The silver-haired Republican running for governor emerged from a tour bus on McMenamins Anderson School grounds in Bothell, blowing past three protesters demanding he take a stand on Donald Trump as he headed into a dimly lit meeting room.
Inside, the dozen or so volunteers who greeted Bill Bryant — mostly seniors armed with flip phones and lists of potential voters — listened as the candidate instructed them on the finer points of placing calls to get the word out on his campaign.
His path to victory, Bryant explained, hinges on turning out some 100,000 Washingtonians — mostly likely-Republicans or conservative-leaning independents — who failed to vote in the 2012 election but probably would have backed Rob McKenna, Washington’s last GOP candidate for governor.
That’s about 5,000 more potential votes than the number that ultimately separated McKenna from Democrat Jay Inslee four years ago.
“I can’t emphasize how important this is,” Bryant told his volunteers. “Getting these people to turn out is the difference between 49 percent and 51 percent.”
Bryant’s “whistle stop” in Bothell — among 23 campaign stops he made around the state before the Aug. 2 primary election — shows the challenge he faces in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1980.
Now focused on the November election, Bryant is introducing himself to voters as a moderate with environmental, education and business credentials while downplaying his GOP ties. It’s a delicate strategy as he tiptoes along his razor-thin path to unseat Gov. Inslee.
“This election isn’t about Bill Bryant or his name recognition, it’s a referendum on Jay Inslee,” said Randy Pepple, a Republican strategist not directly involved with Bryant’s campaign. “Bill just needs to show that he’s a qualified alternative.”
In part, that’s meant Bryant — a former two-term Port of Seattle commissioner and founder of a Seattle consultancy firm that helps agricultural businesses export products — has refused to say whether he supports his party’s polarizing presidential nominee.
He finally broke his silence last week, sending word through his campaign that he isn’t backing Trump.
“Obviously, Bill has tried to avoid having this Trump conversation, because that’s not what this election is about,” spokesman Jason Roe said Monday.
“But this weekend, he finally just said, ‘Enough is enough.’ He said he doesn’t support Trump for president, and he doesn’t support Secretary Clinton, either,” Roe said. “So now, that’s it. Let’s focus on the things that matter to voters.”
Democrats have sought to connect Bryant in any way possible to the top of the Republican ticket. A spokesman for the Washington State Democrats described his belated public stance on Trump as “politically craven and desperate.”
For Bryant, staking out a position against Trump could alienate some voters. Bryant will need them to beat Inslee, who owned an 11-point advantage over the GOP challenger in the primary.
“Jay Inslee wants to turn this race into a referendum on the presidential election,” Bryant said. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to talk about the issues of the state of Washington.”
Bryant won twice as many counties as Inslee in the primary, including all counties east of the Cascades. But Inslee took Washington’s biggest population centers and crushed Bryant in King County, 64 percent to 27 percent.
Rural, “Huck Finn” boyhood
Who is Bill Bryant?
“I’m a kid who grew up in a very rural community over on the Olympic Peninsula during the 1960s,” Bryant said during an interview at his Sodo campaign headquarters. “Kind of a Huck Finn way to grow up — hiking in the Olympic Mountains and playing on the beaches of Puget Sound.”
Bryant, 56, who’s married to Barbara Feasey, operations director of the Frye Art Museum, is a longtime resident of Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood. But his rural upbringing and early education have become a common refrain when touting the centerpieces of his campaign: education reform and Puget Sound conservation.
Bryant’s father, a schoolteacher in the Hood Canal School District, taught him the value of a good education, and his romps through nature embedded a deep respect for the environment, he said. His boyhood dreams to become an oceanographer eventually morphed into a vow to restore Washington’s salmon runs and ensure “that when I die, Puget Sound will be cleaner than when I was born.”
But more than anything else driving his campaign, Bryant said, is a desire to reform the public education system amid a state Supreme Court ruling that says Washington must beef up state funding for schools.
“If I can go down to Olympia and spend four years figuring out how to provide equal access to all kids and innovating schools so that they’re meeting their needs in the 21st century,” said Bryant, who has no children of his own, “I would have felt good about what I’ve done and I can go back to my company.”
Bryant has yet to roll out his full education plan. But he said it will include details about implementing different types of public schools to meet the needs of different types of kids; increasing the authority given to principals to spend money; and “reinventing the last two years of high school” to help reduce dropout rates and increase preapprenticeship workforce readiness programs.
Bryant said he believes Washington can meet its education-funding obligations without raising taxes or taking money away from other state departments or programs by first getting “a good handle about how much is being spent at the local level.”
For his own education, Bryant attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., before returning to the Northwest in the early 1980s to launch a career steeped in trade-related issues.
He worked for Gov. John Spellman, Washington’s last Republican governor, helping the state’s apple, pear and cherry industries in their exporting efforts. In 1992, he founded Bryant Christie Inc, a consultancy firm that helps agricultural businesses overcome foreign trade barriers. Today, Bryant’s company employs 35 people in offices in Seattle and Sacramento, California, he said.
“Having built a company that operates on both sides of the mountains is as or more important than my public experience as a port commissioner,” Bryant said.
It’s also been a source for millions of dollars in federal lobbying income, records show. From 2000 to 2011, BCI reported $4.1 million in income from lobbying for agricultural interests, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan money-in-politics tracker based on lobbying records.
Despite such documentation, Bryant disputes he was a lobbyist. “We don’t do lobbying,” he said.
A campaign spokeswoman later told The Times in an email that Bryant filed the lobbying forms while providing technical assistance to the U.S. government.
“None of the work he did had to do with issues before the U.S. government, it was all trade issues involving foreign governments’ barriers to U.S. exports,” spokeswoman Yvette Ollada said.
Yet Bryant has been identified as a lobbyist in media reports dating to at least 2007, the last year he registered as a lobbyist. That was also the year he first ran for the Port of Seattle commission.
Reforming the Port
Bryant won election in 2007 just as a Port corruption scandal erupted. A scathing state audit found a host of failings had wasted taxpayer money and left the Port “vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.”
Bryant and newly elected Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton guided the commission’s reform efforts, which included hiring an outside investigator and rewriting Port rules to ensure more accountability and transparency.
“It was a difficult year, ” said Tarleton, now a Democratic state representative from Seattle who praises Bryant but endorses Inslee. “Bill is calm under pressure. I found him honest and direct, and he’s always willing to put in the work.”
Others who worked at the Port with Bryant, who won reelection in 2011, described him as easygoing and likable. Several also noted Bryant was plainly ambitious.
Bryant served as the commission’s president for three years, traveling across Washington on the Port’s dime to meet with business and civic groups, editorial boards and other organizations. During that time, Bryant separately considered a run for governor and a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
In 2011, when two commissioners formally raised the question of whether Bryant’s Port trips posed a conflict for political and business reasons, an internal legal review found they did not. Still, perceptions about Bryant’s ambitions persisted.
“When it comes down to it, he’s an incredibly ambitious man who feels entitled to a statewide position and he’s going to say what he needs to say in order to get that,” said Heather Weiner, a partner at the Seattle political consulting firm Moxie Media, which traditionally supports Democratic campaigns. Weiner ran several political-issue campaigns at the Port during Bryant’s tenure on the commission.
Bryant dismisses such criticism, saying his travel always aimed to promote the Port and its mission, not himself or his clients. His aim, he said, was to create a more effective and collaborative trade culture to make Seattle’s Port more globally competitive — just as he did by supporting the 2015 Northwest Seaport Alliance, which unified Seattle and Tacoma’s marine cargo operations.
“This was necessary if we were going to keep jobs here,” Bryant said.
He touts himself as an astute fiscal manager and noted that under Inslee, Washington has one of the 10 highest unemployment rates in the nation. Bryant vowed to reverse that trend, partly by managing Washington more like a business.
“We don’t have any plan of how to take the regulatory power and the budget of this state and use it in a way that actually helps the private sector generate jobs,” Bryant said. “As a CEO and somebody who has built a company, if you don’t have a strategic plan for running your company, your company is in a maintenance mode.”
But Bryant’s fiscal decisions also have drawn criticism. In 2011, he cast the deciding vote for a 9 percent pay raise for then-Port Chief Executive Tay Yoshitani, whose base salary jumped to $367,000.
That decision and others led one Republican elected official to question whether Bryant was fit to run as a GOP candidate against Cantwell in 2011. In an email sent to other Republicans and later reprinted by the NWDailyMarker, then-state Sen. Janea Holmquist-Newbry, R-Moses Lake, noted Bryant had also previously donated to several prominent Democrats, including a $500 gift to Inslee’s 1994 congressional bid.
But Bryant’s Port work also won its share of praise.
“We thought he did a good job,” said Jordan Royer, vice president of external affairs for the Port Merchant Shipping Association, which represents operators of marine terminals and container vessels. “He stayed focused on the core mission of the Port — to build infrastructure and preserve middle-class waterfront jobs.”
The Arctic drilling mess
The highest-profile issue to emerge during Bryant’s tenure at the Port could also be his biggest political liability.
In 2015, Foss Maritime proposed leasing then-empty Terminal 5 to Royal Dutch Shell Oil as home port for its controversial Arctic offshore drilling fleet. Bryant, who said he personally opposed Arctic drilling, backed the proposal for job-creation reasons.
The proposal drew a fierce backlash from environmental groups, tribes and others, with activists ultimately descending on Seattle’s Port to block Shell’s vessels. Seattle’s mayor and planning department also contended the Port needed a new permit to stage drilling equipment there. The oil giant ultimately suspended its Arctic pursuits and pulled out of Seattle.
Amid the furor, Port commissioners at one point voted to ask Shell to delay arrival of its fleet, with only Bryant voting against that resolution.
Bryant defends his support of the lease. Hosting the fleet had no adverse environmental impact on Puget Sound and could have meant hundreds of jobs to the region, he said. Trying to block the lease for political reasons would have been symbolic, but wouldn’t have stopped Shell from finding another port, he added.
“I don’t think we want to take an action that’s symbolic if it jeopardizes middle-class jobs,” Bryant said. “I want to take action that gets results.”
Seattle environmental attorney Peter Goldman, who considers Bryant a friend, said Bryant’s stance was disappointing.
“It just seems that anybody who really cares about oceans, Puget Sound and climate change would be against trying to use Seattle’s port for Shell’s staging operations,” Goldman said. “But he was the architect behind that.”
The difference between each candidate’s record on environmental policies is so stark that Washington Conservation Voters endorsed Inslee early without even providing Bryant with an endorsement questionnaire, said Shannon Murphy, president of the political advocacy group.
“Bill Bryant does not have a strong record on the environment,” Murphy said. “He’s been touting that in campaign rhetoric, but it’s very clear.”
Bryant counters that Inslee’s support of efforts to force big carbon-polluting industries, such as concrete and aluminum manufacturers, to reduce emissions will simply force such companies out of Washington to other states or nations with less regulation.
“So the governor will put himself into a position where he can brag that he’s reduced the footprint of Washington state, but he’s probably increased it on the planet,” he said.
Bryant points to a record of supporting programs at the Port to reduce stormwater pollution in Puget Sound and convert the airport’s ground fleet to green fuel sources as “tangible steps to help be good environmental stewards and reduce our footprint but didn’t cost anybody their jobs.”
Personal: Married 27 years to Barbara Feasey, no children.
Professional: Founder/chairman of Bryant Christie Inc. (consulting firm for agricultural exporters), 1992-present; vice president, Northwest Horticultural Council, 1985-1992; director, Governor’s Council on International Trade, 1984-85.
Education: Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service (bachelor of science in foreign service, trade/diplomacy, Asia/Latin America)
Past elected offices: Port of Seattle Commission, 2007-2015.
Total campaign money raised: $2.61 million (as of Aug. 8)
Notable donors: Washington State Republican Party, $545,000; Dan Evans, Seattle, $4,000; Kemper and Betty Freeman, Bellevue, $8,000; Foster and Lynn Friess, Jackson, Wyo., $4,000; five family members of Easterday Farms, Pasco, $18,000; Foss Maritime, Seattle, $3,800.
Sources: Seattle Times reporting, 2016 Voters Guide, Washington Public Disclosure Commission