June 3, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Obama overlooks gay nominees in pick for commerce secretary

President Obama overlooked gay potential nominees in his choice for commerce secretary (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Obama’s recent announcement of his pick for the next commerce secretary is inspiring feelings ranging from disappointment to excitement among advocates who were seeking an openly LGBT person to take the position.

On Tuesday, Obama declared his intent to nominate as his next commerce secretary John Bryson — a businessman with decades of experience who was most recently CEO of Edison International. Upon Senate confirmation, Bryson will replace Gary Locke, who’s leaving the role of commerce secretary to become U.S. ambassador to China.

“I am pleased to nominate John Bryson to be our nation’s secretary of commerce, as he understands what it takes for America to succeed in a 21st century global economy,” Obama said in a statement. “John will be an important part of my economic team, working with the business community, fostering growth and helping open up new markets abroad to promote jobs and opportunities here at home.”

But advocates were hoping Obama would take the opportunity of having an opening in his Cabinet to nominate an openly LGBT person as commerce secretary. Such an appointment would have been a milestone because no openly LGBT person has ever been nominated to a Cabinet position.

Fred Hochberg, the gay president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, was seen as a potential contender for the nomination. Former Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, now an expert on trade issues at the German Marshall Fund, was also been named as a potential nominee.

Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, is among those expressing discontent with the decision and said an openly gay Cabinet member would have lent critical perspective to the Obama administration.

Socarides said the choice of Bryson for commerce secretary may be an excellent one, but he’s “disappointed overall” with the lack of openly LGBT advisers in the Cabinet or the White House senior staff.

“I think it’s essential that this president, or any president, have someone very senior on his team who can give him direct and uncensored advice on the most important civil rights issues of our time,” Socarides said. “Right now he does not have that, and I think it’s a problem.”

Notable openly gay appointees working in the Obama administration are John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and Brian Bond, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. But Socarides, a former adviser of LGBT issues to President Clinton, said neither of these appointees fit the bill because they don’t serve in Cabinet or in the senior White House staff.

“We’ve seen a lot of progress in these last two years, so I don’t mean this in a overly critical way, but I think it continues to be extremely important, as I said, that he have someone in the Cabinet or on the senior White House staff who’s openly gay, who’s responsible for LGBT rights issues,” Socarides said. “It’s not the case, nor has it been the case since [Obama] has been president, and I think it continues to be a serious weakness.”

A White House spokesperson declined to comment on whether Obama missed an opportunity by not nominating an openly LGBT person to the position of commerce secretary.

Other LGBT organizations praised Obama for the nomination of Bryson and said opportunities remain for the president to appoint an openly LGBT person to his Cabinet.

Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, said the Senate should work to confirm Bryson as soon as possible.

“The NGLCC will continue working closely with the department and the new secretary to ensure the voices of an estimated 1.4 million LGBT business owners are heard,” Nelson said.

Asked whether Obama missed an opportunity by not selecting an openly LGBT person for the position, Nelson replied, “I believe there will be amble opportunity for President Obama to nominate an openly LGBT person to a Cabinet-level position by the end of his second term.”

Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, predicted that Obama will nominate an openly LGBT person to a Cabinet-level in the future as he noted the president has appointed a record of LGBT people to his administration.

“The unprecedented number of LGBT Americans appointed by President Obama to work in his administration are giving voice to our community throughout the federal government,” Dison said. “When this president appoints an out cabinet secretary it will shatter another glass ceiling for LGBT people.”

According to the Associated Press, by the end of last year President Obama had appointed more than 150 openly LGBT people to his administration.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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