A conversation with Republican gubernatorial challenger Bill Bryant

'I want to go down there for four years and do what’s right,'

Why do you want to be the next governor of Washington state? What was the impetus to run?

Bryant: My mentor — who I met in college — became a dear friend, he was a Jesuit priest and ended up marrying my wife and me. He lived in D.C., but he’d come out for a week or two at a time. He died about 11 years ago, and one of the very last things he said to me — although I didn’t know I wouldn’t see him again — was, “Bill, at the end of your life, all of the stuff you’ve been able to buy won’t matter. At the end of your days, the only thing that is going to matter are the lives you’ve touched and the community you’ve built.” So when my company got to a point where I didn’t have to be there every day, I started having to decide, okay, do I just want to keep building this company, or do I want to start doing something for the community? And that’s when I decided — I got involved in some nonprofit boards. I helped set up two environmental nonprofits, which one I’m still on the board of, and then when a seat was coming up for reelection on the King County-Seattle Port Commission and I was concerned about the direction the Port was taking, that’s when I ran for office for the first time.

So this really is about building community. It’s about fixing our education system. I grew up in a very rural school district on the Skokomish Indian Reservation, and I know today that the quality of education kids get depends entirely on their zip code or their school district. It’s not uniform across the state. Kids in rich school districts have access to programs that kids where I grew up don’t have access to, and so fixing our K-12 education system so that every kid regardless of where they grow up has an equal chance to get ahead is a huge motivator for me. I also want to go down and innovate the system so it’s meeting the needs of all kids, which it’s not. We have a system that’s failing far too many kids. Twenty to 25 percent of our ninth graders will not graduate from high school. If you’re a ninth grader of color, your odds are between 30 and 50 percent of not graduating. Native American kids are 50 percent. Latino kids are probably 30 percent are not likely to graduate.

The fact that we’ve got a system that provides opportunities to kids in rich school districts that are not provided to kids in economically disadvantaged districts or rural districts, and the fact that we’ve got a system where we accept that somewhere between 20 and 50 percent, depending on the community, of our ninth graders won’t graduate, that’s morally wrong. And so, what do we need to do?

Funding is part of it, although we are spending more than the national average per student, it’s just in Washington state it’s not spent equitably. Some kids get more money spend on them than others, and that’s the heart of McCleary, not just how much you’re spending but spending it equitably.

The other issue is we’ve got to modernize this education system to meet the needs of a very diverse student body. Our education system is really a post-World War II system. It’s based on an industrial model, where you get on the conveyer belt around kindergarten, and you move through the factory based on your age, and you hope you stay on the conveyer belt until the 12th grade but somewhere between 20 and 25 percent are falling off before then. Those who get to the end of the conveyer belt, jump off or fall off. It’s failing too many of those who make it all the way to the end, and that over/around, it’s over 50 percent of the people who applied to community college, even though they had a high school degree, did not have the skills they needed to begin taking community college classes. Only 18 percent of our kids who graduate are really college ready. We see that at a huge drop-out rate we have in high school, but then the huge drop-out rate we have in university. We are ranked, I think, 42nd in graduating students with bachelor’s degrees, which puts us below Mississippi and Alabama. We’re better than that. So what do we need to do?

Well, I think we need to reinvent the last two years of high school, so it’s relevant to what kids want to do after they graduate. That means if you want to go to college, let’s make sure you really are college ready. And we’ll have AP classes, we’ll have whatever is necessary to make sure that you’re prepared to go on and finish a four-year degree.

If you don’t want to go university but a community college, let’s have Running Start available to kids across Washington so they can seamlessly move from high school into a community college program. And if they don’t want to go to a community college or university right out of high school, that should be okay, and let’s have pre-apprenticeship and industry certification programs in the junior and senior years, so that kids graduate from high school not only with a high school diploma, but with a certificate that allows them to get a good, solid family-wage job. We have a skills gap in Washington State, where between 10 and 40,000 jobs a year over the next 10 years will go unfilled because we’re not graduating high school students with the basic computer science or math or language skills they need to fill those jobs. Well that’s failing those kids, and we need to provide those kids with the same opportunities that a child going on to university would have, so focusing on education, the level of funding, the equitable way in which we’re funding education, and then ensuring we’re modernizing our system to meet current needs is a primary motivator.

Secondly I want to fix our transportation mess, our traffic mess. IT was one of the issues I ran for the Port Commission on, and we did an awful lot in elevating the involvement of the Seattle-King County Port Commission on state transportation fund projects. I worked an awful lot with Governor Gregoire on transportation. Here in the King County area and even statewide. We worked on some rail issues down in Kalama and in Vancouver that are a long ways from King County but fixing them helped the whole system move more efficiently. I was even called over to work on, and advise on a roundabout in Mattawa. … Mattawa does some exporting. They’ve got some, a consolidation facility for a lot of wine that’s going to be exported. It all kind of goes there, and gets put in containers and then gets shipped over to Seattle. It was a very dangerous intersection. There were a lot of fatalities there because of the truck traffic between I-90 and the Tri-Cities, and then people trying to get on and off this highway, so the State Department of Transportation wanted to put in either a roundabout or an overpass.

As the president of the Seattle-King County Port Commission I was asked to come over and just talk to the port commissioners over there about how do we build that in a way that would ensure we have continued freight mobility between the Tri-Cities and the Port of Seattle. So I worked a lot on transportation statewide, and I’m very concerned that our traffic situation is getting worse, and that we don’t really have a focus on moving people and freight under Gov. Inslee that I think needs to be there, so fixing our traffic mess is a major priority.

And then homelessness is huge for me. Before I ever ran for office, I worked in Capitol Hill at a homeless shelter for men. Once or twice a month I’d be the overnight manager, and I’ve watched the problem just explode over the last four years, and I do not see any response from the state, except in some cases what states and cities are doing is I think making it worse, and we are spending an increasingly large sum of money, but we’re not getting any results, and there’s not a lot of accountability for how the money’s being spent. And then if you want one more real priority, it’s restoring salmon and steelhead runs and cleaning up Puget Sound, which is something I worked on as a Port Commissioner. Gov. Gregoire appointed me to the Puget Sound Partnerships Ecosystems Board, and I did what I could at the Port level but I also realize that under Governor Inslee — whose supposedly the green governor — we have fallen backwards by almost every environmental measure but one when it comes to salmon and steelhead recovery. It’s not that he’s doing anything malicious, it’s not a priority for him. So the primary motivations are education, traffic, homelessness, which includes mental health, and cleaning up Puget Sound.


What do you think the state needs to do to adequately address increasing traffic, and what role does transit play in that?

Bryant: A huge role. What does the state need to do depends on where you are, because the solution for Seattle is very different than it is for some communities east of the mountains, for example, or even in the suburbs. In the last, 18 months of Gov. Gregoire’s administration, she pulled together about 20 people … trying to put together a transportation package that can meet the needs across the state, different in different areas, and put together the outline of a package for either Jay Inslee or Rob McKenna, whoever won, it was kind of her package to them, and we did. And I went there in the first meeting as sort of the freight guy, since I was representing the Port Committee, and it wasn’t that I was against transit, I just was ambivalent, it wasn’t something that I ever worked on before, and within two meetings I realized if you’re going to have a transportation system that works for commuters and for the freight community, you have to have a public transit system that works. So that kind of began a conversation about what is the role of the state in public transit, cause traditionally the state’s role has been really limited, and transit’s been left to counties and to cities.

I’m going to be an activist governor, and just the fact that’s the way it’s been doesn’t mean that’s the way it’s going to stay, and I think the state has an obligation to begin working more closely with counties and cities on developing a transit system that works. The resistance might come from counties and cities, because they want the money, but they don’t want to be held accountable for how the money, the strings that the state could attach to how the money would be spent.

I would have four criteria, and I developed these four criteria and I developed these four criteria in working with the Gregoire task force, on whether or not a transit system is really helping the overall transportation system. And the first is, does it move people from where they live to where they work? This is more relevant maybe if you’re thinking about the suburbs than inside the urban core, but are you providing a service from where people live to where they work, and is it reliable and easy to use? And is it flexible enough that as people move and work in different places, you can adjust the service to accommodate shifting population centers? The second is straight forward, cost-benefit analysis, how many people are you moving per mile, per dollar. The third is, I think, a critical one. Are we moving people out of their cars and into public transit, or are we simply moving them from one form of public transit into another? And then the fourth is, how quickly can you deliver? Can it be delivered in six to eight years? And I would like to see the state get involved in having a transportation system that works for the whole state, but I would want any money that the state spent, I would want to evaluate those four criteria before we spent it.


What do you think the state’s role is in addressing homelessness, and what work has to be done in tandem with the efforts of cities?

Bryant: When I started this campaign, based on my experience working on homelessness, I wasn’t sure what the role of the state was. I wouldn’t say there wasn’t one, but I wasn’t sure what it was, and over the course of the last 18 months and working on the homelessness issue, and I’ve been talking about it during the whole campaign because it’s just an issue important to me, but it’s only been really in the last maybe two months that it’s gotten any attention, but I did a little — town hall is an exaggeration but a meet and greet is selling it short — a little meeting here on Magnolia on homelessness in March at an Irish bar, so it’s been something we’ve been talking about throughout the campaign, and during the course of those conversations, and realizing this is not just a Seattle issue, but it’s an issue affecting Puyallup and Federal Way and Auburn and Everett and Centralia, Chehalis, Vancouver, Spokane, Yakima, Wentachee, I’ve been in shelters in a lot of those places.

This is a statewide issue, and the state is spending an increasingly large amount of money on the issue. Under Gov. Inslee, we’ve doubled the amount that we’re spending on homelessness, and homelessness has only increased. Given the amount the state is spending in supporting municipal programs, there’s definitely a role. Given the rise of the camps on state land, there’s definitely a role. And so what is it? I think first of all we have to recognize that there’s a new population of homeless. The population that I worked with in the shelters, and that are still in shelters, were predominantly men, maybe from mid-30s to late 60s, and I’m generalizing here but if we were to generalize, I would say that they were people who had had what you might consider a more mainstream life, but because of a divorce or loss of job or drugs or alcohol or a combination of those, they’ve lost their families or their homes, and they found themselves homeless for the first time. Some don’t really want to go back to having a mortgage and a family, and they’re working through their own issues, others are really trying to pull their lives back together again, they’re using the shelter system to do that, to get some stability and to have a place to go. A lot of them have jobs.

It’s very difficult to get a job if you’re homeless, because you have to go to an interview where you take everything you own with you, and you have to have a job where you can take everything you own with you every day, if you don’t have a permanent shelter. I would turn on the lights like at 6 a.m., they would ask me to wake them up earlier than that, 5:15, 5:30, because they wanted to get out to the suburbs to get to their job, and they had to get up there early because they would usually leave by 2 or 3 so they could get back in line to get a bed that night. They were using the shelter system to kind of pull their lives back together again, and get first and last month’s rent. And that group still exists, and as I traveled through shelters around the state you see that same population. Groups in the camps are very different … That’s a very different group, and I don’t want that group to become the face of homelessness, because these other people are truly homeless and are trying to get care and some assistance. There’s a criminal element in these camps. There are truly homeless people in there, but there’s also a criminal element. There’s drugs, there’s prostitution, there are predators, it’s not as if they don’t have other places to go, they’re using the camps to facilitate their activities. You see that when the city cleared the Jungle, and made housing options available to everybody who was in there, only 25 percent of them took them up. There’s folks there that don’t want to go into a shelter, or aren’t necessarily looking for public housing. You also, I’ve talked to parents whose 20-year old kids are in there, and they know they’re addicted to heroin, they’re bracing themselves for the awful phone call that comes, and they say, “Bill, as long as you enable these camps to exist, you’re making it more difficult for my kid to get the help that they need.”

That’s where I’ve really come to the understanding that allowing these camps to exist on state land is not progressive, it’s actually quite cruel. So what do we do, and what’s the role of the state?

Well, the first thing is we need to get a handle on these camps, and so I would have a zero tolerance for camping on state department of transportation or state property. Local law enforcement are telling me its very confusing whether they have the jurisdiction to go in there or not, from area to area different police chiefs have different opinions on that across the state, and so they want it clear that they do have the jurisdiction to go onto state property and to make arrests for those that are engaged in criminal activity and to clean up areas that are public safety hazards. We need to as a state identify what programs at the municipal level are working and hold the cities accountable for how they’re spending their money. In the city of Seattle, depending on how you measure it, and how you count the money and how many people you consider to be homeless, we could be spending between 10 and $14,000 per homeless person. That’s more than we spend on the care of some foster kids, it’s about what we spend to educate a child. If you’re going to be spending that much, we got to make sure that we’re actually spending that money wisely, and there needs to be some criteria for what a successful program looks like. To continue to spend that much and not have people being lifted off the streets and into permanent housing is a failure, but there isn’t really a benchmark for what constitutes success and failure in these programs, and there needs to be. We need to be investing in permanent housing, and in some cases the cities and state need to work together in reexamining building codes, and identifying perhaps alternative codes to take some buildings which are not being used right now, and allow them to be used for more than transitional but not quite permanent housing, but more extended housing. We need to rebuild our mental health system. Washington State’s mental health system under Gov. Inslee is ranked 50th. Let that sink in, in an area as prosperous as this. There’s no reason for that, but our two state hospitals are a mess. Western State Hospital has lost its accreditation and is at risk of losing its federal certification. The legislature tried, in addition to giving the governor more money to work on our mental health system, which they did, they also passed through some reforms that would not put all of the weight on these two mental hospitals, Eastern and Western State, but would allow regional and local community care to be built up. he took the money and vetoed the reforms. And I think it’s the wrong approach. We need to take some of the pressure off of Eastern and Western State. Not everybody’s going to be sent to these two mental hospitals.

It’s very much a 20th century model, where you have these two big institutions and everybody goes there. We need to devolve that into more regional and local community based care for people who don’t necessarily need to be committed to a mental hospital but definitely need some mental health services. So the restructuring of our mental health system has got to be part of our solution for addressing homelessness.


Do you think it’s an issue that there is enough funding for homelessness, and the execution has been the problem, or do you still think more money needs to go to addressing the issue?

Bryant: I would argue we don’t know the answer to that, because we don’t know how well the money is being spent. But I know that we have allocated significantly large sums, and we’re not getting a good return on that investment. So that could lead you quickly to two conclusions. One, even though you’ve invested more, it’s not enough, or the way you’re spending those resources is not yielding the results it should, and until you do an audit of how that money’s being spent you won’t know, which is why I’ve supported the audit in 2017 of how the state monies being spent by cities is working, and governor opposes that. He doesn’t support the audit. I’m like, why, as the chief executive officer would you not want an audit which identifies what’s working and what’s not, because what I would hope you would get out of that audit is that this is a very successful program in Pasco, and here’s a really great program in Federal Way — I’m just pulling names out of the air — and while they’re different, these are the different approaches they’re taking, and this is the results that they’ve got, and figure out, are those applicable to other communities, and can they be scaled up, and what are the best management practices that identify success. But if you don’t do the audit, you never know, and you’re just giving more and more money and we’re not getting any results for it, and that’s not management. It may be good politics, but it’s not a good way to spend people’s money.


What would you do to create and protect living wage jobs in the state?

Bryant: What I’ve been doing as a Port Commissioner. We have the gutting of the middle class here in Washington State. The Governor will talk about how we’ve increased 250,000 new jobs or something, but those are largely jobs in the South Lake Union tech sector. He doesn’t talk about how the fact that in that same period, we have lost thousands of jobs that pay between 35,000 and 75,000 a year. What doesn’t get mentioned is Washington State has one of the highest unemployment rates in America, we’re the 8th highest unemployment right up there with West Virginia, and that’s largely because we’re losing middle class jobs. If you want to protect middle class jobs as a governor, you need to take care of the basics. Let’s go back to the high school graduation rates and the skills gap. The fact that we’ve got between 10 and 40,000 good solid family wage jobs that are going unfilled because we’re not graduating students with the skills they need? Well that’s really unconscionable. That’s low hanging fruit. Let’s make sure that we’re graduating students that are prepared to go fill those jobs. Those are good jobs that we’re just not filling with students from Washington state.

So beyond the education and work force development, that’s why at the Port of Seattle I was very focused on workforce development and ensuring that people, even if they graduated high school without the skills they need, had opportunities to go get the skills they need, because there are jobs that pay between 4 and $7,000 a month that are not going filled, and we need to make sure that we train people for those good solid jobs in the building trades, on the waterfront, or in aviation and aeromechanical industries. So dealing with workforce development and education is a good step forward.

The second thing is transportation. I’ve told people on the Seattle City Council if you care about income inequality, care about truck routes. Like, what are you talking about? I’m not being facetious. If you don’t take care of your truck routes, good, solid family wage jobs will move to communities that do, particularly Vancouver, British Columbia. And we’ve got right now, between 90 and, probably over 90, I’m guessing 100, 120 million in deferred maintenance on truck routes in south King and north Pierce counties. That’s down in the Kent-Auburn valley. Those roads are falling apart. If you cannot move your trucks from the Commencement Bay or Elliot Bay ports, in and out of the Kent-Auburn Valley where the warehouse districts are, efficiently, or if the roads aren’t being maintained, or if you can’t get your trucks even from the Port of Tacoma to I-5 because 167 hasn’t been finished, then you’re going to move your freight to where it can be moved efficiently, and those are thousands of good, solid family wage jobs. As a governor, deal with the basics first, education and transportation, then you have to make sure you have social policies that reinforce family wage jobs, and that’s why in areas where the cost of living is rising more rapidly then inflation, we need to raise the minimum. I supported raising the minimum wage to over $15 an hour including benefits by 2017 for certain workers at Sea-Tac Airport, and the only reason why I’m opposing the current initiative is because it’s taking a minimum wage increase based on King County’s cost of living, and applying it across the state in communities where they do not have a high cost of living, where actually they’ve got unemployment between 8-9 1/2 percent, and where small towns, they’re all small businesses, and those small businesses are saying if you push this on me, I can’t pass the cost onto my consumers because we’re in a flat or deflationary mode, housing property values are not going up, they’re flat or down and so I’ll just end up having to cover somebody’s shift and let somebody go and cover their shift myself. Well, now we’re hurting the very people we’re trying to help, so I think the initiative is too blunt of an instrument. I like the Oregon model, where you have different minimum wage increases based on the local cost of living, and they pretty much have three. They’ve got one more Portland-Multnomah County, and then one sort of out, and then one for the more rural communities.


You look at some of the recent governors of this state, they came from Congress, or they were a county executive or attorney general. How do you feel your experience as a Port Commissioner would help you in this role?

Bryant: The Port Commission is great. Building a company is better. I kind of look at this as going from the private sector to the public sector as opposed to just going from the Port Commissioner to Governor. Over the last 24 years I’ve built a company from me alone in the basement to 35-40 employees with operations in 20-30 countries around the world. That private sector experience is much more, or as valuable as the public sector experience.

If you’re in Congress, you don’t have to run anything. And if there is a criticism of Gov. Inslee, and it’s not just Gov. Inslee, it’s anybody who goes from Congress to an executive role, a legislator is a very different role than a congressman. He’s never had to run anything before, and I think that’s why you see the Department of Social and Health Services is a mess. The Department of Corrections is a mess. The Department of Transportation is lacking leadership. Because he’s never had to run an organization. It’s not that he’s a bad person, he just doesn’t have that skillset. Building a company, where you’re running an organization with projects all around the world, yeah, you develop that skillset. You learn how to run an organization and identify what’s important to know and what’s not, and where there are warning signs that require you’re involvement, you learn to detect those and move in quickly before a problem occurs. He’s never had to do that.

As a Port Commissioner, if you’re a Port Commissioner in a lot of communities, it probably wouldn’t be that relevant, but if you’re a Seattle-King County Port Commissioner it’s really relevant, because you have statewide responsibilities. You work with all of the communities around the state that have feeders into Sea-Tac Airport, so you’re working on transportation, airport aviation related issues or economic development issues around the airports in Spokane, Wenatchee, Yakima, Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, Moses Lake from time to time. The Port Commissioners in Moses Lake, we worked on the siting and getting the BMW carbon fiber plant. The Governor recently said, “Bill Bryant ought to go over there and visit it,” and I was like, "When you were in Congress and the paint was still wet on the walls, I was in that plant. I’ve been there, don’t worry about it." But they got that project, that plant was going to be sited somewhere in either, the finalists on the planet were Canada and Moses Lake, somewhere in Eastern Canada. Moses Lake got it because it had affordable hydropower, affordable land, and direct access to a deep water port, but they wanted to make sure we were going to work with them on the I-90 project so they would have access 365 days a year. I talked to you about being over there on transportation projects, serving with Gov. Gregoire on this task force, Gov. Greogoire appointed me to the Puget Sound Partnership, where I was working with ports all around Puget Sound on cleanup and salmon recovery efforts. When the state bailed on tourism promotion it was the King County-Seattle Port Commission that stepped up and began organizing the state’s tourism promotion activities here in this state and overseas, so on a number of issues from environmental cleanup, Puget Sound, transportation issues statewide, tourism statewide, you get a breadth of experience that you wouldn’t get if you were a legislator, representing one legislative district. The other thing is as a King County Port Commissioner you represent 15 — bits and pieces of two more so sort of 17 — but really 15 legislative districts, and almost three congressional districts.


In 30 seconds, what is your pitch to voters on why they should support you.

Bryant: If you care about having an education that gives every kid an equal chance to get ahead, and you want a governor whose going to go in and make those decisions whether it ticks people off or not, if you care about salmon and steelhead recovery and know that to solve that you’re going to have to have a governor who will go in an meet with commercial fishermen, sports fishermen and the sovereign tribes and broker a deal, which is going to make you a lot more enemies then friends, but you want a governor whose not concerned about whether you’re making friends or enemies but just doing the right thing, if you want a governor whose really going to passionately focus on fixing our transportation mess or traffic mess, I’m you’re guy.

Those are three of those areas, if you’re really going to do what needs to be done on education, if you’re really going to go in and fix traffic, if you’re going to deal with some of the environmental issues we have in this state, you’re traveling on some territory that governors fear to tread upon because you will make more enemies than friends, and you’re jeopardizing your second term. I don’t care about jeopardizing my second term, I want to go down there for four years and do what’s right, and if as a result I’ve made enemies and I’m not going to get reelected, but I’ve done the right thing, then I’ll go back to my company. I’m not a career politician.