Photo of an overview of the Port of Seattle.

Incumbents Face Off With Social Justice-Minded Challengers for Port Commission

by Hannah Krieg

Paige Robertson is a young climate justice advocate who lives under the flight path of Sea-Tac International Airport. This means an aircraft could be over her head as often as every 45 seconds, said another concerned resident of the SeaTac area. 

According to a 96-page report by Public Health – Seattle & King County, more than 50% of the people in King County who identify as Black/African American, Hispanic, Latino, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander live within 10 miles of the Sea-Tac airport. This same radius also has the highest rating for negative health outcomes such as heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, premature birth, and cancer. 

“We are learning that the tech airport wants to expand so it can service the 40% increase in takeoffs and landings,” Robertson said at the Thursday, July 22, Port of Seattle Commission candidates’ forum. “Why would you want to do that when it is already harmful to our health and the planet? What will you do as port commissioner to prevent this added harm and tell us you care about our generation who has to live with all this mess?”

The forum repeatedly emphasized Robertson’s points: Sea-Tac’s environmental impact, its disportionate effect on the well-being of People of Color, and how port commissioners will fix it.

The forum, hosted by Beacon Hill Council of Seattle, 350 Seattle, and Climate Reality Project – Washington State, was divided into three parts where the two candidates vying for each of the three positions went head-to-head answering four questions, a fifth from their opponent, and finally answering lightning round questions with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. 

Incumbents Ryan Calkins (Position 1), Stephanie Bowman (Position 3), and Peter Steinbrueck (Position 4) are challenged respectively by Norman Sigler, Hamdi Mohamed, and Toshiko Hasegawa. All the incumbents are white and their challengers are People of Color. Mohamed and Hasegawa, who both live under the flight path, would be the first Women of Color on the Port Commission if elected. According to informal polling after each segment of the forum, these two challengers — both with a background in equity and social justice in state and local government — were decisively favored by attendees. 

In the first debate between Calkins and Sigler, who if elected would be the only commissioner with airline experience, Calkins noted the two were fighting for similar interests. 

“I’m a big fan of traveling,” Sigler said in response to a question about lowering harmful emissions. “I think it connects us as humans on the planet, but we need to travel in ways that are not going to kill us.”

Sigler says he supports “putting mandates” on both the cruise and airline industry so that they meet stricter environmental standards. Calkins, so far a one-term commissioner, appeared to have more concrete plans like working toward electric aviation, using cleaner burning fuels, and replacing short flights with high-speed ground transportation.

In a lightning round, the moderator asked the candidates if they support the decision to turn North SeaTac Park into a parking lot. While it was an easy thumbs-down for the challenger, Calkins told the forum that he and the other commissioners were not legally allowed to answer. 

The Zoom room voted for Calkins over Sigler in a poll. 

Incumbent Bowman and challenger Mohamed, who is a policy advisor for the King County Executive Office of Equity and Social Justice, were welcomed to the virtual stage with virtual applause — the American Sign Language sign for applause. 

In the round that allows for questions from candidate to candidate, Mohamed, a South King County resident living under the flight path, asked if Bowman, who lives in the airport-affected neighborhood Beacon Hill, would support a commissioner from South King County. Both Mohamed and Hasegawa criticised the lack of geographic representation on the commission. 

“We understand what happens at the airport, even though we don’t live next to it,” Bowman said of herself and other commissioners who live in less impacted neighborhoods. Bowman stressed listening.

When asked about the parking lot, Bowman said that she personally does not favor cutting down trees, but did not address the question directly. 

Voters in the meeting supported Mohamed in the poll following their portion of the forum. 

Though both claim to come from activist families, incumbent Steinbruek and Hasegawa had perhaps the most tension of any of the duos. Steinbruek even yielded part of his time to press Hasegawa to be more specific on a previous answer. 

Hasegawa emphasized thoughtfulness toward marginalized groups, especially Indigenious folks, in efforts to better care for the lands. Steinbruek relied on his experience, even using his question to Hasegawa as what a viewer in the chat referred to as an “acronym quiz,” by asking about “DNL,” which stands for day-night average sound level. 

For a moment, Hasegawa glitched, but when her connection re-stabilized she said, “DNL did not listen to community because it kept moving forward and expanded operations.”

When Hasegawa asked why Steinbruek is the best fit to represent historically marginalized groups, he pointed back to his social justice background. 

When the parking lot question popped up in the lightning round, Steinbruek was the only incumbent to give an enthusiastic “no” with a thumbs-down. 

Hasegawa won the poll against the incumbent. 

The primary was cancelled for all three of these races. Seattle voters will decide who will manage the Port in the general election in November. If Thursday’s forum was any indication, the attendees from various environmental groups are ready for some new faces on the Port Commission.

Hannah Krieg is a Seattle-based journalist dedicated to news coverage that puts people first. Hannah enjoys writing about local and state politics, social issues, and anything that lets her talk with activists. You can find more of her writing at Crosscut, the International Examiner, and Real Change News.

📸 Featured image is attributed to SounderBruce (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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