WASHINGTON Former Washington state Governor Gary Locke is President Barack Obama's "likely nominee" for U.S. commerce secretary, an administration official said on Monday.
Locke, a Democrat, would be Obama's third choice for the post after his first two nominees, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Republican Senator Judd Gregg, withdrew their names from contention.
"I think he would be phenomenal," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, said in a statement on the possibility Locke could be nominated. "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, 59, was the first Chinese-American governor in the United States. He served two terms as governor of Washington from 1997 to 2005, overseeing a state with a diverse economy that includes corporate giants like Boeing and Microsoft, wheat and apple farmers and major seafood companies.
Washington state's support for Boeing has been at the center of a World Trade Organization dispute with the European Union over subsidies for civilian aircraft manufacturers. A pair of tit-for-tat cases began in 2004, when the United States challenged European aid for Airbus.
At the Commerce Department, Locke would be in charge of a huge bureaucracy functions of which range from export promotion to monitoring global climate change.
OVERSEEING THE CENSUS
He also would oversee the 2010 census, with its important consequences for how government money is spent and the number of representatives each state can elect to Congress.
Gregg said his withdrawal earlier this month was partly due to his concern about the Obama administration's decision to have the next census director report to the senior White House staffers as well as the commerce secretary.
Locke was co-chair of then Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign last year, but threw his support to Obama after she withdrew from the race.
He began his public service career as a deputy prosecutor after getting a law degree from Boston University in 1975.
He was elected to the Washington state House of Representatives in 1982 and later served as chief executive of King County, Washington, which includes Seattle.
Obama has had an unusually hard time filling the top job at the Commerce Department, typically seen as the chief advocate for business within the cabinet.
His first choice, Richardson, withdrew in the face of a legal probe into a California-based financial company that had done business with the New Mexico state government. Richardson denied any wrongdoing.
Gregg, a Republican, withdrew two weeks ago in an embarrassing setback to Obama's efforts to bridge party differences on the economy.
The third-term senator said he realized his policy differences with Obama were too great and it would be a "bigger mistake" to stay and serve in the administration.
Commerce secretary is not the only administration job yet to be filled.
Obama still has not named a replacement for Tom Daschle, who withdrew as nominee for U.S. health secretary because of personal tax issues.
And the Senate Finance Committee has not scheduled a hearing yet on the nomination of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk to be U.S. trade representative. That hearing is expected next week at the earliest.
There are also many senior positions at the Treasury, Commerce Department and trade office that remain empty.