President Obama on Tuesday nominated former Edison International Chairman and Chief Executive John E. Bryson to be Commerce Secretary, tapping an environmental lawyer-turned-corporate executive in hopes of reaching out to a business community that has been critical of the administration.
If confirmed by the Senate, Bryson, 67, would replace Gary Locke, the former governor of Washington who was nominated in March to be the new ambassador to China.
Bryson is best known for having headed Edison International, parent company of the Southern California Edison electric utility, during the state’s electricity market meltdown in 2000-01. The crisis, which led to rolling blackouts in the state, pushed the utility to the brink of bankruptcy before the state helped save it.
He hit the company’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in retired in 2008 and stepped down after 24 years with the company, including a stint as chief executive of Southern California Edison from 1984 to 1990. Bryson had been chief executive since 1990.
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.
A graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School, Bryson was a co-founder in 1970 of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group. He pushed numerous green initiatives at Edison International, which Obama highlighted in his announcement. Developing clean energy sources, he said, is key to achieving his goal of doubling the nation’s exports.
“That’s how we’ll reduce our dependence on foreign oil and that’s how we’ll encourage new businesses and jobs to take root on our shores. John understands this better than virtually anybody,” Obama said.
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Bryson a “visionary leader in promoting a clean environment and a strong economy.”
“He has long recognized the benefits of efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and he understands the critical need for us to continue investing in them,” she said.
Bryson has strong ties to the business community. He serves on the board of directors of two of the nation’s most well-known companies, Boeing Co. and Walt Disney Co.
In 2004, Roy E. Disney targeted Bryson along with two other board members and former Disney Chairman Michael Eisner. Roy Disney said the four board members “symbolize, respectively, the poor management, poor governance, poor compensation practices ... that are impeding the development of long-term shareholder value.”
Roy Disney urged shareholders to oppose the reelection of Eisner, Bryson and the other board members. The effort failed, although about 45% of the shares voted at Disney’s 2004 stockholders meeting were withheld from Eisner, and 24% from 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 in 1976-79. 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.
Shortly before Obama announced Bryson’s nomination, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office reiterated Republicans’ threat to block all administration nominations until the president acts on pending trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea.
Michael A. Memoli of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.