The Two Faces of Gael Tarleton
The President of Seattle's Port Commission Wants to Go to Olympia—Which Makes Her Former Supporters Nervous
One Tuesday evening in early October, in the elegant law offices of K&L Gates, port commissioner and aspiring state legislator Gael Tarleton spoke to a dozen or so potential campaign donors. The setting—in a downtown skyscraper with huge windows facing southwest—was cinematically perfect.
The sun began to set behind the candidate as she talked, bathing everything in a golden glow. Twenty-nine stories below us, container ships, cargo cranes, and the glittering water of Puget Sound looked almost romantic. As Tarleton smiled earnestly and worked through her progressive talking points (clean air, good schools, fighting special interests, liberty and justice for all), it seemed to make sense: Seattle was a gorgeous port city, the candidate was our soothing and competent port president, and we should definitely send her to Olympia. (Tarleton hopes to represent the 36th District, which includes Ballard, Fremont, and Queen Anne).
But the candidate's critics, especially former supporters, say political stage-dressing is one of her main talents. They claim Tarleton has a reputation for saying one thing and doing another, smoothing over the gaps with charm, grace, and an uncanny ability to sound progressive without making strong and consistent commitments on key issues: emissions, job conditions for port workers, transparency and accountability, coal trains and coal terminals, and more. Those critics say Tarleton frames herself as a champion of workers, the environment, and the public interest, but she backs moneyed and conservative interests when it counts.
"Gael has not always been up-front about where she is... there has been some duplicity," says Alice Woldt, a former Tarleton supporter and activist who served with the Faith Action Network and the Washington Association of Churches. "We have history with Gael—she says one thing and does another," says Sarah Cherin, the local political director of United Food and Commercial Workers. "We wanted someone we could count on at least most of the time, if not all of the time," says Larry Brown of the aerospace machinists' union, which has endorsed Tarleton in the past but is now supporting her opponent, Noel Frame. "She stood with and accepts donations from companies profiting from pollution," the Sierra Club, which endorsed her in 2007, wrote in an open letter last month.
Tarleton's campaign literature has also been confusing, listing an endorsement from the Seattle Metropolitan Elections Committee—which focuses on LGBTQ issues—that she didn't receive. Tarleton initially denied claiming the endorsement, then later apologized for the error. And in April, the Teamsters ordered Tarleton to take its logo off her campaign literature and advertisements. (An odder incongruity, since Tarleton and the Teamsters have been publicly on the outs for years. The Teamsters endorsed Tarleton back in 2007 and gave her a maximum contribution, but relations between them have since soured into a bitter feud.)
Some unions, such as Unite Here, which have supported Tarleton in the past, declined to endorse either candidate. They don't support Tarleton, but worry about making that public. "We have a lot at stake in the port," says someone close to the leadership of Unite Here, who didn't want to be identified. "We don't want to lose that." Woldt is more blunt, saying that unions that come out against her "stand to lose if she stays in the port. She could be revengeful... She has quite a lot of money coming from port interests."
As of this writing, Tarleton has raised $156,985 to Frame's $138,910. Frame has more union support—in fact, the Tarleton campaign has accused her of being a puppet for the Teamsters. Tarleton, on the other hand, has more support among port business regulars, including cruise lines, trucking and shipping companies, and developers. (The port owns 4,100 acres with around 2,300 leases—under the right circumstances, a port commissioner could be a developer's best friend.) The people sitting around the table at that golden-lit fundraiser were representative: Jordan Royer of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, venture capitalist and real-estate CEO Craig Kinzer, a Morgan Stanley wealth advisor, a real-estate lobbyist, and others.
In an interview with The Stranger last week, Tarleton dismissed the idea that some people in her progressive base had lost faith in her integrity. "It gives us a good sense that after you get elected and hold office for five years," she said, "the generic word 'people' means 'a few people who didn't get what they wanted.'"
But Rob Holland, one of her fellow port commissioners, says this growing mistrust was inevitable. "She wants one thing and wants the other, but she can only do that for so long," he says. "She was going to run out of real estate... the community isn't that big. After a while, you start burning everybody... I don't trust anything she says."
The port is an enormous and complicated knot of competing interests: shipping, trucking, cruise ships, unions, tenants, the airport, Goldman Sachs (which has a large stake in Carrix, which is a holding company for SSA Marine, which operates port terminals), and so on. Last year, the port had $6.6 billion in assets, 1,700 employees, and five elected commissioners to try and keep the whole thing honest. But former port commissioner Alec Fisken says that in his experience, the oversight was compromised: "There is a committee of private companies who sees who gets election money," he said, "and there's a vigorous effort on the part of the staff to keep the commissioners happy and well-traveled and well-fed."
So what has commissioner Tarleton done at the port to make some people nervous about the idea of Representative Tarleton? A few examples:
Port CEO pay raise: In public, Tarleton claims to support tight financial reins on controversial port CEO Tay Yoshitani. She boasts of having voted against his pay raises and made strong statements about his potential conflicts of interest, including Yoshitani's recent new job as a director with shipping company Expeditors International. But port insiders such as Holland say that behind the scenes, she has manipulated other commissioners into supporting Yoshitani's raises to make sure that he gets them, but then voted against them herself, leaving her fellow commissioners to hold the bag.
On August 24, 13 state legislators, led by state representative Zack Hudgins, sent a letter to the port commission saying that they were concerned about possible conflicts of interest and "ethical issues" raised by Yoshitani's new job with Expeditors. A few days later, Tarleton released a statement saying that she wanted Yoshitani to step down from the for-profit company and reiterated her opposition to his salary increases. But a public records request revealed a series of e-mails among the commissioners that show her working to stiff-arm the state legislators. An August 27 e-mail from commissioner Bill Bryant to Tarleton says: "Is this what you want? It in essence tells them they are wrong and to go away."
Another e-mail, which commissioner John Creighton sent on September 8, accuses Tarleton of "cheerleading" for Yoshitani's employment contracts "behind closed doors" but changing her tune in public. "I am most disappointed," he wrote, "by Commissioner Tarleton's seeming about-face."
Clean trucking: Nearly every former Tarleton supporter I talked to mentioned anger and/or disappointment that she hasn't been more progressive on trucking at the port. To dramatically oversimplify the issue: Currently, drivers are considered independent contractors, not employees, which means (a) they aren't organized for better wages, (b) they don't get benefits, and (c) they have to own their own trucks, which the labor advocates say they cannot even afford to maintain, much less upgrade to newer, cleaner models. This all keeps costs down for shipping and trucking companies, but Commissioner Rob Holland calls it "one of the worst systems we have."
Tarleton has criticized and blocked attempts to solve the problem, Holland says, and proposed her own weaker counter-plans; then she claimed credit for cleaning up the air. "This was our chance to make a difference," he says, "and Gael screwed us. Screwed us. When she says, 'We cleaned up the air,' she means by the standards the EPA has already set." In one bizarre case, she abstained from a split commission vote to endorse a Clean Ports Act (endorsed by Congressmen Jay Inslee and Jim McDermott, plus many Democratic and environmental groups) while she was in the room, allowing her to kill the measure without explicitly voting against it. If it had passed, says Commissioner John Creighton, the port could have lobbied for it in DC.
Airport job security: Tarleton's support for worker job security at the airport is mixed at best. In the next several years, the port will renegotiate contracts with airport concessionaires. A state bill—HB 1832—would have mandated that if a new business won the contract, airport concessions workers could keep their jobs for 60 to 90 days. State representative Dave Upthegrove, who represents south Seattle suburbs and sponsored the bill, called it "pathetic" that the legislature even had to get involved. "The port commission," he said, "should have taken care of it in the first place." In early 2011, the Tarleton campaign praised the bill, "which protects workers' rights." Months later, a federal injunction (from a separate labor dispute) tied the commission's hands on fiddling with the work-related policies of its tenants.
Tarleton took that a step further in January of 2012 by asking legislators to "defer any further action" on the bill. (It didn't pass.) She blamed the injunction for her actions. "If I had supported 1832," she told The Stranger, "I would have violated federal law." But the injunction does not compel her to argue against the bill. A state legislator, who declined to be named because Tarleton might be a colleague soon, dismissed her explanation as: "Hogwash... She'd publicly say things like 'Oh, we need to protect the workers,' but behind the scenes she was leading the way to kill the bill. She was secretly working against labor."
Coal trains and coal terminals: Seattle voters are increasingly concerned about the number of open-bed coal trains that could roll through town on their way to a new loading terminal near Bellingham. (A lightning round of follow-the-money: SSA Marine, which wants to build the terminal, has donated money to Jordan Royer—who was at the sunset fundraiser—and his Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which has also donated to the Tarleton campaign.)
Tarleton has repeatedly stated that she opposes coal trains and "any public money that supports coal exports." But Leanne Guier and Dusty Hoerler of the local plumbers and pipe fitters union (United Association Local 32) separately stated that the candidate said the opposite in a recent endorsement interview at their Renton headquarters. (Some unions favor coal; UA endorsed Tarleton.) "She did a spiel," Hoerler said, "about her experience in federal government and how she could leverage that to have them invest in tracks... [and] have them rerouted around urban areas so it wouldn't be a problem."
Sue Evans of the Tarleton campaign replied that her candidate has clearly and repeatedly opposed public money for fossil fuels. "How many times do we have to say it?" she asked.
It's hard to tell. "What she says to the public and to reporters," says activist Christi Stapleton, another former Tarleton supporter, "is in stark contrast to the way she votes."
This article has been updated since its original publication.