Bryson to Head Commerce Department?

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., May 31, 2011 — By the time you read this, the event may have already happened. The Washington rumor mill is rumbling loudly that President Obama will name John Bryson, former California electric company executive, to be commerce secretary, replacing Gary Locke, who will be named U.S. ambassador to China. Locke, former Democratic governor of Washington, replaces Jon Huntsman, a Republican former Utah governor and possible GOP presidential candidate, in Beijing.

Fox News this morning reported the rumors, citing an unnamed White House official. A similarly anonymous official confirmed the story to Politico, with the announcement scheduled for this afternoon.

The appointment makes sense, given Bryson’s background. Former chairman and chief executive officer of Edison International, parent of Southern California Edison, Bryson, 67, retired from the giant energy company in 2008, joining takeover specialists KKR as a senior specialist. He took the top job at Edison in 1990 after joining SCE’s staff in 1984. He won an internal competition with Mike Peevey, now head of the California Public Utilities Commission, to succeed the legendary Howard Allen at SCE.

Bryson, a lawyer, served as CPUC chairman from 1979 to 1982. Upon graduating from Yale Law School in 1970, he joined a group of other recent Yale law graduates to found the Natural Resources Defense Council, which became one of the nation’s leading environmental groups. The other NRDC founders included John Adams, Gus Speth (head of the White House council on environmental quality in the Carter administration), Edward Strohbehn, Angus Macbeth and Dick Ayres.

The Commerce Department has long been a destination for politically-minded business executives, although the Obama administration originally looked for politicians to fill the job. The administration’s first choice for the job was former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who withdrew during a flap over his use of patronage during his gubernatorial term. Locke, who has made little impact in the job, was a natural for the China slot, given his Chinese-American background. According several press accounts, Eric Schmidt of Google was Obama’s first choice to succeed Locke.

Bryson would become the second high-level energy executive to be tapped for a key Obama post. Earlier, the president name GE CEO Jeff Immelt to lead a panel of outside advisors on economic recovery issues.

The job of commerce secretary requires Senate approval.

Update 3:30 p.m. EST: President Obama made it official this afternoon, naming Bryson as his choice for the commerce department cabinet slot. “John will be an important part of my economic team,” the president said in a written statement, “working with the business community, fostering growth, and helping open up new markets abroad to promote jobs and opportunities here at home,”