Obama close to naming ex-Washington governor Locke for Commerce

WASHINGTON — Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the nation's first Chinese-American governor, will likely be named secretary of commerce, an administration official and Capitol Hill sources confirmed Monday.

"Absolutely he is under consideration," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a final decision had not been made as of late Monday, said the 59-year-old Locke was the likely nominee.

On Capitol Hill, sources said they were "fairly confident" President Barack Obama would name the two-term governor to the post in the coming days. They indicated he was being vetted and that he was previously under consideration for the post of U.S. trade representative.

"He would make an outstanding secretary of commerce,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., adding Locke has a strong background in international trade, particularly with China, and in fisheries, which is under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire believes Locke's experience as governor and knowledge of international trade would make him a “great” commerce secretary, said Pearse Edwards, a Gregoire spokesman. Calls left for Locke on his cell phone and at his Seattle law office were not returned.

Locke would be Obama’s third choice for the post, which requires Senate conformation.

Obama originally nominated New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, but in January Richardson withdrew amid disclosures a grand jury was investigating the awarding of state contracts in New Mexico.

Obama then turned to a Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. But Gregg withdrew less than a week after being selected, citing "irresolvable conflicts" with the new administration.

Locke was briefly linked to the scandal over foreign contributions to President Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign. In July 1998, he gave a deposition to the House oversight committee about his relationships with questioned Clinton donors. But the committee subsequently said the deposition produced no evidence that Locke knowingly accepted illegal campaign donations.

Locke denied any wrongdoing, and he subsequently returned some checks tied to people implicated in the fundraising scandal. That included $750 from John Huang, the former Commerce Department official who was the Democratic Party’s chief fund raiser for the Asian-American population in the 1996 elections.

Also, in December 1997, Locke’s political committee was fined a maximum $2,500 by state regulators after it admitted breaking campaign finance laws during two out-of-state fundraisers in 1996.

Though not one of the high-profile cabinet posts, the commerce secretary oversees an agency with wide responsibilities ranging from international trade to the census and from fisheries to the weather service.

Locke would continue a string of Puget Sound area nominees to the Obama administration that already includes Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as drug czar, and King County Executive Ron Sims as as second-in-command at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In addition to his long political career, Locke has a compelling personal story. The son of immigrants from Guandong and Hong Kong, Locke lived in a public housing project in Seattle until he was six years old. He worked in his father’s restaurant and grocery store before attending Yale University and the Boston University Law School.

Locke has said he was the beneficiary of affirmative action in getting accepted at Yale and paid for his college education with part-time jobs, scholarships and student loans.

Shortly after being elected governor, Locke went on a 12-day trade mission to China and other Asian nations. In addition to more traditional stops, Locke visited Jilong, a remote village in southeastern China that was his ancestral home.

The roads approaching the village were lined with thousands of school children. He was accompanied by his elderly mother and father who hadn’t visited China in 50 years.

Trips like that one helped establish Locke’s bonafides, according to two people who accompanied the governor on most or all of his trade missions.

"He has experience traveling in many parts of the world, speaking not only on behalf of Washington state, but also promoting the United States internationally on free trade and mitigation of trade barriers," said Grant Heinemann, state director of international relations and protocol.

"He's extremely smart," said former state Agriculture Secretary Valoria Loveland. "He understands how finances and businesses work in the United States. He has a really good knowledge of international commerce. And he’s held in very high regard in the foreign countries that we visited."

Loveland and Heinemann went with Locke to China, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, Vietnam, France and Singapore during his two terms in office.

As governor, Locke was instrumental in securing a package of tax breaks that helped persuade the Boeing company to build its new 787 Dreamliner in a plant north of Seattle.

Since leaving office, Locke has been a frequent visitor to China, opening doors for such companies as Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks. He has met on occasion with top Chinese officials, but has never been hesitant to criticize the Chinese for human rights abuses.

Fred Kiga, who was Locke’s chief of staff from 2001 to 2004, said Locke was a big hit in Asian countries.

“The trips I went on, he was a rock star,” said Kiga, who now is Boeing’s vice president for global corporate citizenship and its main liaison for state and local governments. “First, he was good looking and intelligent. And he was the first Chinese-American governor on the mainland U.S.”

Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma said he first met Locke in 1984 at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

Last week, when Obama’s second choice for commerce secretary stepped aside, Baarsma told his wife, Carol, that Locke would be the nominee.

"I just had the gut feeling,” Baarsma said. "He seemed to be the ideal choice, a business-oriented Democrat."

News Tribune staff writer Brian Everstine and The Associated Press contributed to this report.