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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

May 15, 2009 at 2:25 PM

Locke and loaded: The new Commerce secretary’s full plate

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke returned to Washington today for a ceremony marking the rebuilt Terminal 30 at the Port of Seattle. He joined officials from the port, China Shipping — including its president Li Shaode — SSA and Matson. The terminal will handle expanded China Shipping container service. The terminal had accommodated cruise ships until they relocated to Smith Cove.

The former Washington governor noted that the reconfigured terminal will create 1,000 new jobs. “But,” he said, “let’s be clear that these ships need to be full not only coming into the port, but also leaving the port.”

He went on: “As we strengthen our trade relationship with China, it is important that we — as all good friends must from time to time — offer constructive advice.”

Locke’s advice was that increasing U.S. exports to China, “not limiting our imports from China — is the best way to address our two countries’ unsustainable trade imbalance. I also believe the Chinese understand that the current imbalance is not in their long-term interests.”

He encouraged China to avoid unfair trading practices, saying “We are committed to strong enforcement of our trade laws, improving market access for U.S. companies in the China market and ensuring that China complies with its international trade obligations.”

Later, in an interview, he told me that one of his most important tasks is bringing the services of the Commerce Department “to Main Street,” not just big companies. It’s especially imperative in such a serious downturn.

“I know so many entrepreneurs who are struggling just to get out the payroll,” he said. “They’re just beat, tired.” He said he’ll push to make it easier for small- and medium-sized companies to get help from Commerce, including in identifying export opportunities.

Locke knows he’s facing new protectionist sentiment, especially in the hard-hit Midwest. But he argues that the focus must be on making American companies stronger. “We can have a win-win” in the global market.

Locke’s portfolio is huge, ranging from helping business to running the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census. He’ll also be spearheading new standards to jump start American entrepreneurship in alternative energy, environmental cleanup, etc.

He’s still not sure about the weather in “the other Washington.” He grimaced when I warned him of the Southern summer on the way.

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