Political Hay

Boredom at Commerce

Gary Locke has officially been confirmed as Commerce secretary -- not that he or anyone else seems particularly excited by this development. 

By 3.25.09

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Once improbably hailed as a rising star in the Democratic Party, Gary Locke is deadly dull.

The narcolepsy-inducing Locke was confirmed by voice vote in the Senate Tuesday.

The fact that the former governor of Washington state is boring might be the reason President Obama selected him as a third choice to be his commerce secretary.

Locke is a tedious, safe choice to succeed President Bush's man at the Commerce Department, the similarly competent but not terribly interesting Carlos Gutierrez.

Boring but competent became politically attractive after two spectacular cabinet-level flameouts.

First, the colorful Democratic governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, had to pull out as nominee because of an embarrassing probe into the awarding of his state's contracts.

Next conservative Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, who initially was willing to play along, decided he couldn't in good conscience help an ultra-liberal president bankrupt America. Gregg was also alarmed at the White House plan to arrogate to itself control over the decennial Census, which would have had huge ramifications for congressional redistricting. After lawmakers such as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) denounced the plan as a "naked political power grab," the Obama administration had to assure lawmakers the Census would remain at Commerce.

Since being nominated, Locke hasn't screwed up, and if past behavior is a predictor of future behavior, he probably won't.

Past scandals don't seem to have hurt Locke's image on Capitol Hill.

The New York Times reported that Locke, now an attorney specializing in China-related matters for international law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, came to the post with "a largely scandal-free résumé." That's not exactly true.

Writer Michelle Malkin, who used to cover Locke when she worked for the Seattle Times, says Locke was evasive when confronted about his ties to Clinton-era campaign finance criminal John Huang, a former Democratic fund-raiser and suspected communist Chinese government agent who worked for the Commerce Department. Huang raised a reported $3.4 million for the Democratic National Committee, including from illegal donors overseas. He was convicted of a felony conspiracy charge of breaking campaign finance laws.

While the DNC quickly returned Huang's tainted contributions, Locke held on to the relatively small sums Huang gave his campaign. Malkin says when she tried to get information from Locke's campaign and gubernatorial staffers, they stonewalled.

Malkin wrote earlier this month that on top of Locke's Chinagate entanglements, his

political committee was fined the maximum amount by Washington's campaign finance watchdog for failing to disclose out-of-state New York City Chinatown donors. One of those events was held at NYC's Harmony Palace restaurant, co-owned by Chinese street gang thugs.

And then there were Locke's not-so-squeaky-clean fundraising trips to a Buddhist temple in Redmond, Wash., which netted nearly $14,000 from monks and nuns -- many of whom barely spoke English, couldn't recall donating to Locke, or were out of the country and could never be located. Of the known temple donors identified by the Locke campaign, five gave $1,000 each on July 22, 1996 -- paid in sequentially ordered cashier's checks. State campaign finance investigators failed to track down some of the donors during their probe.

The often stoic Locke even played the race card to deflect scrutiny. Malkin quoted him telling a 1997 meeting of the Asian American Journalists Association: "(M)ost painful to me, my ethnicity has meant that my campaign has been targeted for special scrutiny because of the fact that many Asian Americans across the country contributed to my campaign and John Huang contributed to my campaign." Eventually his campaign gave the money back.

A conspiracy theorist might say the Clark Kent-like persona of Locke, whose job as Commerce secretary could include approving sensitive exports to China, is ideal for a Manchurian candidate loyal to a hostile foreign government.

When she was Washington state's first lady, Mona Locke raised some eyebrows with her inarticulate, stunningly naïve comments about life in communist China. When asked on "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" how human rights concerns and trade might be balanced, Mrs. Locke said, "I think when we went into China, being a cynical former journalist in a past life, I was very cynical about what I would see there and how much of a hold communism would have on these people and their daily lives. And I was surprised, quite surprised, that they seemed to be living quite normal lives in terms of, you know, what we know of democracy."

The former reporter also fawned over Chinese early childhood education facilities in China, appearing in a 1999 made-for-TV documentary called "Precious Children." In it she led a group of 60 teachers visiting China. "There was a dialogue started and that was the purpose of this mission: to see what they're doing and open up minds and establish relationships."

Mrs. Locke's family has longstanding ties to the powerful. Her grandmother's second husband was the son of Sun Yat-sen, who led the revolution that overthrew China's last emperor.

The Locke family's ties to the People's Republic, while suspicious to some, aren't necessarily proof of anything. They've hardly registered at all politically.

Senators seem barely concerned about the potential issue even though Locke's aggressive promotion of U.S.-China trade may force him to seek an ethics waiver from the Obama administration. For becoming the first Chinese-American governor of a U.S. state, Locke is a celebrity in mainland China. After the warm reception Locke received in China during a trip there in 1997, President Clinton quipped that "there's a good chance that Gary Locke has a sterling opportunity to become the first American president of China."

Locke has leveraged his high profile to advocate for several companies such as Microsoft and Starbucks doing business in rapidly developing Chinese markets.

Although President Obama signed an executive order blocking executive branch officials from working on issues "directly and substantially related" to their former clients or employers for two years, it's unclear how the president will handle Locke's business ties to China. Obama has already handed out several waivers and the media has barely noticed, so reporters, especially at the New York Times, would likely snooze through such a waiver being granted to Locke.

On other issues, at a Senate confirmation hearing, Locke assured Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that only actual, live people would be counted by the Census. Democrats have long favored using statistical modeling, a practice controversial because it's flagrantly unconstitutional and because it opens up the counting process to political manipulation.

"It is my understanding that there are no plans to use any type of statistical sampling with respect to population count," Locke told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last week.

While promising to protect U.S. intellectual property rights, Locke sidestepped a question from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) who railed against China for allegedly allowing widespread theft of U.S. products such as movies and for manipulating its currency to make its exports cheaper. "Maybe we need to have a brawl with the Chinese," the senator said.

For giving the right answers and non-answers, the committee rewarded Locke by unanimously approving his nomination.

Despite his somnolence, Locke, who has a vaguely Canadian-sounding accent, has an interesting personal story and he's demonstrated that he is willing to do the Obama administration's bidding.

As the president noted in presenting the nominee at a Feb. 25 media event, Locke didn't learn English until the age of five, but still became an Eagle Scout, later earning a law degree from Yale University. He returned to his home state and became a prosecutor, a state representative, chief executive of King County, and governor from 1997 to 2005. After his term as governor ended, he disappeared from the public spotlight.

Surprisingly, for an administration that views American society through the neo-Marxist prism of race, sex, and class, the White House has not played up Locke's Chinese ancestry in any significant or patronizing way as liberals often do. In fact, President Obama has emphasized the role that Locke, a free trader, played in promoting trade with Asia, Mexico, and Europe. The administration said that Locke's trade missions abroad as Washington governor helped to more than double the state's exports to China to more than $5 billion annually.

The White House also credits Locke with personally negotiating a Washington State-Canada treaty after negotiations between the U.S. State Department and Canada on protecting wild salmon runs collapsed.

Still awake? Let's keep going then.

He's somewhat liberal, but not in an in-your-face way, and has a mixed record on taxes. He has supported some tax increases but showed some cojones by defying the left and not backing tax hikes during the economic slowdown in 2001 and daring to cut spending on some programs.

As governor, some observers credit him with increasing the efficiency of state agencies, reducing welfare rolls, and boosting public education. While he was governor, Governing magazine ranked Washington among the four best-managed states in the nation.

I witnessed Locke in action in 1999 and 2000 while he served on the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce (ACEC) chaired by then-Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, and somehow managed to stay awake.

I saw in person that when it really matters, Locke can be counted on to toe the liberal line. Even after the compelling anti-tax presentation by Competitive Enterprise Institute founder Fred L. Smith Jr., Locke was not swayed.

Locke voted for higher taxes. He voted against a recommendation to Congress, approved 10 to 8, to repeal the 3% federal excise tax on telecommunications services, to permanently prohibit states and localities from taxing Internet access fees, and to extend the Internet taxation moratorium.

But unlike then-Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (now U.S. Trade Representative), who as an ACEC member shamelessly pushed the Big Government agenda, the soporific Locke wasn't obnoxious about it. People barely knew he was there.

Now that the Obama White House has backed away from its ill-considered threat to seize control of the Census, a cynic might say it's not like it really matters who runs Commerce.

Except perhaps for its economic statistics-gathering agency and the fact that it oversees the Census Bureau and some foreign exports, it's not like the Department of Commerce, with its cavernous headquarters at 14th Street and Constitution, actually does anything useful.

Here's a simple illustration of just how unimportant the department is in the federal scheme of things.

Commerce would get $13.8 billion in the Obama administration's proposed 2010 budget. That's a rounding error in the $3.6 trillion-plus federal budget – which is, of course, over and above all the trillions of dollars already committed to bailouts. The Commerce appropriation is less than 0.4% of the U.S. government's total proposed budget. In case you missed that, that's four-tenths of 1%.

Another measure of the job's importance in the eyes of the Obama administration: as of early this morning, the White House website's scoreboard of nominations didn't even list Locke as the Commerce nominee.

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About the Author

Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist at a conservative watchdog group in Washington, D.C. Vadum is also author of Subversion Inc: How Obama's ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers.