Why He Matters
President Barack Obama needed a safe choice for his third attempt at nominating a Commerce secretary. Maybe that’s why former Washington state governor Locke’s name shot to the top of the president’s list.
The first Chinese-American governor in the U.S. had willingly stepped out of public life in 2004, deciding not to run for a third term as chief executive of the Evergreen State in a race in which he would have been heavily favored. Locke’s nomination came after Obama’s two previous Commerce secretary picks (New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.)) withdrew.
Locke’s image couldn’t be more squeaky-clean. He's known as a reliable leader with scant personal baggage, who didn't take many chances while leading the state of Washington. “The former governor is such a straight arrow that ‘he probably overpaid his taxes’ just to avoid questions later,” Paul Berendt, former chairman of the Washington State Democratic Party, told the Seattle Times.(1)
But Locke was an effective chief executive from 1997 to 2005, helping to pass a budget that significantly cut state jobs, deferred pay raises for state employees and delayed funding for class-size increases in public schools in order to compensate for a $3 billion budget deficit.(2) As governor, Locke also worked with large businesses based in Washington state, including Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft. Furthermore, he nurtured relations with China, where he travelled on trade missions three times. Since joining the Seattle office of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine in 2004, Locke has visited China several times.
Path to Power
Locke’s rise to the top post in Washington state may have been written in the sand. A fortune-teller once told Locke’s father, James, that one of his sons would be famous. James Locke, a Chinese immigrant who had fought in World War II under Gen. George S. Patton, highly doubted the claim.(3)
That future-famous son started his career working at his father’s Chinese-American restaurant, Sadie’s Café, in Seattle. Locke worked from an early age, helping to support the family. He also showed a rebellious side. “I talked back to my parents," said Locke. “I felt unsure of my cultural identity. There was a conflict between the Chinese and American culture.”(4)
Locke excelled in school and went to Yale University as an undergraduate before attending Boston University to earn a law degree in 1975. After school, Locke returned to Seattle to work as a King County deputy prosecutor. Then in 1982, he was elected to the Washington state house, staying there for 10 years, including four as the chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee.
In 1993, he became King County executive, a sort of manager for the highly-liberal area on the southeast side of Seattle. He used the position to gain a name for himself in the area, and in 1996, he ran for governor.
1996 Gubernatorial Run
That year, incumbent Gov. Mike Lowry (D) declined to run for re-election after accusations of sexual harassment towards an aide became public, leaving Locke an opening. In the primary, 15 candidates campaigned on the Republican and Democratic sides in a free-for-all for the open seat; Locke won with 24 percent of the vote. On the Republican side, the ultra-conservative, 64-year old born-again Christian, Ellen Craswell, won with 15 percent of the vote.(5)
During the campaign, Locke supported gay rights, affirmative action and abortion rights, while Craswell opposed them. She proved to be too conservative for Washington and Locke won by nearly 20 percentage points, making him the first Chinese-American governor in the U.S.
In 2000, Locke won reelection and in 2004, Locke chose not to run for a third term. He began working for the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, focusing on China and energy issues.
In February 2009, Sen. Gregg withdrew his name from consideration as Obama’s Commerce secretary. Gregg was Obama’s second choice after New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson chose to withdraw his name because of a grand jury investigation into possible “pay-to-play” activities.
Shortly after his confirmation, Locke found himself dealing with fallout of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, including the bankruptcies and bailouts of two of the Big Three Detroit automakers.
First Gubernatorial Term
Despite hailing from liberal King County, Locke steered a moderate course while governor. This lean toward the center might have been a necessity with a GOP-controlled legislature.
But during Locke’s first four years as governor, the economy was strong and crime was down, so opponents attacked the Democrat’s leadership skills and planning. Locke was labeled as reactionary and not sufficiently proactive. Some questioned Locke’s communications skills and criticized the governor for failing to express strong opinions on certain issues until the last minute.(6)
“Sometimes I haven't been as clear as I thought I was," said Locke. “I've tried to take extra pains to make it very clear what I'm talking about or to have (other) people in the room.”
In 2000, the Republican Party tried to highlight all of these characteristics in a bid to defeat the incumbent Democrat. But the popular Locke won re-election with ease.
Second Gubernatorial Term
Locke easily sailed through his first term, but his second term was more challenging. In the spring of 2001, Boeing decided to move its headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago, 85 years after its founding in the Northwest region. This, coupled with the September 11 attacks, had a serious impact on Washington’s economy.
In order to deal with the worst recession in two decades, Washington had to push the budget into a $1.6 billion deficit by increasing government spending. Choosing not to raise taxes across the board to close the deficit, Locke urged legislators to consider an $8.5 billion transportation infrastructure relief package. The now Democratic-controlled legislature put a part of his plan, a 9 cent gas tax increase, on a ballot referendum instead. It failed.(7)
By 2003, the state deficit had reached $2.7 billion, but Locke was still able to negotiate a budget by postponing spending for a 2000 educational initiative, cutting 2,500 state jobs and deferring pay raises for state employees.(2) In order to create more jobs, he brokered a deal with Boeing, providing the aeronautical company with a $3.2 billion tax break if they manufactured a new fleet of jets in Washington. Then, late in the year, voters finally agreed to the governor’s gas tax increase, raising the price at the pump 5 cents per gallon.(7)
Locke could have run for a third-term as governor. But citing family reasons, Locke joined the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, where he focused on China and energy issues.
A source of pride in the Asian community, Locke has used his position to reach out to the Chinese government. While Locke served as governor, he made three trips to China on trade missions. In October 1997, Governor Locke sat down to chat with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. He discussed trade between Washington state and China, pushing the state’s agriculture and hawking Boeing jets.(8)
This unusual access continued after Locke became a lawyer and private citizen. He made several trips to China to develop connections within the country for American businesses, and also helped Chinese companies gain a foothold in the U.S. market. In 2006, he convinced current President Hu Jintao to visit Seattle and meet state officials and local businesses in the area. Locke even carried the Olympic torch during the relay in China prior to the Beijing Olympics.(1)
Locke is heading the agency in charge of the 2010 census. It's tricky political territory, and Locke discussed it with the Washington Post's Lois Romano in 2009:
When Locke became governor in 1997, Housing and Urban Development Deputy Secretary-designate Ron Sims replaced Locke as King County executive. Sims also served on the King County Council, while Locke was the King County executive.
Locke has ties within the Asian community in America, as well as leaders in China. In 2006, he convinced Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit Seattle, and meet with local political and business leaders.
Locke has donated $3,050 since 1994. All of his money went toward Democratic campaigns.(9)
Garber, Andrew and Heim, Kristi, "Former Gov. Gary Locke likely pick for U.S. commerce secretary," The Seattle Times, Feb. 24, 2009
Stone, Bob and Cole, Rick, "Pinching pennies logically," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 21, 2007
Egan, Timothy, "An Asian-American Told His Story to Whites and Won. For Black Politicians, It's a Riskier Strategy," The New York Times, June 20, 2000
Paulson, Michael, "Locke's Asian Roots May be Big Asset in Bid for Governor," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 16, 1996
Paulson, Michael and Zimmerman, Rachel, "A Moment of Triumph for Chinese American," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 6, 1996
Galloway, Angela, "A Steady-As-You-Go Governor Locke Follows Studious Course, Fuels Criticism that he Shuns Risk," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 1, 2000
Galloway, Angela, "Gary Locke: Fine-Tuning a Formula for Success," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 3, 2005
Zimmerman, Rachel, "China's Doors Open For Locke Governor's Ancestry Merits Hourlong Chat With Jiang," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 6, 1997
Center for Responsive Politics