Obama Picks John Bryson to be Next Commerce Secretary

Do richly retired utility executives make good commerce secretaries?

By nominating former Edison International executive John E. Bryson to be his next Commerce secretary, President Obama continued his outreach to a business community that has been critical of his administration.

Bryson, 67, spent nearly a quarter of a century at the Rosemead power company – including 18 years as its chief executive – before stepping down in 2008. He is best known for being at the helm during California’s electricity crisis in 2000-01, which nearly bankrupted the company’s Southern California Edison electric utility.

But it’s Bryson’s earlier history as an environmental lawyer and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council that could cause problems for a Senate confirmation that already faces hurdles.

Nearly all Senate Republicans had promised in March to block any Commerce secretary nominee in a dispute with the White House over three pending foreign trade agreements and retraining assistance to U.S. workers whose jobs move abroad.

And while Bryson’s environmental background and history of green initiatives at Edison International drew praise Tuesday from environmental groups and Democrats, they didn’t sit well with some Republicans.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, derided Bryson as a "green evangelist." And Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) vowed to try to block Bryson’s confirmation.

"He is a founder of a radical environmental organization and a member of a United Nations advisory group on climate change," Inhofe said. "I will be working actively to defeat this nomination."

If confirmed by the Senate, Bryson would replace Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the former governor of Washington who was nominated in March to be ambassador to China. Bryson would help take the lead on Obama’s push to double U.S. exports in five years.

His nomination Tuesday was surprising. Bryson had been considered for Energy secretary when Obama assembled his Cabinet in late 2008, but had not been mentioned as a possible replacement for Locke. Attention had been focused on higher-profile figures, such as Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt, who has been a strong Obama supporter.

Although Bryson has extensive corporate ties, sitting on the boards of Walt Disney Co. and Boeing Co., Edison is not a major exporter. But Bryson served on the Boeing board for five years with White House Chief of Staff William Daley.

Obama on Tuesday touted Bryson’s experience with alternative energy as a key to helping boost U.S. exports.

"Throughout a distinguished career in which he’s led nonprofits, government agencies and large companies, he’s been a fierce proponent of alternative energy," Obama said as he announced the nomination at the White House with Bryson and Locke at his side.

Richard E. Ayres, another Natural Resources Defense Council co-founder who is now a Washington attorney, said Bryson has "long and broad experience."

"He worked with a wide variety of interests from the corporate boardroom to environmental groups, and he’s widely viewed as sound and sensible," Ayres said. "He has the ability to speak to everybody."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Bryson’s nomination a positive response.

"With his extensive knowledge of the private sector and years of experience successfully running a major company, we hope Mr. Bryson will be a strong voice for American businesses," said the group’s president, Thomas J. Donohue.

Bryson served as chief executive of Southern California Edison from 1984 to 1990 and was CEO of the utility’s parent company from 1990 until he stepped down in 2008.

Consumer advocates criticized his retirement package, which included a pension plan and stock options valued at almost $65 million at the time. They also criticized his annual compensation in the wake of the California electricity crisis, something that could be uncomfortable for the Obama administration, which has railed against excessive Wall Street pay and bonuses.

"Unfortunately, many utility executive have gotten exorbitant retirement packages, and he’s one of them," Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based ratepayer advocacy group, said about Bryson.

Bryson has government experience. He served as president of the California Public Utilities Commission from 1979 to 1982 and as head of the California State Water Resources Control Board from 1976 to 1979.

And Bryson has been active politically, contributing about $71,000 to federal candidates and Edison’s political action committee since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of his direct contributions went to Democrats, including $2,400 to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California in 2009 and $1,000 to President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.

But Bryson has given to several Republicans over the years, including President George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992 and former California Gov. Pete Wilson’s presidential bid in 1995.