The decision by Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire not to seek re-election this year has resulted in a large turnout of candidates seeking her Position 2 seat.

Former Obama Administration official and export business owner Sam Cho says he’s running to provide missing representation on the Eastside and make the Port of Seattle more inclusive of small businesses.

“The question is: is the economy good for everyone? I don’t think that’s true,” Cho said.

Cho is the son of South Korean immigrants, who ran a dry cleaning business in Fremont before they were priced out and moved to Kirkland, he said.

The port candidate has a bachelor’s degree in international relations from The American University and a masters from The London School of Economics.

He was an analyst for the State Department, and then a legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, where he focused on trade, business, economic development and foreign affairs. From there he was appointed by President Barack Obama to be a special assistant at the General Services Administration, focused on asset management, technology and federal acquisitions.

Cho returned to Washington in 2016 to start Seven Seas Export, which does business with the Port of Seattle, and ships eggs to South Korea and other countries in East Asia. He said he would step away from that business if elected, to avoid any conflict of interest.

Cho also worked as a legislative assistant to Washington Sen. Bob Hasegawa, helping to pass social equity and racial justice legislation. He said passage of Initiative 1000, reversing a ban on affirmative action, provides the Port of Seattle with an opportunity to ramp up contracts with minority- and women-owned small businesses. Cho believes the Port of Seattle should have its own race and social justice initiative like the City of Seattle.

Another issue Cho is campaigning on is increasing transparency and accountability, which he said the commission should have provided more of before approving a five-year, $359 million waterfront expansion plan. A tax levy applied to the port’s King County jurisdiction increased this year by 3 percent, meaning the average homeowner will pay about $70.20 this year, up from $68.80 in 2018. It will go up another 3 percent every year for the next five years.

“Most people were blindsided by that,” Cho said, adding the expansion plan was fairly ambiguous. “Property taxes in King County have shot up like crazy.”

While Cho would like to see the tax rate brought back down after the expansion is completed, he said it’s rare that a government entity does that.

The waterfront expansion includes uplands development at Terminal 91, expanding light industrial space at Fisherman’s Terminal and a new $200 million cruise ship terminal near Pioneer Square, 50 percent of which will be covered through a private partnership.

Cho said he used to be against cruise ship expansion because of the emissions they create while docked, but changed his position after shoreside power connections (cold ironing) became available, enabling ships to cut their engines at ports.

The commission candidate said he wants more cold ironing made available, and also for the port to move toward electrification of boats and trucks.

The Port of Seattle and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency have a Seaport Truck Scrappage and Replacements for Air in Puget Sound (ScRAPS 2) program to help trucking partners replace their vehicles.

“The problem now is it has no funding. If you go to the website, you can’t apply for it,” Cho said. “We need to incentivize businesses to do the right thing and help people.”

Those added incentives should reduce pollution in the Puget Sound and also keep shipping lanes from affecting travel for the threatened southern resident orcas, Cho said.

The commission candidate lauded Gregoire’s work to address labor and human trafficking issues that are prevalent at any port of entry, which included mandatory training for Port of Seattle employees to help them spot potential trafficking activity. Cho said he wants that training extended to companies doing business with the port, as well as auditing those companies. In return, he said, the port could offer a certification similar to the social and environmental justice B Corps certification.

“For them it’s marketing, right? A lot of companies like to say, ‘We’re fair trade. We’re organic,’” he said.

The candidate wants to see the Port of Seattle be more fiscally responsible, he said, while also diversifying.

The economy is healthy now, he said, but the port candidate worries about the potential for another recession.

“I’m not predicting a recession, but we could have a recession,” Cho said.

Washington has great products to trade — cherries, apples, wine and hops — which means going through the Port of Seattle. It has the advantage of facing the Asian Pacific, but the ongoing trade war with China is concerning for the exporter. He looks at the real estate market’s growth last year due to Chinese investment as an economic indicator.

“It’s scaled down a lot,” he said, noting the real estate market is now more flat.

Cho has ideas about improving efficiencies when it comes to getting products from Eastern Washington to the Port of Seattle, and said he doesn’t expect them to all be popular.

He gets eggs from Iowa, which he has trucked to Chicago. The eggs then travel by rail to Washington, but then have to be trucked to the Port of Seattle, he said.

“The railways go to Everett,” Cho said. “They don’t go to Seattle. That extra truck, that logistically makes no sense.”

Cho wants to see more facilities and rail lines made available to cut the cost of shipping, and he also wants to see an expansion of the Moses Lake Airport to reduce congestion at Sea-Tac, but that’s way outside the Port of Seattle’s jurisdiction. He doesn’t think that would hurt the port’s revenue.

“I’m not worried, because I think the Port of Seattle will expand in the next five years regardless,” he said.

The Port of Seattle affects all King County residents, Cho said, but all of the commissioners reside in Seattle. A Kirkland resident, Cho said the commission needs Eastside and South King County representation. 

He said being tabbed to work for GSA under the Obama Administration was the “greatest honor of my life,” and provided him with a lot of policy experience. Cho said he learned that it doesn’t matter what the policy is if you can’t execute it properly.

“What makes me different is I can actually get it done,” he said.

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