Joe Biden, made the announcement in the ornate Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across from the West Wing of the White House.

Locke's wife, Mona, a former Seattle television news reporter, stood with reporters while the announcement was made.

Locke was the nation's first Chinese-American governor. Obama noted that Locke's grandfather left China more than 100 years ago on a steamship bound for America, where he had no family. He worked as a houseboy for a family in exchange for English lessons. The family lived less than a mile from the governor's mansion in Olympia, where Locke and his family later lived.

"It took our family 100 years to move that one mile, a journey possible only in America," Locke told Obama in accepting the nomination. "My family's story is America's story."

As commerce secretary, Locke will head an agency that oversees international trade, the National Weather Service, the Census and fisheries. He'll also be part of the administration's economic team.

Speaking directly to Obama at times during brief remarks, Locke, 59, pledged to work hard as part of the administration's economic recovery effort.

"I'm truly humbled and honored to be asked to join your economic team and to serve as secretary of commerce," Locke said.

Obama has yet to fill one cabinet position, secretary of health and human services. The president's initial nominee, former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, withdrew amid charges he hadn't paid back taxes.

As governor from 1997 to 2005, Locke generally had a reputation as a progressive though business-friendly executive. He was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. He's a former head of the Democratic Governors Association and gave the Democratic response to former President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address.

Locke, who'd also been a state legislator and county executive, toyed with seeking a third term as governor but instead joined a blue-chip law firm in Seattle, concentrating on China and energy issues.

The former governor is a longtime ally of former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Lockes sat with Hillary Clinton during President Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address. They also spent the night at the White House.

Locke endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008 Democratic presidential primary and was her state co-chair.

The Senate Commerce Committee will have to confirm Locke's nomination.

Though his years in Olympia were mostly without controversy, several campaign finance problems flared up.

Locke gave a deposition to the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight in 1998 after he was linked to John Huang. Huang, a former Commerce Department official who raised campaign funds in the Asian-American community, was at the heart of a Democratic Party fundraising scandal in 1996 over foreign contributions.

Locke denied wrongdoing. The committee concluded there was no evidence Locke knowingly accepted illegal contributions. He did return several campaign contributions, including a $750 one from Huang.

State regulators fined Locke's political committee a maximum $2,500 in late 1997 after the committee admitted it broke campaign finance laws.

In 1998, complaints surfaced that Locke had taken $10,000 in illegal contributions from members of a Buddhist church. State regulators cleared Locke.

The nomination was generally praised by Democrats, Republicans and business leaders.

"Those of us from Washington state know Gary's story and record of accomplishment well," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "In his over two decades of service to Washington state, Gary boosted business, created jobs and displayed the leadership needs to move our state and nation forward."

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he "looked forward" to working with Locke, though he advised Locke he needed to resist any effort to put the White House in charge of the upcoming Census. Earlier, reports surfaced that administration officials wanted the director of the Census to report directly to the White House.

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