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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Port Commission candidate Rob Holland
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Port Commission candidate Rob Holland

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Rob Holland is African American, Gay, and was born into a working class family in Bremerton. He doesn't fit the profile of a Port of Seattle Commissioner.

'At least not the ones we've had so far!' he exclaims. 'You know, the Port is going on 100 years old. It's time to re-envision what the port will mean in the next 100 years.'

Holland is making his first run for public office as a candidate for the Port Commission, which supervises operations of both the seaport and SeaTac Airport. "Everybody says I bit off a big chunk, running a county-wide campaign," he says, "but it's exciting. It's an opportunity to talk to people all over the county, in the smaller towns as well as Seattle."

Holland has deep roots on the Puget Sound waterfront. His grandfather worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and his father was a member of the Inland Boatman's Union (IBU), working on Seattle's ferry system.

"I had models of ships as a child," he recalls. "I always enjoyed all things maritime."

The waterfront also came to assume special importance to Holland as he was coming out. "The waterfront always symbolized one thing to me," he says. "The waterfront was full of everybody, every kind of person, just doing what they needed to do. Going to sea was one of those things, breaking away from social and psychological constraints."

Holland also has roots in Seattle's political community. His great uncle was near-legendary City Council member Sam Smith. "He was my Politics 101," Holland says.

"I think we can make history!" Holland grins when asked what changes he'd bring to port management. For him, the key is his "Green Jobs" program.

"Look," he says, "our manufacturing base has dwindled. The building trades especially have seen their memberships drop. It's all about retooling the way we work, creating jobs that are difficult to ship overseas."

"Reduce air emissions," Holland says, ticking off the key points in his program. "We can retrofit our short-haul trucks to run on low sulfur diesel, biodiesel, or natural gas. We have a strong commitment already from the Port CEO [Tay Yoshitani]. We have to retrain workers - especially in the building trades - to build green. We can reduce energy costs for port tenants by 40%. Will that attract new tenants? Yeah, it will!"

While voters are often barely conscious of the Port Commission, Holland insists the Port is central to the region's wellbeing. "We have 50,000 direct port jobs in King County," he says. "That's longshore, crane operators, building trades, even international lawyers. Port related jobs for the whole region are upwards of 200,000."

"Those are living-wage jobs," Holland continues. "The average port job pays $44,000. That's way above national average."

Holland acknowledges the impact of the recession. "It's global," he says. "Airport business is down 7-9%, and we might be seeing an uptick in that, but the seaport is off 20%. There's not much a port commissioner can do about that."

Holland does believe that Port must be able to compete aggressively for international business in a tough economy. "We still have a large number of boxes that are discretionary," he says. "These containers can go anywhere. We have to invest in our infrastructure, maintain the terminals, the cranes, to be able to attract the business."

"Movability of goods is a big issue," Holland continues. "We have a large truck system here - 'drayage' is the word in the business - we have to enable the trucks to move from the piers to the warehouses in south King County."

Asked to weigh in on the competing plans for viaduct replacement, Holland chuckles. "Well, it's unfortunate people are not connected to the waterfront. It's such an important piece of the city. [The viaduct] really cuts people off from that. The tunnel seems to be where everyone wants to go. It took a long time to get there, so we need to be committed to it."

"The main thing is to move goods quickly. Not to leave choke points," he explains. "One thing is access to Ballard. We have a lot of 'mom and pops' there that actually move a lot of merchandise. And access south of Spokane Street. Those are the important pieces from the point of view of merchandise."

How would Holland like to leave the Port at the end of his term? "I'd like to see the Port be more transparent," he says. "I want people say 'I really like what the Port is doing.' This could be a 'turn the page moment.' We need the Port to be that."

"I want to see the Port reducing our environmental footprint," he continues. "We have a million square feet of port property. We employ thousands, tens of thousands, and we can retrain them to do that kind of work. Green work."

Holland's commitment to both a clean environment and economic development is reflected in his endorsement list. He has been endorsed by the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, the Building Trades Council of construction unions, and the Sierra Club. He has the support of every Democratic District organization that has endorsed so far. He is also endorsed by Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen, and four other City Council members, and by State Sen Ed Murray and State Rep Dave Upthegrove.

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