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Originally published February 25, 2009 at 4:13 PM | Page modified February 25, 2009 at 5:00 PM

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Joni Balter

Obama cabinet strengthened by Northwest talent

After months of being ignored, after weeks of having our smartest political talent overlooked by the Obama administration, the Northwest...

Seattle Times staff columnist

After months of being ignored, after weeks of having our smartest political talent overlooked by the Obama administration, the Northwest is suddenly hot. Our top leaders will be at the decision table in one of the most lively presidential administrations in years.

King County Executive Ron Sims is the appointed deputy director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske is poised to join the president's cabinet as drug czar, an intriguing position for a man with progressive views on drug enforcement.

And now former Washington Gov. Gary Locke will represent the Northwest in the higher-profile position of Commerce Secretary. All of which says a lot about our state. Team Obama likes our technological prowess, our innovative approach, our big-trade-oriented world view.

At first, as many cabinet positions were announced, our region seemed to be overlooked. But now Northwest leaders are ready to offer ideas brewed here in Washington state. At the risk of sounding parochial, bravo for our guys.

Locke is well known for the guts it took as governor to keep production of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in Washington state. Sure, he gave away gazillions in tax breaks — money that would benefit the state budget this year and next. But his efforts kept Boeing where it should be. That's solid long-range thinking.

Locke is both clean-living and a wonk, two traits that serve him well. Former state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt got it right when he said Locke is such a straight arrow that "he probably overpaid his taxes" to avoid any questions.

Who cares if Locke is Obama's third choice for commerce? New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson flamed out because of a federal investigation into state contracting. New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, couldn't be bothered. He couldn't even decide if he wanted to serve until after he embarrassed Obama with his indifference. He couldn't even support the stimulus package. Sheesh.

Obama can do better and he did. Locke is an excellent pick because he spent two terms as governor proving he understands the nexus of government, education and business.

Any leader hailing from the land of Microsoft, Starbucks and Costco has to know a few things about commerce. Our iconic brands are all over the world. Locke not only was a popular governor who led this state through boom-and-bust cycles, he gets kudos for a budgeting approach that required justifying ongoing state spending before continuing it. His current job as a lawyer with clients doing business in China gives him extra cachet. He also brings a pro-trade voice to an administration that needs it.

When I ran into Locke at Costco a few months ago, he said he didn't think he would be tapped for anything because he wasn't part of the Chicago insiders' club, not to mention that he and Sims were early supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton for president.

That's one of the most impressive things about Obama. He knows who is president and is comfortable surrounding himself with bright people. He doesn't seem to care that they were not on board from the start.

Don't be surprised if Obama offers something to Gov. Christine Gregoire a few years from now. He gave her a shout-out regarding green jobs at a recent meeting with the governors and she scored a major table seat next to Michelle Obama at a White House dinner with the nation's governors.

Northwest political talent is no longer lost here in the forgotten corner of the country. Some of our stars are in position to help lift our country out of its profound economic doldrums.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Joni Balter

Joni, a veteran Seattle Times reporter, has been on the editorial staff 11 years. She is the political writer for the page, covering local, state and national politics. She lives near Seward Park with her husband, an author and journalist, and her son who is a high school student. A good weekend always includes a run along Lake Washington with close friends.
jbalter@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2240

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