Port candidate: $25,000 to GOP, $0 to Dems ... but he's not partisan
Bill Bryant, candidate for Seattle Port Commission, recently quoted Barack Obama in a campaign letter emailed to Democratic activists. I asked him about this in a phone conversation this morning. I'm a Democrat, I explained, and I'd read an email from a Democratic Party leader that pointed out he'd made significant campaign contributions to Republicans. Was he trying to present himself as a Democrat? Bryant responded that the position he sought was non-partisan and that this characterization of his donations was a case of "cherrypicking", of comparing $1,400 given one side with $1,000 given to the other. After our conversation, I searched the WA Public Disclosure Commission and the Federal Elections Commission databases and verified that he has contributed $25,750* to Republican candidates since 1999. I found no personal contributions to Democratic candidates. A single $1,000 contribution to the Gregoire campaign was made by his company less than 2 weeks before the election. This summary appears in a table at the end of this story.
The Port of Seattle (POS) collects a property levy in King County of 23.17 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value. That's a projected $68 million in 2007. In contrast, Portland, Tacoma, and Vancouver, WA each collect less than $10 million per year. Port of Seattle Commissioner Alec Fisken tells us that, with the exception of these three ports, "most large ports in North America do not collect any taxes. In fact, most contribute money to their communities in the form of taxes or other payments."
Bill Bryant co-founder and chairman of Bryant Christie, Inc., is challenging Fisken. When I spoke with him this morning I asked why. Bryant replied that he wants to "provide some strong leadership" on cleaning up Elliott Bay and attracting and maintaining family wage jobs at the Port. Is Mr. Fisken not providing that leadership, I asked? In answer, he repeated his campaign priorities. "Mr. Bryant," I said (as I had received this campaign summary to several questions already), "I feel in this conversation, well I feel as if I'm being managed." We both laughed and Mr. Bryant explained that his campaign is just getting organized and he looks forward to discussing the issues in more depth over the summer. I followed up with a call to incumbent Alec Fisken, an active opponent of the property tax levy, and asked him why he thought Mr. Bryant was challenging him. He answered my question directly.
'I believe that the root of these isses', Fisken said, 'is the levy. I have consistently supported a phase-out of the levy and this is threatening to the companies that profit from it.'
In 2005 a PAC called Citizens for a Healthy Economy (CHE) formed to oppose Jack Jolley, who was challenging Port Commissioner Pat Davis. Jolley supported a phase-out of the levy and Pat Davis has fought to maintain it. Fisken believes that the same interests behind CHE are also backing Bill Bryant. What leads you to that conclusion, I asked. Fisken replied that several pro-levy people had told him directly that they were looking for someone to challenge him, including Mic Dinsmore, the former CEO of the Port. At least two of the donors to Bill Bryant's campaign, Columbia Hospitality and Jim Blackmore, which each gave $5,000 to CHE in 2005 have donated to Bryant so far, $500 and $1,000, respectively. He expects more of the CHE donors to appear on future campaign disclosure reports and estimates that at least another $100,000 will be coming into the Bryant campaign from these sources.
The levy on King County properties has been a matter of public discussion since the 2005 port race. An emerging consensus is that the levy is unique nationwide in its size and that it benefits big business but does not truly serve the public interest. Do you think, I asked Mr. Fisken, that if you stay in office and one more Port Comissioner who opposes the levy is elected, that we are likely to see it lifted? Each of the Port Commissioners is very individual, Fisken said. It's difficult to say that there’s a block in either direction. But if Bob Edwards were defeated by one of his challengers, it's likely that we would see a substantial push from the commission to lift that levy.
Alec Fisken is known as a advocate for labor, environment, and for greater public accountability in the operations of the Port, which has been widely criticized for lavish capital improvement projects, secrecy, great friendliness to big business, and less than kind behavior to labor and workers.
A History of Secrecy and Poor Management of Public Assets
In 1990, before privatization, The Seattle Times reported, SSA and the Port moved together to eliminate "SSA's only marine terminal competitor from the waterfront, according to a $10 million complaint" by Seacon Terminals Inc. In 2001, SSA and the Port teamed up again and without, public input, privatized the maintenance of the cranes with a no-bid 30-year lease in order to fund a $300 million expansion and improvement of Terminal 18 on Harbor Island, the company's home. O. Casey Corr of The Seattle Times reported on this deal, noting that the expenditure was "the rough equivalent of a new Mariner stadium or what the Seattle Public Schools will spend on capital needs through 2001."
At the last minute, labor interests discovered the plan and forced a public hearing. Later, they alleged that the Port commissioners made a number of contradictory statements on the financial status of the cranes at the meeting. A reported 37 workers lost their jobs. The no-bid privatization was sold as a move that would make the Port of Seattle more competetive with other Ports. The Port has not been gaining market share, however. A November, 2006 article in the Puget Sound Business Journal reports that in the previous year, Port of Seattle's volume had decreased 4.7 percent, Tacoma's had increased .4 percent, and Port of Vancouver had increased 26 percent.
Secrecy, poor management, and generous no-bid business deals that are stingy on the public interest, persist. A December, 2006 PI investigative article, Lax Oversight at Port of Seattle details sweetheart deals, lost public opportunity and resources, and some apparent connection with Citizens for a Healthy Economy, the group that Mr. Fisken believes is connected with support for Bill Bryant.
I agree with Alec Fisken, as I understood him, that William Bryant's campaign is probably largely driven and fueled by CHE interests that are focused on maintaining the status quo at the Port. Mr. Bryant, who gave a small donation to counter Initiative 933 and is a board member of the Nisqually River Council, no doubt genuinely desires to work for the protection of Elliott Bay. And perhaps he's an admirer of Barack Obama and didn't intend any misrepresentation in his campaign letter. Perhaps he does not know the long and, I think, sad and sordid, history of the relationships between self-serving business interests and the Port of Seattle. But my conversation with him was not reassuring to me. I believe he was less than forthright with me when he characterized a focus on his Republican donations as a form of cherrypicking. His history of political contributions shows that he is a devoted Republican, although he didn't want to admit that to me. I'm voting for Alec Fisken, in fact I just sent him a donation. Take a look at his list of his accomplishments. Mr. Fisken needs to return to the Port and needs the company of at least one more public-minded Commissioner so this agency can be brought in line with the public interest.
*Corrections were made to this number based on readers' comments. Thanks to Willis Reed and Steve Zemke. Other minor corrections have been made in this piece.