Molloy wins

A reformer takes a seat on the Port Commission.

LAWRENCE MOLLOY is worried. He is not concerned about a recount in his recent election victory over 28-year incumbent Jack Block for Seattle Port Commission, although his margin was only 3,400 votes out of over 320,000 cast. He’s not scared of the stiff challenges of his Port office overseeing the vast operations of Sea-Tac airport, the extensive marine business, or the complicated environmental and labor issues. Molloy is sweating over what happens to crusading outsiders who win. He says, chuckling, “Reformers become just like the rest of them.” He notes veteran Seattle Post- Intelligencer reporter Joel Connelly said to him, “My only advice to you if you get elected is to go out and rent Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Molloy’s concern, tempered with his usual wacky humor, underscores the startling nature of his victory. Molloy ran on a platform of using the Port to create “a sustainable and just society in King County.” While he raised good money—$89,000 to Block’s $81,000, according to the latest public reports—the Port race is countywide, which means he had to reach a large number of voters in his first local run for public office. He received very little free publicity: There has been a virtual news blackout of the race in Seattle’s daily newspapers; there were only three candidate forums for Port Commission candidates. The only thing he had going for him, besides his own hyperactive campaign effort, was the grassroots effort put on by labor and environmentalists. (Both groups also won a major victory by backing Greg Nickels for Seattle mayor.)

Labor’s support was especially notable because the incumbent Block is a longtime union member who actually works as a longshoreman on the waterfront. Block, however, outraged the King County Labor Council by not energetically opposing the Port’s effort to privatize certain waterfront jobs. The Labor Council used its muscle on Molloy’s behalf with an extensive, innovative program aimed specifically at union households.

Since Molloy has been a board member of the Washington Conservation Voters, the environmentalists’ work on his behalf was less surprising but no less crucial. The Conservation Voters’ formula of mailed advertising and volunteer phone calls targeted at environmentalists once again has proved itself very effective in local races.

As Molloy himself notes, now that he has won, the real challenge begins. Molloy has a million issues he wants to address, starting with transportation. He is very frustrated that Sound Transit’s latest proposed light-rail line stops one mile short of the airport. He claims, “The reason light rail doesn’t go to the airport is because the Port is behind schedule” on its Sea-Tac renovation plans.

Port Commissioner Bob Edwards acknowledges that, under current plans, Sea-Tac’s new northern terminal, the likely destination for the train, will not be completed until after Sound Transit has finished its first phase of light-rail construction. Edwards cautions further that after the terrorism of Sept. 11, the Port’s construction schedule is likely to slow down, not speed up.

Critics often accuse the Port of being dominated by a staff that is closed, bureaucratic, and fails to do proper community outreach. Molloy believes, “The Port has done a lousy job as a neighbor.” He hopes to shift the Port from being “a bureaucratic-driven entity” to one where “the Commission has more independent review.”

Commissioner Paige Miller says icily, “We will see what [Molloy] thinks after he has been there.” She points out that the Port does not have the usual separation of powers that characterize most branches of American government—think president and Congress, or mayor and City Council. Instead, under the Port’s system, the elected five-member Commission hires an executive director who is in charge of day-to-day operations. “The input of either side is therefore harder to see.”

Molloy also hopes to reinvigorate the broadest aspect of the Port’s mandate: its responsibility for the “economic development of King County.” He wants the Port to use its many capital projects on the waterfront and at the airport and its $45 million annual energy bill to incubate local clean-energy industries. “Let’s make wind turbines, solar panels, and variable speed drives,” he says enthusiastically.

The low-profile nature of the Seattle Port Commission will make his crusade all the more difficult. Few people pay attention to what goes on at the Port. Most people who do—lobbyists for the big industries that have business with the Port—are not likely to back Molloy’s reform agenda. “I’m going to piss people off,” Molloy acknowledges. “I’m going to make mistakes, but I am going to learn.” He knows it won’t be easy replacing Block. “Jack is an institution. He has 28 years of knowledge, I don’t even have 28 days yet.”