It’s the most important race that nobody is paying attention to (and even fewer care about).
At least the race for Port of Tacoma Commission between incumbent Connie Bacon and challenger Eric Holdeman is a race. The other two incumbents, former longshore union leader Dick Marzano and former port deputy director Don Meyer, have no opponents.
The port likes to call itself the economic engine of Pierce County, which would be true if not for Joint Base Lewis-McChord or the hospitals or even downtown. But those job centers don’t get as much credit because they don’t get to use ridiculous multipliers like the port does. You know, as in “every job created at the port is responsible for three or four or 500 jobs elsewhere in the county.”
Anyway, if the port is so vital, you’d think the elections for commissioner would draw more attention, or candidates even. The other incumbents might conclude that they face no rivals because they are doing such a great job and the port is running like a finely tuned economic engine.
The lack of competition could also be because it is nearly impossible to defeat an incumbent. Port races are insider affairs because the port operates by and for insiders. The only entities that pay attention are those who benefit — the steamship lines, the tenants, the longshore union and the various folks who serve those entities.
While the port has critics, they are usually silenced by allegations that criticism is a threat to, you know, the economic engine of Pierce County. Whereas unions usually point out the flaws and inefficiencies of management, the port unions are pretty well treated and very well compensated – enough so that leaders rarely criticize the bosses.
Everyone else keeps their concerns private, as well. The city of Tacoma, Pierce County, the Puyallup Tribe, the people who pass for environmentalists in Pierce County all know the legend that the quickest way to have gotten a loud and angry phone call from U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks when he was in Congress was to do something the port disliked.
Given the handicaps, the fact that any serious candidate would bother is remarkable. And Holdeman is the type of candidate the insiders might be concerned about because, well, he’s a bit of an insider himself, having spent four years as the port’s security director.
So it isn’t just a shot in the dark when Holdeman says he thinks the deal struck by Tacoma to grab the so-called Grand Alliance from Seattle was a sweetheart deal. The port got a “win” against its arch rival, the longshore union got a few more jobs, and the port got a little bit of rent on terminals.
But it could have been and should have been a better deal for the region’s taxpayers and a less-lucrative deal for the steamship lines. The reason it wasn’t either is because it resulted from the ongoing bidding war between Tacoma and Seattle that has two local governments competing for business that is already in the Puget Sound area.
The same silly competition is what led Tacoma to blow tens of millions of dollars trying to get NYK to relocate in the port. That deal failed partly because of its size and cost and partly because of the Great Recession. But port insiders, especially the commissioners, refuse to learn from the mistakes, to even admit publicly that mistakes were made.
Holdeman risks being ostracized from the club by saying intra-Sound competition makes no sense when our real rivals are in Canada and California and Mexico. While he can’t speak the word “merger,” he alone talks about real cooperation with Seattle, he alone says the Puget Sound should be considered one big port like Los Angeles/Long Beach is, like New York/New Jersey, like Vancouver/Prince Rupert.
They fight the real competition while we fight each other.
Bacon has all the endorsements, but then incumbent port commissioners always get all the endorsements. That’s just the way things are done. To do otherwise might get someone accused of threatening the economic engine.
Heck, it might even get them a loud and angry call from Norm Dicks.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 firstname.lastname@example.org @CallaghanPeter