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Commerce secretary may hail from Silicon Valley

Symantec CEO John Thompson is the top contender for the post. His confirmation would be a boon for the high-tech industry in the Obama administration.

January 27, 2009|Jim Puzzanghera

WASHINGTON — John W. Thompson, the outgoing chief executive of network security firm Symantec Corp., has emerged as a leading contender to be Commerce secretary, a move that would give the high-tech industry a major voice in the Obama administration.

Over the last decade, Thompson led the Cupertino, Calif.-based company from a small software maker to the top provider of antivirus and security programs, known for its Norton brand of products. An African American, Thompson also has been active in trying to bring more people of color into the high-tech industry.

In recent days, Thompson has spoken on the telephone and met with key senators, making a favorable impression, aides said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a member of the commerce committee, which must confirm the next Commerce secretary, is "extremely supportive and hopeful he'll be the nominee," spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said.

Richard Parsons, former chairman of Time Warner Inc., also has been mentioned as a potential Commerce choice, but he told the New York Times this month that the speculation was not true.

A spokesman for Symantec said Thompson was not available to comment Monday. The company announced in November that Thompson would retire as chief executive at the end of its fiscal year in April. Thompson would remain as chairman of the board. Before joining Symantec, Thompson worked as an executive for IBM Corp.

President Obama is looking for a new choice for Commerce secretary -- the last open position in his Cabinet -- after his first pick, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew from consideration this month. Richardson stepped aside amid a federal investigation into how a state contract was granted to a political donor.

Those events, and questions Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner faced over past tax problems, might be slowing the White House vetting process for the next Commerce nominee.

Thompson, 59, was a strong backer of Obama's presidential campaign, holding at least two fundraisers at his Woodside, Calif., home.

Thompson and his wife, Sandra, an attorney, each gave the maximum $2,300 contribution to both Obama's primary and general election campaigns, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

John Thompson also gave $50,000 to Obama's inaugural committee. And the center listed Sandra Thompson as one of about 560 people who bundled numerous contributions to the Obama campaign, in her case between $100,000 and $200,000.

The Thompsons also have been strong contributors to other Democrats. John Thompson contributed a total of $70,347 in the 2008 campaign cycle, all to Democratic candidates and state parties, according to the center.

Sandra Thompson contributed a total of $134,300, with nearly all going to Democratic candidates and liberal organizations. She gave $1,500 to Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, and also gave to Obama challengers Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards.

Silicon Valley lawyer Craig Johnson, chief executive of Virtual Law Partners, attended an Obama fundraiser at Thompson's house in 2007. Johnson described the Symantec CEO as a "can-do" person who would strengthen ties between Silicon Valley and the nation's capital.

"Having someone like John in the inner circle of Obama's Cabinet in Washington, D.C., would mean having someone represent the voice of the entrepreneur," Johnson said.

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.

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