Former Gov. Gary Locke plans to join the private sector and says he has no plans to seek elected office again now that he’s returned from a two-year stint as U.S. ambassador to China.
In one of his first interviews since returning to Seattle, Locke on Friday dismissed rumors that he could be sought out as a vice-presidential nominee for Democrats in 2016.
“Speculation. You don’t see me out there doing that,” Locke said, laughing at the occasional Internet chatter about his political future.
Locke, 64, said he’s in talks to become an adviser or corporate board member with several U.S. companies looking to expand business in China — and with Chinese companies that want to do business here.
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“China has enormous needs and challenges and with those are great opportunities for American companies to sell American-made goods and services,” Locke said. “Those are the types of win-win opportunities that I’m looking for.”
Looking relaxed and fit — he recently was featured on the cover of the Chinese edition of Men’s Health magazine in a tight black T-shirt — Locke said being called a “rotten banana” by a major Chinese government news service near the end of his ambassadorship, was “in some ways, a badge of honor.”
The racial slur, which denigrated Locke for loyalty to America despite his Chinese-American heritage, was hurled in a February editorial. The piece also slammed Locke for failing to speak Mandarin and even tried to blame Beijing’s notorious smog on him.
Those attacks came after Locke’s farewell news conference, in which he focused on human rights, and urged China to back away from its arrests of peaceful political activists and journalists.
Such sentiments by Chinese nationalists were “something we’ve seen from time to time, so it wasn’t unexpected,” Locke said. “But what was really great was the backlash, immediate backlash from the Chinese public who expressed outrage and embarrassment over the article.”
Elected governor of Washington in 1996, Locke was the first Chinese-American governor in the U.S., and he was greeted as a celebrity by crowds of spectators when he visited his ancestral village in 1997.
But as ambassador, Locke stirred resentment among some Chinese officials when the blind Chinese civil-rights activist Chen Guangcheng was sheltered by the U.S. Embassy after escaping from house arrest in spring 2012. Guangcheng later was allowed to emigrate to the U.S.
Overall, Locke said he’s optimistic about U.S.-China relations because despite some tensions, the two countries are more economically linked than ever before.
Among the Chinese people, Locke said “there is a hunger, a desire for things made in America, and a great kinship for Americans.”
Locke said he resigned as ambassador for family reasons. His wife, former TV newscaster Mona Locke, had returned to Seattle last year. Two of their children are now in high school and Locke said he wanted stability for them. Their third child is in third grade.
Known as a number cruncher and policy wonk, Locke, an attorney, started his political career by being elected to the Legislature in 1982, representing South Seattle’s 37th District. He was elected King County executive in 1993 and governor just three years later.
After two terms as governor, Locke worked for a private law firm, but stayed active in politics. In 2008, he was co-chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in Washington.
He was tapped as Commerce Secretary by President Obama in 2009 after two previous nominees bowed out. He was named ambassador to China in 2011.
Although he has no plans to seek office himself, Locke said he’ll remain involved.
“I’m a political animal. I love public policy. I’m a political junkie,” he said. “I’m going to help out on the presidential campaign for sure.”
Despite Locke’s pooh-poohing of his prospects of joining a presidential ticket, former state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said he wouldn’t be surprised if Locke’s name comes up again.
“He’s been vetted. He’s got this tremendous positive image,” Berendt said, adding that Locke might deliver a strong Asian-American vote for Democrats in 2016. But, he cautioned, “at this stage of the game this is all just talk.”
Locke said he’s proud of his accomplishments as ambassador, pointing to vastly shortened wait times for Chinese businesspeople and tourists seeking U.S. visas and to a vast surge in investment by Chinese firms in the U.S.
Daniel Rosen, a partner with the Rhodium Group, a New York-based consulting company that tracks Chinese investments, called Locke’s visa fixes his “signature achievement.”
“I can’t overstate what a problem that was on the day he arrived in Beijing,” Rosen said.
The wait times for getting visa interviews went from several weeks to just days after Locke reorganized embassy schedules and staff.
The trend toward increased investment in the U.S. by Chinese firms started before Locke, but Rosen credited him with encouraging Chinese companies.
Direct Chinese investment in the U.S. reached a record $14 billion last year, according to a Rhodium Group report. For the first time, those investments outstripped investments by U.S. firms in China.
Locke said that’s a huge opportunity for states like Washington to attract new manufacturing facilities from Chinese companies. He said other states have been ahead of Washington on soliciting such investment.
“We’re a little bit behind, and Governor (Jay) Inslee knows that, and so do various trade organizations in Washington state,” Locke said.
He said the state and trade groups have begun to step up their efforts.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com On Twitter @Jim_Brunner