By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Mike Fong’s great grandfather every year sent fruitcake along with a campaign contribution to Congressman Tom Foley. Foley had helped him sort out immigration issues. Fong grew up surrounded by letters between the two and photographs highlighting their friendship. While his mother worked as a seamstress and his father ran Chinese restaurants, Fong was exposed to his great grandfather’s ongoing gratitude, and the importance of never taking anything for granted, especially in personal relationships.
After 19 years in government, he still doesn’t.
“Everything here is totally built on what I do the day before and the day before that,” he said in his office in City Hall on a recent afternoon.
Fong responded to a request for an interview from Northwest Asian Weekly by offering a reporter the chance to shadow him for three hours.
“I have learned more and gotten more value out of the relationships I’ve built than anything,” he added.
When Fong walked into the main conference room on the 7th floor of City Hall, where his executive team was waiting to hear a presentation about reducing carbon emissions in large buildings in the city, everyone looked up in expectation. Fong took the second seat away from the corner of the table, leaving the power seat open for any latecomers.
During the meeting, the way he interacted with colleagues seemed indicative of the value he places on close relationships. But each interaction was followed by tactful questioning about potential worries. Fong listened carefully, read reports, cogitated by working his pen between two open palms, and asked relentlessly for careful clarification. When he responded, nearly every sentence was a bid for inclusion. Nearly every one began with the word, “Let’s.”
“Let’s drill down on that,” he said. “Let’s get some cost information.”
This ability to draw an emotional connection has been important in crises, say people that have worked with him.
“One of the things that really is impressive about Mike Fong is that he has a cool head under pressure,” said former deputy mayor Hyeok Kim.
Kim recalled the Ride the Ducks crash on the Aurora Bridge in 2015, killing five people and injuring over 50. The mayor’s office had set up an emergency command center.
“It was a very chaotic day and half of it was really trying to sort out the scale of the injuries but also the outreach to families and the timing of that and being respectful,” she said.
“You had lots of different voices and interests and opinions, and one of the key attributes that Mike brings into situations is to command the room and say, ‘Wait a second, help me understand what is the critical and prioritized lead.’ He has the ability to do that in lots of different situations and contexts,” she said.
During the recent afternoon when a reporter shadowed him, Fong heard a second presentation about a program to help marginalized students complete college. He was more forceful in challenging the presenters to produce numbers. He lingered specifically on how many students didn’t make it through.
“I hate to dwell on this,” he said. But he did.
One reason for his adamancy was because of the pride he takes in having helped get the program passed. In a subsequent email, Fong said he felt proud of being part of a “great team” that made the education initiatives happen.
He had insisted that two separate levies—one for Pre–K, the other for marginalized students—come up for a vote at the same time. This maneuver “forced a policy discussion around what the city could reasonably fund and support from pre–K all the way to college,” he said.
The transparency and immediacy of the maneuver helped both measures pass in 2018, by a wider margin than anyone expected. But still Fong lamented, “We still aren’t close to universal pre-K.”
One of Fong’s oldest acquaintances in government, Ben Noble, City Budget Director, said that Fong developed better skills and knowledge through practice than simply earning a specialized degree.
“Mike works with a lot of people who have advanced graduate degrees, and he instead has much more street learning and experience. While other people were in school, he was working jobs, and he has succeeded where people who have more academic training have not.”
Calvin Goings, the director of the Department of Finance and Administrative Services for the city, first met Fong in mid 2016 when he was interviewing for a job. He agreed with a characterization of Fong as intuitive, savvy, and non-conventional.
“We connected and met on the 40th floor of the Columbia Tower Starbucks. It was for no job in particular, a get to know you coffee. I was being interviewed but I didn’t know what I was being interviewed for,” he said.
At the time, Goings had already been a state senator and later an Obama appointee as the regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“He wanted to know what made me tick, why I was interested in coming to the city. It was exhausting. It was question after question after question. And it ended without any clear direction, about what job might be available or what comes next. He said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’”
Fong, who majored in political science at the University of Washington (UW), and started to work on political campaigns early on, worked for two city councilmembers. He jumped smoothly into a position as policy analyst for all nine members of the City Council in 2006.
Noble said such a jump was “not unheard of but unusual.”
“He is gifted in understanding politics, but also in understanding policy and policy analysis and really caring about policy work itself,” he said.
Said Kim, “I’ve worked in politics over 20 years, and people tend to have more strength in political gamesmanship or maybe they’re stronger in public policy.”
“But one of the things that makes him unique is his ability to marry his political savvy with a very strong policy and analytical grounding in understanding,” she said.
Others describe Fong’s role as continually evolving, from policy analyst to policy author.
During the tenure of Mayor Greg Nickels, the city was hit with a paralyzing snowfall, that Nickels later said soured voters. At the time, Fong did a post–mortem analysis of what went wrong and could be corrected next time.
Last year, working with Mayor Jenny Durkan, the region was hit by the worst snowstorm in half a century. Fong’s plans and proposals were instantly implemented and saved the city from disaster. Durkan appeared emotional about Fong.
When asked in a lighthearted way about how dapper he looked, in a dark suit with shoulder–length, slicked–back hair, she responded without missing a beat.
“It’s hard to have high intelligence and a big heart and to be dapper all in one,” she said, standing in the doorway of his office.
One of the ways he has grown, politically and personally, is through mentors, he said, such as Ruth Woo, the late powerful community leader.
One of Fong’s mentors, former Seattle City Councilmember Cheryl Chow, introduced him to coaching youth basketball, which he said helped him learn about building a team. Perhaps this is the best characterization of Fong: as a coach. For instance, he also claims pride in his championing of the City Leadership Academy (CLA). Created in 2014, the CLA has existed in various forms, said Fong, but not always sustained.
“This is a program where we seek rising stars across the bureaucracy and expose them to a nine–month curriculum to prepare them for future senior leadership roles,” he said.
Even on a very personal level, Fong encourages mentorship, or coaching. Recently, he and his partner since college, Laura, rescued a young pug/Chihuahua from a shelter. But the dog, Ladybird, was so skittish that she “couldn’t even walk around the block without getting overwhelmed and scared,” said Fong.
So he and Laura strategized and eventually went to another shelter and rescued another Chihuahua—but a much older one, at 14 years old. The strategy was for the older, already–socialized dog, Miss Scarlett, to spend time with Ladybird and model for the terrified young dog how to become “more comfortable in her environment.”
Like so many of the other policy initiatives he’s championed, it worked.
Whether it’s for dogs or people, Fong is a true believer in projects for the betterment of society.
“He has true respect for the public policy making process, it’s grounded in his belief that government is a tool for good in the world on behalf of the community,” said Kim.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.