By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Both candidates want to use the Port to create jobs and housing. Both are concerned with the environment. Both want to assert affirmative action in hiring.
Sam Cho and Preeti Shridhar, the two Asian Pacific Islander (API) candidates for an open Port of Seattle Commissioner seat, recognize that the Port is a major landowner and how that land is used is a major issue.
But the differences between the two candidates’ plans appear negligible.
Cho, a second-generation Korean American entrepreneur, wants to turn non-industrial use land belonging to the Port into affordable housing for the homeless. Then he wants to train the homeless living in that housing to be welders, machinists, and carpenters to do construction for the port as it expands.
Over the past 20 years, the addition of the cruise industry has necessitated increased construction and promises more.
Shridhar, a first-generation immigrant from India who works as a government official in Renton, wants to expand and develop existing technical programs so that unemployed high school and college students can find similar blue collar work in the Port.
Her emphasis is on students.
She claims she has already “whispered in the ear” about this to the president of Renton Technical College. She adds, however, that such programs would be open to anyone, including the homeless.
Critics of Cho’s plan argue that it is just another way to find less than desirable land for the poorest of the poor.
“Intentionally concentrating low-income or at-risk people (especially in unhealthy environments) is one of the injustices that I believe gets far too little attention in today’s conversations about housing and inequality,” said Dominic Barrera, another candidate for port commissioner, whose grandmother is Japanese. “None of this is to suggest the Port should not do its part to address our regional affordable housing crisis—we just need to be realistic and calculated.”
On the other hand, Professor J. Patrick Dobel of the Evans School at the University of Washington called Cho’s plan “interesting and imaginative.”
Cho, himself, seemed to view the plan as something of an experiment.
“Hey, we can at least try it,” he said during an interview.
The last economic engine?
The only remaining economic engine solely devoted to this city, perhaps, is the Port of Seattle.
“Boeing has already abandoned us,” said Dobel, who served on several oversight boards for the Port. “Eighty percent of what Microsoft does is in the web, and their physical products are made in China.”
“But the Port isn’t going anywhere,” he said.
In fact, he is wrong, by his own account. The Port is stretching. Among the many challenges facing the Port of Seattle is an alliance with the Port of Tacoma, once one of its chief rivals.
Deep-water mega container ships can no longer come into the Port of Seattle. It is not deep enough. They can, however, access Tacoma. Tacoma needs investment. So the two ports have combined services.
At the same time, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is expanding, involving turf wars between two major airlines.
Should the Port focus on simply raising more money — as it is tasked to do — or should it seek to solve social problems?
The Port is unique, said Dobel, since it is a business entity that is tasked with producing a return, yet it is publicly accountable.
That combination, he explained, has led to countless scandals and corruption over the past few decades.
“No government institution is expected to make a return,” he said, except ports.
“So this means ports do not operate with the usual level of accountability or stakeholder bidding, like businesses.”
In recent years, the Port of Seattle has faced issues involving lack of transparency, sweetheart deals, and potential misuse of funds, he added. There have been five directors in a decade.
So most candidates are promising increased transparency.
Another problem is that candidates that run for port commissioner — there are five seats that in turn hire a director who oversees the operations — are often elected on issues that represent their local districts and may have nothing to do with the port itself.
A key part of being a port commissioner is playing the role of cultural interpreter, said Paige Miller, a former commissioner.
Just maintaining relationships with key trading partners in Asia involves knowing how to do business in an Asian way while holding oneself accountable to American standards of good governance.
This often ends up with massive misunderstanding on the American end.
“Asian people don’t want business out in the public, you have to see people face to face, pay respects to the customers, and come with a gift,” said Miller in a phone interview. “In King County, the public wants transparency, people don’t want commissioners going on junkets.”
“Just to maintain business, you have to eat out or stay in first class hotels to show status,” she added. “To be a good commissioner, you have to be a good interpreter to meet some of the needs of your customers.”
Across the spectrum of challenges the Port faces as it grows, maintaining and bolstering relationships with Asian stakeholders will be essential, she said.
Both Cho and Shridhar are equipped to handle intercultural negotiation, although their styles appear different.
Cho is a taekwondo champion, winner of the Washington State Open tournament, who also fought in England while at the London School of Economics.
“I had put on a lot of weight, being overseas and eating all the food,” he said. “So I was two weight classes above what I normally do. I was training and hurt my knee.”
But he was still able to win silver.
He describes his style as feinting and baiting his opponent until he commits. Then he comes in with a back kick.
Such an opportunistic approach availed him well when he was laid off as an Obama appointee to the General Administration Services when the Trump administration came in.
On unemployment and looking for jobs with all the rest of the Obama camp, he heard about the avian flu ravaging Asia, including his parents’ native Korea.
He quickly contacted Wilcox Farms in Washington and explained to them how they could make a fortune shipping healthy eggs over to South Korea, using his connections to expedite shipping.
Since then, he has shipped 2.5 million pounds of vacuum-packed eggs in refrigerated containers to Korea.
When asked for a photo of his taekwondo exploits, he joked, “Fighting for the underprivileged.”
A video of his matches is on his Facebook page.
Preeti Shridhar knows negotiation of a different sort.
A government official in Renton, she was contacted along with the mayor earlier this month when a situation nearly exploded into interracial warfare in a major Sikh temple in her area.
Two opposing factions in the temple were disputing over a leadership transition. They called the police to come and maintain order. But when the officer arrived, he refused to take off his shoes or hat — which was sacrilege.
And he entered the temple, defiling it.
When Shridhar was told about this contretemps, she immediately convened a meeting with her colleagues and asked for the police department, a member of the Kent City Council, the mayor, and the Sikhs to attend.
Prior to the meeting, she spent time cajoling, apologizing, and persuading all sides to choose an amicable path.
In the end, the police apologized to the Sikhs and agreed that each officer would visit the temple to learn about correct protocol.
If anything distinguishes the two candidates, it is perhaps their values, as they describe seminal stories in their lives.
In Cho’s case, it might be persistence.
Cho worked for a congressman in California and researched the Trans Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era initiative to pivot towards Asia. He reached out to over 100 companies to find out what effect the trade agreement would have on them.
For instance, talking with Diamond Nuts, based in Sacramento, he found they were eager to have more export partners. The same went for Aerojet Rocketdyne, a supplier to Boeing.
He wrote up the report and presented it to the congressman who then used that to make his decision on how to vote.
Shridhar seemed to exemplify bravery in one of her most seminal stories.
After enduring a grueling divorce, in which her husband left her with massive gambling debt, she also had a son to raise. Through her own efforts, she paid off all the debt, then saved enough to send him to U.C. Berkeley.
And yet she faced the situation with humor.
When applying for her first job in Renton, as communications director, she gave a presentation about the city, which is shaped by the Cedar River running through it.
“It was called, ‘A River Runs Through It,’” she said, referring to the movie of the same title.
Cho has a similar sense of humor, although it is slightly ironic.
When referring to his childhood as the son of parents that owned a dry cleaning business, and then attending an elite private school, University Prep, he brushed aside any trace of pride.
“I was the token Asian kid among rich white kids,” he said.
Perhaps because of his background, though, Cho was proud that, as of press time, he was leading in fundraising.
Shridhar said she has just begun to fundraise.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.