March 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Tongues wagging over gay Cabinet member

An upcoming vacancy in the White House cabinet has tongues wagging in the LGBT community over whether President Obama will make history by appointing an openly gay commerce secretary.

Last week, Obama announced his nomination of current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to become U.S. ambassador to China. Provided he meets the 60-vote threshold to receive Senate confirmation, the vacancy created by Locke’s departure would create the opportunity for the appointment of an openly LGBT person to his former role.

The nomination of an openly LGBT person to the position of commerce secretary would be historic because no openly LGBT person has ever been nominated for a cabinet-level position.

Justin Nelson, president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, said the appointment of an openly LGBT commerce secretary would be fantastic and bolster the relationship that already exists between the Commerce Department and LGBT people.

“I think it would only seek to strengthen that relationship and mean a lot for not only LGBT-owned businesses, but businesses in general,” Nelson said.

Nelson noted that Locke signed a memorandum of understanding with NGLCC to collaborate on key department initiatives, which will remain in effect for five years. Among other things, the partnership helps promote contracting opportunities for LGBT-owned small businesses with the U.S. government.

Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, also said the nomination of an openly LGBT person to the role of commerce secretary would be significant for the Obama administration.

“I think it would be an important first for there to be an openly gay cabinet member, and I think President Obama, while he’s president, should definitely try to make that happen,” Socarides said.

But Socarides added the LGBT community is “a little bit beyond the politics of appointments” and said nominating an openly LGBT commerce secretary would be less significant than other actions Obama could take.

The LGBT community would be better served, Socarides said, by the appointment of an LGBT person within the president’s circle of close advisers, where he or she could have an important impact on LGBT issues.

“I would love to see a gay cabinet member, but I think it’s more important that President Obama put somebody at the White House with seniority in charge of LGBT policy issues,” Socarides said.

The Presidential Appointments Project, a Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund-led initiative, has been pushing for the appointment of openly LGBT officials within the Obama administration. The Victory Fund declined to comment for this article.

Fred Hochberg, who’s gay and director of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, has emerged at the top of the list of LGBT business experts who could fill the role of commerce secretary.

Hochberg, who has a background in business management and once served as deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration, was cited in 2009 as a contender for the position of commerce secretary when it was first open in the Obama administration.

Socarides said Hochberg is a solid contender for the position because he’s close to the president and “extremely well qualified.”

“Fred is perpetually on the list of people who would be a good commerce secretary because he’s part of the Democratic establishment, he’s served and been confirmed before and he has a stellar business background,” Socarides said. “He certainly, I’m sure, would be on anybody’s short list.”

Nelson also said Hochberg would be a fantastic choice for the position of commerce secretary because of his previous work in the administration.

“The work that he’s done at the Export-Import Bank and his commitment to helping build exports for the next five years has been a huge help to the president and the administration,” Nelson said. “Certainly, his understanding of business and commerce would serve the president well.”

Phil Cogan, an Export-Import Bank spokesperson, said Hochberg would be happy to engage in any position the president asks him to fill during the course of the Obama administration.

“He’s honored to have the job he has now, but he would serve the administration in any way that he’s asked to,” Cogan said.

Another openly gay contender for the position of commerce secretary could be Jim Kolbe, a former Republican congressman from Arizona. An expert on trade, Kolbe left Congress and now works as a fellow at the German-Marshall Fund, where he has specialized in trans-Atlantic trade issues.

Jim Kolbe (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Nelson counted Kolbe as among those who could fit the bill for commerce secretary.

“He has a firm understanding of policy,” Nelson said. “Certainly having served on the board of Export-Import Bank, having served in Congress and his work on behalf of the business and the LGBT community would make him another excellent choice.”

Kolbe endorsed Republican presidential nominee John McCain during the 2008 election, which could work against him in winning a position within the Obama administration.

Kolbe told the Blade it is highly unlikely he is under consideration for the post.

Potential openly gay nominees would have to compete with a handful of other high-profile contenders for the position. According to Bloomberg News, those who are under consideration are former Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Ron Kirk, a U.S. trade representative who has undertaken a leading role in pressing the Obama administration’s trade agenda.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, wouldn’t rule out that the president would nominate an openly LGBT person as commerce secretary.

“The president will consider a range of qualified candidates, but we are at a very early stage in the process and no decisions have been made,” Inouye said.

Whatever the sexual orientation of the next commerce secretary, LGBT rights supporters maintain the new official could take action that would benefit LGBT Americans as a whole.

Socarides said an important role for the commerce secretary would be to bolster efforts for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to protect LGBT Americans in the workplace.

“The commerce secretary should be a strong advocate for ENDA,” Socarides said. “ENDA is about basic fairness in American business and the only way we’re going to get that bill through the Congress is if business advocates for it, especially this Congress, which seems very focused on doing what’s right by and for business.”

Socarides said the commerce secretary ought to point out that an increasing number of companies on the Fortune 500 list have non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation because it makes them more competitive in the marketplace.

Similarly, Nelson said the next commerce secretary should promote legislation in Congress that would eliminate the federal tax paid on employer-provided health coverage extended to LGBT workers with same-sex partners. In the previous Congress, the bill was known as the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act.

“That’s something that should be common sense whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether you’re gay or straight,” Nelson said. “The fact of the matter is, for small businesses in particular, it’s a real burden to have that additional tax to offer domestic health care benefits.”

But Nelson said the next commerce secretary should fit the mold of Locke and understand generally the importance of business to the economy.

For example, Nelson said the official should support tax credits to allow small businesses to invest in infrastructure and promote international trade opportunities.

“It doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is, what your sexual orientation or gender identity is, when it comes to business, it means we’re here to help the American economy and help folks like many LGBT businesses that are a part of this small-business engine that’s getting our economy back on track,” Nelson said.

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

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