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The six finalists seemed to have more to do with the commissioners’ own political positioning for the races in 2013, when John Creighton, Tom Albro, and the two vacancies are on the ballot, than in finding a really worthy new member. The current board, four men, three from Seattle (John Creighton lives in Bellevue), felt the need to have a woman, so all six finalists are women. They wanted to fend off the Seattle-centric criticism, so while three of the finalists live in Seattle, they all have clear suburban connections. My suspicion is that the two commissioners most likely to face tough races in 2013 (Holland before his decision to resign and Creighton) didn’t want to validate strong challengers by putting them in the list of finalists. (They may rue that insult.)
A famous quip by former Port Commissioner Pat Davis observed that the Port Commissioner's job “is not a springboard, but a gang plank.” (Rob Holland is the latest illustration.) If it is usually a political dead end, it is also a tough job to get. You have to run a county-wide campaign, raising at least $100,000 for the race. In the case of the Tarleton vacancy, you have to run in 2013 and again in 2015. You have no staff to help you assess the very staff-driven Port business. Special interests (labor, shippers) exert heavy influence in these little-noticed races with low vote counts. Sensitive to criticism about junkets, you have to post all your expenses on the Port website, and you can’t even fly those long trips to Asia in business class.
The result was a fairly weak bunch of applicants and an even weaker group of finalists. Some, such as Stephanie Bowman, Nancy Wyatt, Claudia Kauffman and Vicki Orrico, may not be looking for a springboard, but at least a way to bounce back from recent electoral defeats. Courtney Gregoire, the former governor’s daughter, is an intriguing new political figure, but she has a fulltime job as a Microsoft attorney and a brand new baby. Few look like they could hit the ground running, as the commission wanted, or even mount a very good campaign for election in the coming fall. The likely picks, according to insiders, are Bowman with her experience at the Port of Tacoma and broad political backing, and Gregoire, with her winning name to help in raising money and winning votes. Orrico, a dynamic pro-transit planner who has sought a seat on the Bellevue City Council, is another possible choice.
Ideally, the Port, which is a hugely important business in the region and for the state, would draw people with civic stature and the time to really work at the job. The Port is very much run by its powerful CEO and a large, protective staff. The commission largely tends to provide political cover, diplomatic schmoozing and deciding when a new CEO needs to be hired. On occasion, a commissioner such as Paul Schell or Paige Miller is able to think about long-term strategy.
Such strategic vision is badly needed. The Port is being squeezed out by all the commercial growth and rising land costs in Seattle, with ports in Tacoma, Vancouver, B.C. and Prince Rupert, B.C., ready to pick up the shippers Seattle loses. Other regions tend to create broad, combined ports, but Tacoma is far too suspicious of Seattle and far too wary of King County politics to be a dance partner. Jan Drago suggests the idea of a five-port Port of Puget Sound (Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Everett, and Bellingham), arguing that diluting Seattle’s voting strength this way could lull Tacoma into joining. (Dream on!) As it is, Seattle cultivates the big Asian shippers, brings them to Seattle, and then watches land-rich Tacoma steal them away by undercutting Seattle's leases.
Seattle’s high land values mean that shipping in Seattle has to be subsidized. That creates the dilemma of where you get the money for all the capital improvements ports need. Particularly costly cities need to stay ahead of the competition by expensive upgrades for greater productivity on valuable land, but where is Seattle supposed to get that money, particularly with the Port of Seattle unpopular with the voters?
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