Editor’s Note: Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant says he is “strongly considering” a run for governor in 2016. The Wire plans to periodically profile potential candidates for statewide and legislative offices as they get closer to making a decision. Bryant sat down for an interview Thursday afternoon in Olympia.
Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant is partly through a discussion of the legislative breakdowns that have held up a transportation package the last two years when he stops himself. He realizes he just said, “There are no Democratic or Republican roads,” and that he just sounded an awful lot like Dan Evans.
Bryant, who had the former governor and U.S. Senator chair his first campaign for port commissioner, acknowledges the term “Dan Evans Republican” is easy to apply to him. Bryant doesn’t think government should impede on people’s personal rights, hence his support for upholding abortion rights and gay marriage, and believes state government can support economic growth, mend the environment and improve the public school system. So the label fits, if you want it. But Bryant hopes you don’t.
“Too often politicians use those labels to force people into camps,” Bryant says. “You don’t create enduring change by being divisive. You only create enduring change by pulling people together, and that has to transcend labels.”
Washington is a predominantly moderate to left-leaning state. You could describe most of the GOP’s gubernatorial tickets over the last 30 years as moderate to center-right Republicans — Ellen Craswell being a notable exception — because the math to get a candidate elected has always been based on King County’s voters. Only two Republicans have held the governor’s mansion in the last 50 years, Evans and John Spellman, and both hailed from King County.
Bryant has run countywide as port commissioner there twice and won twice, albeit in down-ballot, off-year races that don’t often command a lot of attention or turnout. The first time, in 2007, he took a nudge over 50 percent of the votes in unseating an incumbent commissioner. His last re-election campaign, in 2011, saw him take over 60 percent.
That’s worth 15 legislative districts and about a third of the statewide vote total, Bryant notes. It stretches from rural areas in Enumclaw to the poorest zip codes in Seattle and the state’s wealthiest on the east side of Lake Washington.
“You have to represent all of them, and that’s not easy,” Bryant says. “You have to go out and listen to all of these voices.”
A gubernatorial campaign dictates a statewide focus, however, and Bryant says he believes he has that background as executive director of the state’s Trade Council under Spellman and later former Gov. Booth Gardner, as founder of a consultancy firm that focuses on government affairs and trade policy, and now as an elected official representing the state’s second-largest port, based on trade volumes.
Bryant was born in Morton, grew up on the shores of Hood Canal and Olympia, and has lived in Yakima; he now calls Seattle home. He graduated from Georgetown University after studying international affairs.
He would have to take on a well-funded, tough incumbent in Gov. Jay Inslee to accomplish something no one has done since 1984, when Gardner ousted Spellman: successfully challenge a sitting governor. But Bryant says he sees vulnerabilities, chiefly in the lack of progress in funding transportation.
Highway projects from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma to the Kent area sit unfinished, as does a project in Snohomish County that would connect the Port of Everett to Interstate 5, among several others throughout the state. The ports consider the highway expansion projects crucial to moving larger amounts of trade.
Inslee isn’t ignoring transportation; the $12 billion transportation package he laid out in December funds the state’s major projects, but relies on revenue from a possible cap-and-trade program as well as debt and fee increases to do so.
That’s where Bryant sees divisive politics. The cap-and-trade proposal is maligned by Republicans. Bryant, who considers himself an environmental pragmatist and supports environmental cleanup of Puget Sound, warned against pursing what he calls a “huge initiative” that makes “great headlines, that are symbolic.” Bryant, who served on former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Connecting Washington Task Force, says he’d rather focus a proposal more squarely on accomplishing the goals of fixing and expanding the highways.
“We need to maintain what we’ve got and finish what we’ve started,” Bryant said.
Inslee’s staff, obviously, see it differently. In pressing so hard for a carbon-emissions policy, the governor has effectively forced debate, and thus negotiation, on issues such as climate change, which hardly registered as a blip on the Legislature’s radar several years ago.
“There has been a breakthrough, though, and that’s that we’ve reached a point where we all agree that climate change is a problem,” Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith wrote in an email earlier this month. “The discussion is no longer about if we have a problem, but how to solve it. A detailed proposal will come with praise and criticism alike and the governor welcomes the discussion.”
Bryant can be considered two things definitively: a trade expert, and an outside-Olympia presence. Bryant got his start in politics as press secretary for the Congressional campaign of a southwest Washington Senator, J.T. Quigg, in the early 1980s. Quigg lost but hired Bryant as a staffer for a subsequent legislative session. Bryant got an upfront view of the legislative process, and learned the importance of building coalitions.
“It was very good to see how the Legislature worked from the inside,” Bryant said. “It is not enough to have a big enough idea if your idea is just thrown out there. You’ve got to have the ability to build a coalition.”
Building coalitions is a key focal point for Bryant, particularly in a state that’s so heavily reliant on export markets as Washington is. The state has to compete not just with Oregon or British Columbia, but with other international trade hubs, and that means keeping a close eye on its diplomatic relationships as well as U.S. tariff and trade policy. He successfully helped broker deals to vastly increase the flow of Washington-grown apples to foreign markets in the mid-1980s. That meant opening up the market in Mexico, eliminating trade barriers in Europe, tariff barriers in Indonesia, and elsewhere.
But this also means he’s treading the political waters at a time when the ports are getting negative headlines due to slowdowns. “Those numbers have been given a breadth in the last few months because of the trade dispute,” Bryant said. “This is affecting locals and companies across Washington state. This is a dispute between our tenants. I can’t really insinuate myself in a dispute between our tenants.”
With his port commissioner term up this year, Bryant said he was mulling a run for governor in 2016. “It’s a huge decision,” Bryant said. “My grandparents came out here from the Dakotas during the Dust Bowl. (They told me) it was my responsibility to build a stronger community — at the end of your days, make sure you can look back and say, you’ve not only made your life better but the lives of others better as well.”