That was a jubilant Sam Cho on the night of his 2019 election to the Seattle Port Commission. The celebration was at an International District restaurant crowded with friends and family. I was then a Port staffer, and I marveled that this young man, just 29, was on the verge of beating a longtime political figure.
Four years later, Cho ran unopposed for a second term. The son of Korean immigrants, he has received national attention for his work against human trafficking, been appointed to a federal trade panel, inducted into the national Asian American Hall of Fame, and helped seal a major deal with a Korean shipper for a new auto facility in Tacoma.
In August, the Kirkland resident was named Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, with responsibility over the mayor’s downtown redevelopment strategy. The job will thrust him to the forefront of the citywide battle over restoring the downtown core, policing, and drug addiction.
In the 2019 Port Commission election, attorney and former Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger was far and away the early favorite over the newcomer Cho. What the political establishment did not recognize at the time was that Cho was one of a rising tide of young, progressive, and politically well-connected men and women of color with strong ties to labor. These rising stars are collaborating and supporting each other to win key offices in government and institutions. Together, they are working to reshape the regional conversation around race, equity, climate change, and economic development.
For Cho, this means giving a voice to communities near the seaport and airport – with large immigrant and minority populations – in Port decisions. It also means taking a hard look at how to undo decades of racial disparities in a large public organization.
“At the end of the day, we provide public services. We have to make sure we listen to those who have been disproportionately affected’’ by the Port’s operations, he said. “We are making sure their voices are heard. They just want to be heard.’’
“Sam Cho is committed to seeing his background not as a liability but as a strength,” said fellow Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa, elected in 2021 when she toppled another fixture in Seattle politics, Peter Steinbrueck. “[Cho] is razor-sharp. What is so special is the human-centered approach he brings to leadership.”
But at the same time, Cho and his fellow commissioners must deal with the business challenges of a major port – an airport straining to accommodate growing demand with costly new infrastructure, and a seaport fighting to reverse years of declining cargo volume in a hotly competitive market.
Cho’s rapid rise surprised even him. His family ran a Kirkland dry-cleaner, Cho says, “I used to clean white collars. Now I wear one.” But only a little surprised, since Cho has plotted his path in politics carefully.
After graduating from American University in Washington, DC, and the London School of Economics, Cho had worked for a California congresswoman and the Obama Administration. He left DC and returned home following Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
He has become a man in a hurry. His first business venture came as a result of the Asian bird-flu epidemic of 2017, when he saw the opportunity to sell US eggs in Asia. His first attempt to ship fresh eggs failed, so he shifted to shipping frozen egg products. Over two years, he sold more than 2.5 million pounds of egg products.
He later found a job in Olympia with longtime Washington state senator, Bob Hasegawa, a Teamsters labor leader, and father of Toshiko Hasegawa. Gov.
Gary Locke Jay Inslee later appointed Cho to the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.
With an eye to a political future, Cho said he realized he needed a grounding in local and state government. “For me, it was very strategic. It was one step back to take three steps forward,” he said. In 2019, Port Commissioner Courtney Gregoire decided not to seek a second term. Cho entered the race, but admits the Port then was not at the top of his list of elected offices. More often the Port has been a dead-end for politicians. The Port had a reputation as being dominated by “old dudes,” Cho said, although its makeup has evolved over the years.
Opponent Grant Degginger, an attorney in business practice and former Bellevue mayor, came close to fitting the old-school profile. A moderate Republican and staffer of the late Rep. Joel Pritchard, he was backed by port-related industries.
But Cho had tapped into a shift in the local political landscape that saw younger, more diverse candidates with strong progressive and labor credentials emerging from communities around the county. Many of them share the same political consultant: Michael Charles, of Upper Left Strategies.
Cho was followed to the Port Commission in 2021 elections by Hasegawa and Hamdi Mohamed, then a King County immigration-policy specialist and Somali immigrant who unseated longtime incumbent Stephanie Bowman. Mohamed now works in the Harrell administration. For the first time in its history, people of color make up the majority of the Commission.
They join King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, State Sen. Joe Nguyen, Seattle School Board member Brandon Hersey, Greater Seattle Partners Executive Director Brian Surratt, Tacoma Port Commissioner Kristen Ang, and others in positions of power.
Cho is “pragmatic, focused on getting things done, getting results,’’ observes political consultant Sandeep Kaushik, who did battle with Cho and the Port over zoning protections for industrial and maritime areas.
Cho has balanced progressive values with a business-friendly approach to the Port’s aviation and maritime operations, Kaushik said. “Given how divided Seattle politics has gotten, I can count on one hand the people who have a demonstrated ability to breach the divide.”
Zahilay, the King County Councilmember, said he credits commissioners Cho, Hasegawa, Mohammed, and Ryan Calkins with pushing the Port to forge better relationships with communities, ramping up small-business export assistance, and to taking stands on important human-rights issues such as human trafficking.
“Our government is stronger when people who have been marginalized have more influence over decisions,’’ Zahily said. “The new commission has brought people in.”
Early on, after Hasegawa and Mohamed joined Cho on the commission, there were worries internally and externally about radical changes in the Port’s approach to its maritime and aviation businesses. That hasn’t proved the case. They have approved big spending requests to improve maritime terminals, and committed to a mammoth overhaul of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s main terminal as passenger volume rises steadily.
One airline source called Cho “eager to learn, sensible and pragmatic.” Commissioners recognize the airport’s economic benefits to the community. “They won’t stand in the way of progress,” he said.
The airport’s long-term redevelopment strategy, which calls for a new passenger terminal building and a host of other improvements to add capacity, has been delayed by protracted environment review. In the meantime, the search for a new commercial airport location has stalled. Cho acknowledges, however, Sea-Tac needs more aircraft gates today just to handle existing traffic.
The new commissioners’ approach to business is not to change what the Port does, but to more aggressively influence how the Port relates to its workers, its tenants’ employees, and the community at large. This has translated into significant increases in direct Port spending to community development and job-training programs, along with accelerated airport noise-mitigation building improvements.
The new commissioners are pushing to advance Port environmental initiatives such as green cargo-shipping corridors between Puget Sound and Korea, and cruise routes to Alaska. The concept involves lower-emission vessels and shore-power connections at docks.
Cho “is a great combination of old school and new school,” said Commissioner Ryan Calkins, who applauds the push to broaden the Commission’s focus. “The millennial generation of political leaders and their emphasis on the environment, equity, law and justice and community impacts is leaning into significant cultural change at the Port,’’ Calkins said.
Some examples: Hasegawa is pushing for an airport child-care center to serve airport workers, a concept now under study. Mohamed has pushed for expanded break-room facilities for Uber and Lyft drivers, as well as taxi drivers, even though they are not Port employees. The Port will likely expand funding for community-development grants beyond the Sea-Tac area to the entire county.
Within the Port, Cho was the lead author of a motion aimed at promoting equity and ending structural racism in the Port’s workplace and operations. The motion directed Executive Director Steve Metruck to examine Port policies for racial bias and discrimination and to develop programs to eliminate inequity.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the Port hired an outside firm to review the Port Police Department’s use of force and other practices. Employees throughout the Port were involved, and the Police Department embraced the recommendations.
The Port’s anti-discrimination efforts did not begin with Cho – Metruck had earlier created the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion reporting to him – but the pace clearly has accelerated in recent years.
The transition has not always been smooth. The most common internal criticism of Cho, Hasegawa, and Mohamed is that the number of new initiatives diverts time and resources from the central economic development mission of the port.
The counter-argument is that expanding community programs and political engagement of Cho, Hasegawa, and Mohamed has made friends of former adversaries in neighborhoods around the Port. “The work of the Port is complex. They have shown a willingness to understand the details of these issues. They bring to the table strong connections to stakeholders,” says a senior Port executive.
The Port’s Alaska cruise business – which has rebounded strongly following the COVID pandemic — has come under fire by some environmental organizations over engine emissions and discharge of treated sewage, along with accusations about shipboard working conditions. Cruise passengers have been a vital source of income for struggling downtown businesses.
“The way I see it, there will be cruise in Seattle, or cruise somewhere else,” said Cho. “We want to be leaders on sustainability, and we are going to make [the cruise lines] comply.” It remains an open question, however, whether the Port will revive plans for new cruise berths at Terminal 46 near Pioneer Square. The U.S. Coast Guard has identified a portion of T-46 for potential expansion of its patrol-vessel operations, but most commissioners are reluctant to give up T-46 cargo-container space for Coast Guard use.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Seattle and Tacoma ports, which formed the Northwest Seaport Alliance joint venture in 2015, has been the stubborn decline in cargo-container shipments since the pandemic. The volume of import and export containers dropped 19.3 percent since the high point in 2018. Some days of the week the cargo terminals close their gates due to a lack of business.
Many factors are at play. The US trade conflict with China, labor tensions on the West Coast, high interest rates, shifts in production to Vietnam and other south Asian countries, and intense competition with Canadian and US East Coast and Gulf Coast ports all contribute to a grim outlook for Seattle cargo. One bright spot is a sharp increase in auto deliveries, resulting from an agreement with a major importer to consolidate its shipments of Korean cars in Tacoma. Cho, a Korean speaker, helped seal the deal in Seoul meetings with company executives.
Even as the Alliance faces growing external threats, two outspoken Tacoma port commissioners, John McCarthy and Don Meyer, stirred controversy by publishing an op-ed in the News Tribune of Tacoma asserting that Tacoma gets too little cash from the joint venture for the business generated in its harbor, and that Seattle is getting the lion’s share of capital-investment spending.
Tacoma Commissioner Deanna Keller, who is co-chair of the Alliance with Cho, called the controversy “embarrassing,” and argues that over the long term the investments in both ports will benefit the entire region. Meyer and McCarthy “don’t understand a joint business relationship,” she said.
Cho likened the Alliance to a marriage with many partners. “But you have some old hands who look out for their home port rather than the Alliance,’’ he said.
Both Cho and Keller voice optimism that the Alliance’s business downturn can be reversed by focusing on better customer service, such as faster cargo handling, incentives to railroads, and diversifying its businesses. They both hope for improved trade relations with China, still the region’s biggest trading partner, and more federal infrastructure aid.
As Port of Seattle Commission president, Cho also had to manage the Commission resolution admonishing Commissioner Fred Fellema, following a year-long ethics investigation of staff complaints against Felleman. The outside investigation concluded that Felleman had used his elected position in an effort to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself and that he sought special consideration, treatment, or advantage from others.
The accusations stemmed from persistent pressure brought by Felleman on staff to sit in on discussions by a multi-agency staff panel on protections for killer whales, which had decided against admitting elected officials. Felleman, long an activist on killer whale issues, asserted he only wanted to provide his special expertise to the panel.
The Commission unanimously voted to admonish Felleman and ordered him to undergo remedial training and to apologize to staff. Cho said he advised Felleman “nose in, fingers out,’’ meaning an elected official can ask plenty of questions but should keep their hands out of operations.
As if the Port’s challenges were not daunting enough, Cho is now in charge of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s efforts to reverse the post-pandemic slide of Seattle’s downtown.
The post came up while Cho and Harrell were on a study mission abroad. “’Sam, I need a do-er,’’’ Cho recalled Harrell saying. Cho accepted the challenge. “I have a reputation of getting stuff done. We have a lot of talkers and thinkers, but we need some do-ers.” Cho said.
Recovery efforts for Seattle’s downtown suffered another setback recently with the announcement that PCC Community Market at Rainier Tower will close after only two years in operation. Lack of consistent downtown foot traffic was blamed.
Cho will engage with the downtown stakeholders as part of Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan, a set of legislative, regulatory, and programmatic efforts to revitalize and transform the city’s center. Cho says public safety is the top priority. “It doesn’t matter what you do if downtown feels unsafe,’’ Cho said. His other tasks will involve international marketing and “re-imagining downtown,’’ such as looking at new uses for downtown buildings.
Jon Scholes, executive director of the Downtown Seattle Association, said Harrell is building a strong downtown team. He admits disappointment with the PCC closure but notes “the demand for urban living is stronger than it ever has been.” Scholes points to improvement in workers returning to offices. The percentage of workers downtown is now about 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Another plus: violent crime is down.
What is most needed from the city, Scholes says, is a commitment to combat open drug use on many downtown streets. Fentanyl use is driving a soaring death rate downtown. “We need to intervene in the peddling of poison. Can we agree that there should be pro-active intervention? City Hall is lagging behind the public on this question,” Scholes says.
Cho’s Port Commission seat will no doubt create some difficulties with his City Hall post. The Port and city have many complicated interactions and not a few conflicts. Cho said he will recuse himself from city issues if conflicts arise.
Cho is clearly ambitious, but where will that ambition take him? He has carefully cultivated his community ties and is a strong advocate for progressive issues while also building relationships to business. Since his election, he held posts with Lyft, the ride-share service, and an EV power firm. “The world is Sam’s oyster,” said County Councilmember Zahilay, himself a rising political star.
“Sam has a great commitment to making this region work for everybody,’’ said Brian Surratt, CEO of Greater Seattle Partners, the regional economic development agency. “He is a great asset for the community, someone who represents such an interesting background and perspectives on our community.”
As his first term ends, Cho gets high marks from staff and his colleagues. But as he embarks on a second term, he will be watched closely to see how he handles the pressures of both the commission job and the City Hall post, and how well he navigates the prickly relations between the governments.
In the mid-20th Century, the Port Commission was a place for elder statesmen in the business community who made decisions at downtown lunches. Once elected, seats were relatively safe given the Port’s low profile. Commission candidates with higher ambitions, however, found the Port most often a dead end, with the notable exception of Paul Schell who left the Commission in 1998 to run successfully for Seattle mayor.
Cho appears poised to break that paradigm. Indeed, Cho and the others of his generation may be on the verge of establishing a dominant new regional political class.
Cho takes a long view of his public service and understands the importance of winning an institutions’ support for new initiatives. “My primary focus is: How do I make what I do stick beyond my tenure?’’ he says. “To make lasting change you need organizational buy-in.”
Cho expects he will take on new jobs in the future beyond the Port – perhaps higher elected office, an appointment to an economic-development post, or a return to business. “I don’t have to be an elected official for the rest of my life,” he said. “I have a lot of options.”