by Hanna Brooks Olsen
The Port of Seattle is known for having good jobs—the kind of good jobs that lawmakers promise to bring back to communities. The kind of good jobs that communities are built on. An engineer for the Port can expect to earn six figures. An analyst might earn just under that amount. Even the interns are compensated fairly well, considering their work is part-time.
Another position, however, doesn’t pay so well: Port Commissioner.
Port Commissioners—several of whom are currently running a heated race to keep their seats—earn less than $22/hr, or $45,474 per year. That’s on par with the median income for a single person in the State of Washington, as well as what the part-time politicians in Olympia make. But it’s quite a bit less than the pay of other government jobs, like the $112,000 earned by City of Seattle councilmembers, and it’s considerably less than the Port CEO’s $350,000 annual salary. It’s also not enough money to buy a house in a 10 mile radius around the Port’s downtown office.
But Commissioners who’ve been holding down a seat for longer than a single term know that the modest income they receive is a substantial improvement compared to their previous salary. In 2013, the Commission voted to give itself a raise, from $500 per month to $3,500 per month, which still included their $12,500 per diem.
At the time of the increase—which was tethered to the pay of the State legislators, which is also known to be prohibitively low—those in favor noted that it could draw a more diverse candidate pool. But not everyone wanted the extra money.
Then-Commissioner Bill Bryant, who would later run for Governor of the state (a job with a salary of $166k per year), opposed the raise. He’d been happily collecting the scant $500 per month since 2007—though it likely wasn’t a hardship for Bryant, who co-founded Bryant Christie Inc, an international affairs firm that works with large agricultural businesses and has an average estimated salary of $98,000 per year.
Which gets to the heart of the issue with regard to government jobs and how much our elected officials get paid. On the one hand, there’s the argument for fiscal conservatism—our tax dollars pay those people, after all—but on the other, there’s the very real issue personal finance and the ways it shapes decisions and leadership.
Poor Pay, Rich Commissioners
It’s not unusual for lawmakers to work for beans. Across the country, most legislative positions aren’t treated like full-time jobs, and they’re not paid like them, either. Unfortuantely, that means that independent wealth is all but required to take a job that requires so much time and effort and compensates with so little. If the point of the ultra-low salaries is to ensure that candidates only run for those positions because they really want them, the end result is a lot of very passionate, very wealthy people.
A scan of the existing Port Commission indicates that this is, in fact, the case. Many of the sitting commissioners have personal coffers that mean they can work for peanuts without breaking a sweat.
John Creighton comes from family money; his father was the former CEO of Weyerhauser.
Courtney Gregoire has worked as an attorney for Microsoft and the daughter of the former Governor of Washington State.
Tom Albro owns the Seattle Monorail Services, a private company which manages the Monorail for the City of Seattle and earns as much as $750,000 per year.
That’s not the case for everyone, though, and it’s certainly a consideration when it comes to running for a Port seat.
“I have kids,” said candidate Ryan Calkins, “I couldn’t do this if my wife wasn’t working.”
Of course, it’s not exactly something that candidates want to campaign on; vying for an office on a platform of asking for more tax dollars to go directly into your own pocket isn’t a particularly flattering look. But it’s at least on their minds.
This isn’t unique to the Port of Seattle, either. Legislative pay has been a back-and-forth battle across positions and states for years. Economist Stephen Dubner weighed the question back in 2012, explaining that while he wasn’t “willing to argue that paying U.S. government officials more would necessarily improve our political system,” he would contend that “it is probably a bad idea to expect that enough good politicians and civil servants will fill those jobs even though they can make a lot more money doing something else.”
In an NPR report from January this year, Neil Malhotra, a political scientist from Stanford, stated that “there’s very, very few working class people in legislatures.”
“This might have something to do with why a lot of legislation does not seem very friendly towards working class people,” he explained.
How Personal Wealth Plays Out in Politics
Indeed, the Port of Seattle—despite its reputation for good jobs—has not seemed especially friendly to workers in the last few years. They’ve sunk millions of dollars in legal fees into the fight against SeaTac’s minimum wage, sided with huge corporations in fights over contracts, and generally stayed out of the most crucial issues in Seattle, like housing affordability.
Low wages also make it difficult to run a race that all but demands wealthy friends and contributors—folks who don’t have wealthy families or aren’t willing to take corporate donations are less likely to be able to get people around them to cut the check.
Commissioners routinely accept donations from Alaska Airlines, Delta, concessions corporations, and the vendors who are often on the other side of labor disputes. Though there is an explicit condemnation of quid pro quo, it’s hard to imagine a campaign that was financed by powerful special interests suddenly siding with the workers, not the employers.
Meanwhile, people who come from money just have an easier time fundraising. Creighton’s family alone has donated close to $10,000 to his campaign. In her 2015 campaign, wherein her nearest opponent was perennial non-candidate Goodspaceguy Nelson, Gregoire raised over $100,000 and spent almost all of it, tapping both her own family and the family of her husband, Scott Lindsay, for donations.
This isn’t to say that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with having connections and family members with means—but it does indicate another substantial barrier to getting a more diverse range of candidates to run for the Port.
If you have to quit your day job, spend your own time and money, and call in every favor you’ve ever accumulated to contend for a Commission’s seat, it might be nice to be able to actually make a living on the salary once you get the job. Unfortunately, at just about $45,000, that’s getting harder and harder to do in Seattle.
If citizens want to see a Port Commission that is a bit more sympathetic to the plight of low-wage workers, they may need to hire someone who’s worked for low wages in the past—and doesn’t have a separate surplus of personal finance to fall back on.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a co-founding editor of Seattlish and has written for the Atlantic, CityLab, and Seattle Met. When not stringing together words or making sounds she enjoys music on vinyl, bourbon, college football, making impulse purchases at second-hand stores, ballet, and sitting in dark bars with friends. She also sings a mean rendition of Walking in Memphis.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Nick Swanson