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Gary Locke may be new Commerce pick

The former Washington governor is expected to be nominated by Obama to head the Commerce Department. Two previous nominees for the post backed out.

February 24, 2009|Peter Nicholas and Tom Hamburger

WASHINGTON — President Obama is expected to select former Washington Gov. Gary Locke as Commerce secretary, a position the White House has had a difficult time filling.

An administration official speaking on condition of anonymity because the appointment has not been made public said the nomination could be announced this week.

Locke would be Obama's third pick for the post. The first, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, dropped out amid questions about a grand jury investigation into the awarding of a state government contract.

In his place, Obama reached across the aisle and nominated Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican. But Gregg pulled out this month, citing differences with the White House over the $787-billion economic stimulus package and plans for the 2010 U.S. census.

Locke, 59, is a former two-term Democratic governor who left office in 2005. He was the nation's first Chinese American governor when he took office in 1997. He also was an early supporter of Obama's main rival in the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Locke has spoken with Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which would vote on the nomination, a Senate aide said.

In a statement issued Monday night, Rockefeller said: "If Gov. Locke is chosen for Commerce secretary, I think he would be phenomenal. Having a governor from a coastal state with a core understanding of what it takes to improve our economy would be most welcome and a tremendous asset."

Locke is a partner in the Seattle office of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. The firm's website lists his specialties as China, energy, government relations and corporate diversity counseling.

The firm has a significant presence in Washington, D.C., where several dozen lawyers and lobbyists specialize in media, technology, energy and other fields. The Washington, D.C., office also advises Fortune 500 companies on diversity and employment matters.

Between 2005 and 2008, Locke served on the board of Safeco, a Seattle-based insurance company taken over last year by Liberty Mutual.

A call to Locke's office was not returned.

The Obama administration has hit several confirmation snags, with at least four nominees facing questions about unpaid taxes. The president has yet to fill three of 15 Cabinet posts: Commerce, Labor, and Health and Human Services. The Senate is scheduled to hold a procedural vote today on Obama's nominee for Labor secretary, Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte).

One of the Commerce secretary's duties has emerged as a partisan sticking point.

Republicans are worried that the White House intends to marginalize the career employees at the Commerce Department and take control of the 2010 census -- the population-counting project that is used to determine such sensitive matters as the allocation of congressional seats.

"The first question for Gov. Locke is whether he will block the brazen attempt by the White House to take over the traditionally nonpartisan census," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

As governor, Locke helped preserve the state's aerospace industry by winning the bid for the new Boeing 7E7 plant. He pushed a plan to raise sales taxes by $1 billion to fund education, but voters defeated it.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

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