One of the Puget Sound region’s most important institutions is having an election for three out of five seats this November, and most people don’t know who is running or even that they have a vote.
Yet, if you live in King County, you get to vote for Port of Seattle commissioners. They make up the board of directors for a local governmental agency with a $700 million operating fund and more than $500 million in capital projects budgeted in 2021. And unlike other local governments, the port district must compete in an international marketplace.
The port is a hub for Pacific Rim cargo imports and the link to foreign markets for products made and grown in Washington state as well as the Midwest. Its Seattle-Tacoma International Airport continues to add destinations and connect us to points and people around the world.
The Port of Seattle is one of the region’s most important generators of economic activity and environmental restoration — having spent $185 million in the last decade on remediating contaminated soils, removing asbestos, and restoring habitat at the airport and seaport and expects to spend hundreds of millions more in the future in the Duwamish River Valley.
For these reasons, this election is important — and not just for those of us in the logistics, maritime and manufacturing industries. It’s not too far-fetched to say all of our jobs in some way depend upon a well-functioning and competitive airport and seaport.
Voters should read their voters pamphlet and not skip these important down-ballot choices, which many of them do. In the 2019 King County elections, voters returned 645,685 ballots but more than 100,000 of them left the port races blank.
For the sake of our region, it is vital that we elect people who will continue to focus on the core business of the airport and seaport, making long-term investments to ensure a strong economy and environment while not succumbing to short-term political and economic pressures. That’s a difficult task for elected officials in these times.
So, what is happening with the port elections this year?
If those of us in the logistics and port industry were hoping to avoid participating in the political fight within the Democratic Party, well, better luck next time. Port Commission races have become proxy wars for who controls the Democratic Party in our region — moderate Democrats or far-left progressives. While the energy in this election is focused on the Port of Seattle, commission elections at the Port of Tacoma may not be far behind.
Perhaps most worrisome is the impact a newly comprised Seattle port commission could have on the sustainability of the Northwest Seaport Alliance. That partnership between the two ports allows them to compete more strongly with Canadian ports and other North American port gateways.
For now, if one wants proof of the difference between port commission races in Seattle and Tacoma, just follow the money. Both commissions have three seats up for grabs. The total campaign cash raised in Seattle is $688,703, while the total in Tacoma is only $58,749.
The Port of Seattle races have, for the first time, attracted the attention of Congress. U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has taken a personal interest in two races — for Position 3 currently held by Stephanie Bowman and Position 4 by Peter Steinbrueck.
Bowman’s challenger is a former Jayapal staffer, Hamdi Mohamed. Steinbrueck’s challenger is Toshiko Hasegawa, the daughter of state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, a progressive.
Even U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate, has waded in. He also endorsed both Position 3 and 4 challengers as well as Seattle Mayoral candidate M. Lorena González, who is running to the left as a progressive against the moderate Democrat, Bruce Harrell. It is hard to believe that the Vermont senator would get involved in a local port commission race in Washington state without the urging of his colleague in Congress.
Besides the unusual national interest in these races, there is also a problem we have seen before: candidates talking about a desire for the port to do more on issues that the agency has no jurisdiction over or responsibility for. Whether it is building affordable housing, high-speed rail or other social issues that may have merit, those things are the purview of general-purpose government, not a special-purpose government with economic development as its core responsibility. There is a natural desire for any elected officials to be part of a story on the front page of the newspaper. For Port commissioners, they may see involvement in these issues as the only way to create opportunities for their next elective office. But the Seattle Port Commission has rarely been a launchpad for successful political careers.
A former commissioner may have said it best: “The job has not been a springboard but a gang plank.”
In recent memory, only two commissioners have gone on to other elective office: Paul Schell, who became mayor of Seattle, and Gael Tarleton, who became an influential Democratic state representative. But Schell ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 1977, became a fixture in city government and then became a port commissioner before becoming mayor in 1998.
There is really one major reason this dynamic is in place: Commissioners must sometimes make decisions that are best for the port and the region but terrible for themselves politically. The clearest example of this was the provisioning of the Shell offshore oil drilling rig at Terminal 5 in 2015. A more recent example this summer involved activists demanding a blockade of a ship owned by an Israeli company. And there will be many more occurrences like these in the future.
But at their core, ports build infrastructure, lease it out, and create good family wage jobs.
An activist who becomes a Port commissioner can be in for a painful experience when they have to take positions their friends don’t like. And when you layer the ideological battle for the Democratic Party and nationalized port races onto that conundrum, how can dysfunction and disappointment not follow?
Most observers believe the partnership between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle in the Northwest Seaport Alliance is a good thing — including this year’s challengers. But it is hard to know how this year’s port commission elections will alter the Port of Seattle Commission and how that in turn impacts the Alliance. It is something that should warrant careful consideration by everyone — and not just those of us in the maritime and port logistics industry.