Port of Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins Talks Equity and the Environment
Release Date: 04/23/2021
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This week Port of Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins joins Crystal to discuss not only what a port commissioner actually does, but how it can impact the lives of our entire state. Topics include what the Port is doing to fight climate change, how it can protect the rights of gig workers operating within the Port’s area, and how an entity like the Port - that operates in several jurisdictions and cities - can promote environmental, social, and economic justice.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Learn more about the Port of Seattle’s plans to fight climate change here: https://www.portseattle.org/blog/port-programs-fight-climate-change
Get into the pollution from the port that specifically affects South Seattle here: https://crosscut.com/2019/06/can-beacon-hill-win-fight-quieter-skies-and-healthier-neighborhood
Learn more about the cleanup of the Duwamish River here: https://www.duwamishcleanup.org/
Find out more about ideas for insuring gig workers here: https://hbr.org/2020/07/gig-workers-are-here-to-stay-its-time-to-give-them-benefits
Find information that has been presented to the Port’s Biometrics External Advisory Group here: https://www.portseattle.org/page/biometrics-external-advisory-group
Find out more about the inaccuracies and risks of employing facial recognition technology here: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/racial-discrimination-in-face-recognition-technology/
Read about Washington State’s airports response to ICE deportations using their facilities here: https://crosscut.com/2019/10/searching-airports-host-deportation-flights-ice-gets-rejected-everett-and-bellingham
Learn about offshore wind farms, like the one referenced in the episode, here: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/northwest-could-get-its-own-offshore-wind-farm-by-2017/
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
And I'm very pleased to be welcoming Ryan Calkins, Port Commissioner for the Port of Seattle to the show today. Thanks for being with us.
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:01:00] Thank you. Yeah, long-time listener, first-time caller. I'm really excited to be here.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:05] Super excited to have you. And I'm excited to talk about the Port. Being a Port Commissioner is a really, in my opinion, over the years has been slept on, but a really important position, really important function. You have a huge jurisdiction. You're responsible for a lot. So I guess I just wanted to start off by asking what attracted you to look at serving on the Port Commission and what are you responsible for?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:01:35] Yeah, so I mean, when I first ran four years ago, my motivation was really driven by a couple of things. Principally by what I felt like was the need to take climate change more seriously at the Port of Seattle, that it is an agency that is deeply involved in transportation and ships, trucks, planes, trains. And obviously the transportation sector has got a climate problem, and we need to act quickly to address it.
And then the other part of it was it's an economic development agency at heart. And so when we look at our regional economy and how - that was right in the middle of this boom period for our City, prior to the pandemic, where we were seeing overall macroeconomic numbers go through the roof. And yet it wasn't a vision of shared prosperity for our economy. And I felt like the Port of Seattle was one place where we could really instill a sense of shared prosperity. How do we make sure that the - forgive the maritime metaphor - but how could we make sure a rising tide will lift all boats? And in particular, the areas in King County, in our jurisdiction where we have seen people historically be furthest from economic justice are areas right around Port facilities, the airport, the seaport.
And so yeah, like you said, it's kind of a quiet political jurisdiction, but a really, really important one. And we have about $1 billion a year roughly in operating budget. And right now, we're doing about $1 billion a year in capital construction budget as well. So it's a hugely impactful agency to be a part of. And so that's why I got interested and was able to kind of surprise, I think, an incumbent. And before he knew it, I was off and running, and we managed to squeak out a win four years ago.
And now I'm up for reelection and the messaging hasn't changed a whole lot, but I will say that there's one area that I didn't emphasize enough as a first-time candidate, and this time I'm really going to lean into, and that's that question of equity. That I came in very much an environmentalist, and now I would say that I'm an environmental justice advocate. And particularly after four years of lots of community meetings with folks who really appreciate the intent of a lot of the environmental movement, but have, like me - I'll admit I didn't understand how important it was to make sure that we had the right people at the table. And so this campaign cycle, I'm really thinking a lot about how do we do this? How do we carry forward a vision of shared prosperity and a message of environmental justice for those communities that historically have been most impacted by Port activities?
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:36] Yeah and crucially important - a lot of conversations around that right now. And as someone who lives in the 33rd, certainly, there has been a lot of research done specifically when it comes to the airport, and impacts from the airport on air quality, and those who live in the surrounding areas, and having direct impacts on the health of the families that live there. And I guess starting out in terms of what can be done to mitigate that impact, I know that's something that you have been looking at, are going to be continuing. What is happening to help reduce the amount of pollution that's being put into the air, the surrounding neighborhoods, and to mitigate that impact and to make sure that we aren't looking at the kinds of health disparities between one area of our region versus other areas?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:05:34] Yeah. I mean, the 33rd, obviously, I hear from a lot of constituents there about the air and noise pollution associated with airport operations. And then in other parts of the district, and particularly in the Duwamish Valley, the neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown and cities of Tukwila and elsewhere, they're dealing with the water and air pollution associated with maritime operations and just the overall industrial activity that occurs around a Port facility - trucks coming and going and the machines that operate on the facilities. And so we're really looking at how we tackle - what it comes down to for us, in most instances, is that we're a fossil fuel economy and we need to break that addiction as quickly as possible.
So on the seaport side of things, we have put forward a plan called the Seattle Waterfront Clean Energy Plan that seeks to essentially decarbonize the waterfront in the next 30 years. And it's in collaboration with the City of Seattle because our waterfront is entirely within the City of Seattle, and we need their help. We need more electricity. We need Seattle City Light to bring us more electrons on the waterfront so that we can replace that source of energy that is currently coming from a lot of diesel fuel. And we also need industry partnerships in other things. There's a lot of areas that while we're a port, we may not have jurisdiction over. And that's where, with my colleagues, I like to distinguish between hard power and soft power, which is kind of from my old days in foreign policy stuff. We may not have hard power in certain areas, but we do have soft power to create influence or model the way for other agencies to say there is an economically viable way that we can sort of destroy that myth of environmental sustainability at odds with economic development. I really believe we're at a point now where those things go hand in glove in most places, and particularly in Seattle.
And at the airport, where we're dealing with both the issues related to air pollution and noise pollution from airport facilities, probably the single most important project we're working on is sustainable aviation fuels, which is the creation of combustible fuels that can be used in current airplanes. You don't have to change anything about the airplanes, but it burns a lot cleaner and isn't a fossil fuel. And so the news this week that the State Senate passed the low carbon fuel standard, now it's going back to the House for concurrence, is a really important step for us. We are waiting with bated breath to see if that will get agreed upon and sent to the governor's desk. But if it does, it's a necessary but not sufficient step towards sustainable aviation fuels and a greater supply of clean electricity for our waterfront project as well.
So that has been our highest legislative priority ever since I joined the Port of Seattle Commission. And so a lot rests on that and I will keep pushing that for the next - I think we're down to 10 days in session - because we really need that to be able to take some strides. Just imagine, for instance, if we were able to produce sustainable aviation fuels from the municipal solid waste that is going into the landfill in Cedar Hills, in King County. We could divert that waste flow, turn it into energy that could then be used in our planes and our ships, and it burns a lot cleaner too. So the air quality benefits are good for our communities as well.
And then we've got a number of - for the water quality piece, I think a really important part of that is what we've been working on in the Duwamish River. And that project has been successful in large part because the community mobilized and it wasn't just a bunch of electeds or public servants doing the planning. But instead it was led by community efforts in Georgetown and South Park to say, "We want cleanup and we want it done this way so that the folks in the community benefit."
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:45] Well, that's certainly useful and helpful. One thing I wanted to talk about - you talked about balancing economic development and sustainability, and making sure that we don't harm our environment and the people living in it while still being competitive economically and growing our region and the economy in our region. There's been a lot of talk about wages workers are paid, conditions, workers - everyone from direct employees of the Port to truckers, people working throughout the entire ecosystem of the Port. I guess where are you at in terms of - do you feel like things are where they should be today? Do you feel like we still have a ways to go? And what's on the agenda? What's on your agenda for advancing worker conditions and pay and rights?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:10:42] Well, I want to start with wages because I think there's nothing like more money in people's pockets to improve outcomes in health, education, quality of life, longevity, all sorts of things. When you give people money - no, when people are able to earn more money, virtually every metric goes towards the positive, right? So 10 years ago when the debate was happening around 15 Now, I was part of the coalition of small business - I was a small business owner prior to this - I was part of the coalition supporting 15 Now, and I was pleased to see it pass in SeaTac originally, and then in Seattle. And I'm very much in favor of an increase in the national minimum wage, the federal minimum wage, as quickly as possible. And I personally believe that we ought to be north of $20 now for our region, for the country, to get back to where we were 30 years ago, let alone 40 years ago when really the Reagan revolution kicked off and undercut middle income families and has slowly resulted in income disparities that I think are really harmful to our democracy.
And so wages are critically important at the Port of Seattle. This session, we're working with labor partners to ensure that this carve-out that had resulted in a number of workers around the airport, the flight kitchen workers, had been exempted. And it was originally part of Prop 1 - it was well-intended, but it resulted in a group of workers that were still earning $11.50-12 an hour instead of the north of $15 that they should be earning. And so we were able to go to Olympia this session, work with Senator Keiser and labor leaders to get that sort of technical fix in the bill. And as soon as the governor signs it, we'll be ready to work with the employers in the area to bring those employees up to the wages they deserve.
In the larger Port ecosystem, there are a lot of folks who work in and around the Port that are gig workers. And I think there is an opportunity for Port elected officials to raise our voices about the need to backstop those workers with the same kind of protections that regular-wage workers have. So in the pandemic, we've understood that it's critically important for those people to have access to unemployment benefits. And I think portable benefits should be an option for workers, whether they're working for what we call TNCs, the transportation network companies like Uber or Lyft, or other forms of gig work that are popping up all over the place. And the ability for folks to maintain their healthcare, to maintain their pensions, to maintain other forms of benefits, as they move around in our really mobile economy now is, I think, really important. And so that's a conversation that we're having and something that I'm very supportive of because I think that kind of employee mobility forces employers to compete for workers too.
Crystal Fincher: [00:14:11] Absolutely. And I think that's critically important and certainly part of our national conversation, the local conversation. What levers do you have, just within your jurisdiction in the Port, to try and move that forward? Is that something that you can address in contracts? Or if you're awarding contracts to vendors or doing that, what can you do as a Port Commissioner to help make that happen?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:14:41] So the Port of Seattle operates mostly as a landlord. I mean, we have 2,000 employees, roughly - 1,000 of whom work at the airport, and 1,000 scattered about at our administration building, or our maintenance facilities, or elsewhere. We have a police department, a fire department. We have, I think, just about two dozen unions that we negotiate directly. So we have a large workforce ourselves. But you think about the number of direct jobs at SeaTac, for instance. We figure there's about 21,000 people who work at the airport. So 1,000 of them are our employees, the other 20,000 work for the roughly 350 businesses - very large businesses like Delta and Alaska Airlines, and very small businesses like independent contractors who have a taxi. And figuring out how to herd those cats and get everybody providing quality jobs has been a real challenge, right? Because you're working with various levels of - you've got the federal government saying, "Here's a set of rules that you have to follow because you're an FAA grant recipient." You've got the state government saying, "Here's a set of rules that you have to abide by because you're an employer in the State of Washington." And then we've got municipal rules from the City of SeaTac, too. So there are a whole host of intersecting jurisdictions.
And the way that Washington set up our port districts back in 1911 was as a limited-purpose jurisdiction. So we don't get all the same authorities that a city gets. And we fought that a few times. So we, for instance, can't personally set a minimum wage at the airport. That's set by the City of SeaTac, right? But we can, as I was saying before, use some soft power to say, "Hey, City of SeaTac. We would like to be able to do certain things within your jurisdiction." And we're a huge part of their tax base, and so that can be a conversation.
In other circumstances, we can, as you talked about, work with contracts and leases to say, "If you're going to operate a business in our facility, then there are certain baseline minimum things that we want you to adhere to." Sometimes that pushes over certain lines and we get pushback. But a good example of that is - and they call that a use of a proprietary power - they say Sea-Tac Airport, as an operator of a big facility, is entitled to make certain requirements of its tenants to ensure that the facility runs in the way that we, the Port of Seattle, want it to run. And so yeah, when we sit down at the table with potential partners, whether it's airlines or concessionaires or others or taxi cab associations, we build into those negotiations - environmental key performance indicators, labor harmony agreements, customer service requirements, so that we have set of values that we're trying to make sure are carried out whether we're the operator or we contract with somebody else to do it. So that is absolutely a really important way that we can live out the values that we talk about on the campaign trail.
Crystal Fincher: [00:18:00] I appreciate that. Another thing I'm wondering about, you mentioned that the Port has its own police department. You certainly work because there is federal facilities, federal travel, interstate travel. There's Customs and Border Patrol who are operating there in a number of jurisdictions, especially dealing with immigration and immigration enforcement. And we have been having a lot of conversations. And certainly in King County, it's pretty clear, just in terms of policies and cities throughout the county, that limiting interaction, cooperation with Customs and Border Patrol and ICE in terms of expanding their authority and cooperation - informing them, sharing data, that kind of thing, is not something that most cities here are comfortable with, most jurisdictions are comfortable with. And certainly looking at some of the actions that we saw from the Trump administration that are still continuing to this day and people being uncomfortable with the, I guess, scope of authority that other agencies have when it comes to immigration enforcement. Where do you stand on that? And what do you think is working right, and what do you think needs to change?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:19:35] I personally am - I believe we need to change the overall narrative around immigration. I think a lot of us on the left have simply bought into the storytelling that the right uses around immigration - that immigration is a sort of, it's an evil that we need to avoid. And instead, I think immigration is the secret sauce of our country. I mean, the narrative tends to be, how do we stop these people from coming? And we know that some will eventually get through anyways. And instead, I think we should be saying, how do we embrace those immigrants who are coming to the United States? Because it has forever been what has made us so innovative and vital and continue to push economic and cultural leadership around the world because we get the very best ideas from all over the place. And it isn't that we assimilate them. It's that we change to be more like the cultures that come and make up our new blend.
And so this is something I'm personally very passionate about. I'm especially exercised right now about what's happening on the southern border with children, where the narrative continues to be, how do we stop this flow of children? And I feel like, No, we ought to be talking about how do we step up with all of our societal wealth and rescue these kids who are escaping a place that has undergone horrible natural disasters that in fact, weren't natural. They were human disasters as a result of terrible policies. And I speak from a position of real experience, right? My first job out of college was - I spent a year in Honduras working disaster relief. And it felt in so many ways like this year was just a repeat of what we saw 20 years ago, when two hurricanes this time came through. And these folks are desperate. And if we were in their shoes, we would simply be asking for an opportunity to find safety and a bite to eat and a roof over our heads. And I think we in the United States need to recognize that we have an obligation. We have a moral obligation to provide help to these folks. So let me start by saying that.
Now, putting back on my Port Commissioner hat - so the Commission provided a policy directive to our police force that they will not share information with federal agencies around immigration status. And that's actually been in place for some time now. But around that issue of our relationship with Customs and Border Protection, the TSA, ICE, and other agencies, we are attempting right now to craft a policy that will limit the amount of data that's shared overall, particularly as it relates to biometrics.
So you're probably familiar with all the different ways in which our biological identifiers, whether it's our eyes or thumbprints, or even things like the way we walk, and of course, facial recognition, which gets the most news, I think. How that information can be gathered and used - and so we put a moratorium on the use of biometrics by our police department. We put a moratorium on the use of any sort of mass surveillance because we are a quasi-public plaza, right? If you walk into SeaTac Airport, you don't think I'm walking into a place where somebody would have the right to just grab my image from the video feed and use that to identify who I am.
And now what we're working on is how do we - we have a set of seven criteria that we're using to determine our own use of biometrics around justification, transparency, making it voluntary so that you're not just automatically - you have to personally choose to be a part of it, equity, and I'm forgetting the other two. But the idea is to create a system with guardrails in place. Biometrics is already a part of most everybody's lives. If you have a smartphone, you're using it in some way in most cases. We've used biometrics for decades in thumbprint analysis and other things in our criminal legal system. But at the Port of Seattle, we're really trying to conscientiously think about - here's this technology that has been supercharged by artificial intelligence. So on the one hand, it's a double-edged sword. It's becoming great for things like convenience and efficiencies, but the double-edged sword is it's also becoming a really powerful means of identifying people who do not want to be identified, or are real concerns about privacy violations. And so we're trying to figure out where our jurisdiction and our powers allow us to limit the use of that, and then negotiating with our partners, whether it's federal government agencies or private enterprises that are operating at the airport, where we can put those same guardrails in place for the relationships with them.
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:52] Certainly. And even beyond just whether someone has the ability and right to identify you, and whether that's an opt-in situation or not, and privacy concerns - there are also accuracy concerns. And I'm sitting here as a Black woman, familiar with a lot of research and data demonstrating that a lot of biometric technology is not as accurate on people with darker skin tones. And misidentification with - in these contexts, really potentially massive consequences, horrible consequences, life-altering consequences. And so I guess throughout that process, I appreciate there being a thoughtful process to look at that. How are you addressing that and who is involved in the conversations to craft this policy to make sure that that is accounted for and adequately addressed?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:25:52] So we started up the process of a Biometrics Working Group. And Sam - Commissioner Cho - and I, Sam Cho and I lead that working group. And it's been - gosh, I want to say we've been at it for about 18 months now. We have brought in a group of external stakeholders who have provided feedback - experts on AI, the ACLU, some Microsoft experts were there as well. As well as had numerous public sessions, study sessions, a couple of presentations at our public meeting where these experts came and presented. And out of that formulated these seven criteria. We are trying to both address the real concerns that organizations like the ACLU have brought to the table around the inequity of certain of these systems and the fact that there's real data privacy concerns associated with it. And then also avoid putting in place policies that are going to get knocked down immediately in a lawsuit. So we're trying to thread that needle, and Sam and I have been working on it now for over a year, but we think we are going to take the next step here in the next few months on a guiding policy for biometrics at the Port of Seattle.
Crystal Fincher: [00:27:20] And you talked about looking at limiting the information that you're sharing with federal immigration agencies. Dow Constantine previously signed an order basically amending lease practices, wanting to ban flights of immigration detainees chartered by ICE. Is that something that the Port is doing, can do, will do in the same vein?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:27:54] We have never had a charter flight like the ones that were leaving King County Airfield, or at least certainly not during the time that I was there. And when those flights were happening out of KCA, and I believe out of Yakima, we immediately went to staff and said - I went to staff and said, "Is this occurring at SeaTac unbeknownst to the Commission? And what can we do to stop it?" And we were given a set of kind of legal parameters and told that should it ever, should we ever be requested, you will know. And so far we've had to avoid that.
The good news is Biden won. And our federal liaison, our liaison to the federal government has been working on what it looks like now in a post-Trump world. For me, the real concern becomes - what happens when the federal government is no longer of a mindset that this kind of in-the-dark-of-night flight shouldn't be happening. And so we do need to make sure that we put policies in place that avoid that kind of concern. There are still instances where - well, I shouldn't say that - the most recent instance I heard, of that kind of use of charter flights, was in Yakima, but it's been probably six months since I've been briefed on that.
Crystal Fincher: [00:29:27] Would you support banning that type of use?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:29:32] If we could put a moratorium on those flights, absolutely.
Crystal Fincher: [00:29:37] I suppose looking ahead - we have a couple minutes left here - just in terms of, looking forward, certainly you're making your case to the voters again right now about why you should be re-elected. What might be flying under the radar right now that you think is really important for voters to be considering as they look at all of these Port races?
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:30:02] Yeah. I would ask voters to think about who's bringing ideas to the table that are going to - I think about it, the three Es. So economy, equity, and environment. Who's bringing ideas to the table that are really going to move the needle in those areas? And so we are in a moment at the Port and in the port ecosystem where we really need to get economic recovery right. And just increasing top line revenue is not a good metric. What we really want to be looking at is how many family wage jobs have we preserved or created as a result of our economic development policies. So that's key.
The second one is how are we addressing environmental justice at the Port of Seattle? And as I was saying earlier, I don't believe that it's a trade-off anymore. In fact, I believe that those agencies, cities, regions that are embracing industries prepared to take action on climate are the ones that are going to get that first mover advantage and be out ahead as the new clean energy economy really takes root. And an example that I've been working on for the last year or so is the development of renewable offshore energy. So the Pacific Coast has historically not been an area where there's a lot of renewable energy created offshore, but we're going to catch up. And particularly now that President Biden has devoted so much energy to offshore wind in particular. It really started in Europe and has been very successful there, Asia not far behind. Now the East Coast of the United States is developing significant wind farms. And the next is going to be the West Coast. We have some unique challenges because the Pacific is very deep. It drops off really quickly. And so our wind turbines are going to have to float. But they're also going to be enormous. And if my math is right, one of these enormous wind turbines will produce sufficient energy to power all the homes in Edmonds, for instance. And the Port of Seattle has some unique opportunities to be a part of that supply chain, which would mean tens of thousands of union jobs on our waterfront could potentially be activated by the development of that advanced manufacturing, assemblage, and the servicing of these offshore wind farms.
And so that kind of idea, we need somebody to build the coalition and get that work done. And so that's my biggest project for the next four years - is how do we bring that part of the green economy to fruition here in Seattle because it'll mean jobs for 50 years, at least. And it's the kind of work that will replace the fossil fuel economy and move us towards diminishing greenhouse gases and local air pollution. And I also think it's just a really fun project to work on. So it's a question I ask of everybody who's seeking my endorsement. What are you doing to advance that kind of project for our region?
Crystal Fincher: [00:33:14] Well, certainly exciting to look forward to - certainly the kind of innovation and direction we need to be moving towards, in order to make sure that as you said, this rising tide can lift all boats here in our region. So thank you so much for joining us today - sincerely appreciate it.
Commissioner Ryan Calkins: [00:33:32] Thank you so much, Crystal. It's been a pleasure.
Crystal Fincher: [00:33:36] Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones, Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.