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SGN exclusive interview: Port Commission candidate Max Vekich
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SGN exclusive interview: Port Commission candidate Max Vekich

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'I only run for jobs that impoverish me,' Max Vekich says with a grin.

Vekich is running for an open seat on the Seattle Port Commission. Because the annual salary is only $6,000, seats on the Commission are more often filled by corporate attorneys and business executives seeking international trade connections than by scrappy grassroots reformers.

Vekich hopes to change that. A member of ILWU (International Warehouse and Longshore Union) Local 52, Vekich says he is running to make the Port 'more open, more accountable, and [to] involve the community more in the decision making process.'

'I don't want to be just a rubber-stamp commissioner,' he says. 'We have the highest-paid executive director of any port in the US, and I'm wondering where the results are.'

Races for port commissioner are usually not high-profile affairs, but Vekich says the position is vital to the economy of the Puget Sound region.

"It's a $1 billion entity," he tells SGN. "One out of every three jobs in King County is related to Port activity. The Port is a big employer in its own right, and it sets an example for other employers in the region."

"The Port's number-one priority needs to be moving cargo as quickly and efficiently as possible," Vekich says. He believes that a more efficient 24-hour a day operation will give the Port of Seattle an advantage over competing ports, and will help keep family-wage port jobs in Puget Sound.

"The economy has to be the focus," Vekich contends. "This is the time to pay attention to jobs. We want to retain the good jobs we do have and build on that."

Vekich also wants the Port to be a leader in protecting Puget Sound, and restoring the Duwamish River to its natural state. The Sierra Club - which has endorsed him - credits him with "an in-depth knowledge of environmental issues."

In a challenging county-wide race where money is often the deciding factor, Vekich lacks the financial resources of his opponent, businessman Tom Albro, whose firm operates the monorail. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic about his chances.

"If people know the choice they have - between a progressive with a history of leadership or a downtown businessman - who do you think they'll choose?" he asks

"Of course my opponent has more, but we've raised $80,000 in four months," he says. "There's another $10,000-$20,000 on the way. $130,000 is doable by the end of the campaign."

"I have the endorsement of 16 Democratic District organizations," he adds. "We have a county-wide presence. We have yard signs all over."

While reforming the Port's insider political culture might seem like a daunting task, Vekich is looking forward to it - and is already lining up his alliances. He's formed a close working relationship with candidate Rob Holland.

"Rob Holland and I are running to change things," he says.

Holland, an openly Gay African American, is running for the other open seat on the Port Commission. Like Vekich, he has been endorsed by a broad coalition of groups including organized labor, the Sierra Club, and SEAMEC.

Vekich also has good things to say about John Creighton, an incumbent commissioner who is running unopposed for re-election.

"He has a social conscience," Vekich says. "He's a Republican, but he's thinking through a lot of his beliefs, and he's shown leadership on issues Rob and I care about."

This is not Vekich's first run for public office. He served in the Washington State Legislature from 1983 through 1990, representing his hometown of Aberdeen.

While there, he formed a close personal friendship and political alliance with Cal Anderson, the state's first openly Gay legislator, who represented Seattle's 43rd District.

"I knew Cal before he became a legislator," Vekich recalls. "We were both young Democratic Party activists. Ivy - my wife - was good friends with Cal."

"We were both part of an effort to reshape the state [Democratic] Party organization. Karen Marchioro was in that, too," he says. "We wanted to go one person, one vote - that shifted the power to the urban areas."

The late Karen Marchioro was chair of the state Democratic Party 1981-1992, leading the successful struggle for proportional representation on state Party committees. Prior to the reforms, each county committee had one vote, giving greater weight to conservative but sparsely populated rural counties.

"I got elected in 1983, one term before Cal. When Cal came in, the [Democratic] caucus changed. The homophobes had to rethink their position. Here was a guy who'd vote for lots of stuff they wanted. He forged alliances - he was a solid ally."

"It was right at the beginning of the AIDS crisis," Vekich continues. "We had so many public health issues to deal with. The Republicans were going nuts. It was 'mark of the devil' stuff, just vilifying and demonizing the victims."

"Cal helped keep the discussion mostly sane," Vekich recalls, "but he wasn't afraid to confront the haters."

"We worked on fair housing issues," Vekich adds. "Cal and I, and Janice Niemi, too. I used to sit right behind Janice in the legislature."

Janice Niemi represented the 43rd District in the state House of Representatives before Cal Anderson. When she moved to the state Senate, Anderson was appointed to fill her House seat, winning the seat on his own in the next election. He became a state Senator in 1994 and died from complications of AIDS in 1995. Niemi later served as a judge and a member of the state Gambling Commission. She has endorsed Vekich for Port Commissioner.

"You remember Ernie Steele's?" Vekich asks. "Sometimes we'd go out to Ernie Steele's - Cal, Janice Niemi, and I. Remember that tiny little bar they had? It was always packed. Oh, that was fun!"

What was Vekich drinking? "Stolichnaya," he grins. "Sometimes beer, but I hosted a group of Russian longshoremen for the Goodwill Games [1990], and we really got into Stolis&."

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