(Updated at 11:45 a.m. to clarify and add comments from Gov. Inslee’s campaign).
Bill Bryant says he has a plan to promote innovation in Washington state.
To call the Republican gubernatorial hopeful a “tech candidate” would be a stretch, but much of his career and campaign involve issues important to the region’s technology community.
Education is the centerpiece of his campaign, with particular emphasis on the need for innovation in public schools. It’s a sentiment echoed by advocates in the Seattle tech world, who are vocal about prioritizing computer science to get the next generation job-ready.
Over the past 25 years, Bryant has built a career focused on trade issues, though his experience is not directly linked with the export of technology products. In 1992 he founded Bryant Christie Inc., a consultancy firm that helps the agriculture industry deal with international trade issues. In 2007, he was elected Seattle Port Commissioner, a position he held for three years.
But Bryant has an uphill battle to sway the historically liberal voters in King County, many of whom are part of the city’s booming tech community.
Bryant’s record on environmental issues, for example, is dubious. As port commissioner, he supported the controversial proposal to host Royal Dutch Shell Oil’s Arctic offshore drilling fleet. That led to a high-profile clash with activists and Shell eventually pulled out of the port.
He told The Seattle Times he supported the proposal to create middle-class jobs and insists environmental protection is a core component of his platform. His common refrain: “I want to make sure the Puget Sound is better off when I die that it was when I was born.”
Bryant is campaigning as a moderate alternative to Democrat and incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee. He hopes to cast himself as a sober, centrist candidate to curry favor with voters beyond his sphere of the trade and business communities. As part of that agenda, he disavowed Donald Trump in a debate in August, after months of pressure to take a stance on the Republican presidential nominee.
Gov. Inslee’s campaign says that moderate portrait does not match Bryant’s record, citing the Republican candidate’s past endorsements and actions on transgender issues and the minimum wage.
“Republican Bill Bryant can’t hide from the fact that he’s a partisan Republican who’s given big bucks to George W. Bush and shares a Republican policy agenda with his fellow Republican Donald Trump that would halt the progress we are making as a state,” said Inslee Communications Director Jamal Raad. “Republican Bill Bryant and the Republicans in Olympia, whom he desperately wants to hold power, have a conservative agenda that is out of step with Washington state values, such as opposing raising the minimum wage, refusing to take common sense steps to reduce gun violence, and weakening Washington’s landmark LGBT anti-discrimination law. Now is not the time for our state to go backwards with Republican Bill Bryant.”
GeekWire asked Bryant about his positions on issues germane to the technology industry. Continue reading for the edited Q&A.
GeekWire: Immigration is an important issue in tech community. Where do you stand on H-1B visas?
Previously: Will the real Bill Bryant please stand up? Seattle VC gets confused with gubernatorial candidate — a lot
Bill Bryant: That’s a federal issue so a governor doesn’t have a great deal of influence on that matter. But what a governor can do is make sure we have an education system that is preparing students who grow up in Washington state for a lot of those jobs, and right now we are probably in the top six or seven of states hiring people with science, technology, and engineering degrees but we are about 46th to 47th in graduating students with those degrees. There is a huge skills gap between the jobs that are available in Washington state and students that are graduating from our high schools and universities. A governor can focus on closing that skills gap.
GW: Do you think computer science should be a higher priority in education?
Bryant: It should be a higher priority. That’s a critical element in closing the skills gap and it can’t be left to the last two years or three years of high school. It’s something we need to begin introducing into middle school as well.
GW: What about even earlier?
Bryant: I think that if we were to introduce a lot of it though middle school, it would be appropriate for computer science careers afterwards. I’ve been in kindergarten classes where the kids are already using computers so becoming comfortable and knowledgeable in the use of computers and how programs work can be done earlier but a direct computer science curriculum is probably something more appropriate for middle and high school.
GW: What do you think about municipal broadband? Should the internet be treated like a public utility?
Bryant: That’s a good question and that’s something that I’m trying to learn more about and, frankly, if you or any of your followers have information that I should read, I would really welcome it. So, I guess I’m saying I’m trying to learn more about it and I have not formed an opinion.
GW: More generally, what role do you think the government should play in technological innovation?
Bryant: Well, we need to have a regulatory environment that encourages any innovation, in particular in technology. If we have a tax system that imposes undue costs on startups that’s not good. If we make it more difficult to hire people that’s not good. If we have an education system that is not graduating the type of person who startups need to hire, that’s not good.
Ensuring that we have a workforce that’s technologically competent and knowledgeable, ensuring that we have a regulatory regime that encourages entrepreneurship, that’s an appropriate role for government.
GW: What do you think is the tech industry’s role in the broader economy?
Bryant: Well technology is a huge part of Washington’s economy. In my opinion, there are 10 sectors that really drive job creation in Washington State. It is trade and transportation, tourism and recreation, medical science and medical research, global health, manufacturing, the military, agriculture/forestry, fishery, energy, and technology. Technology is one of the top 10 job generators in our state and technology also is the backbone of some of those other sectors. I’m talking about manufacturing, for example. So, we have got to have a regulatory system, in the state, and a tax system, in the state, that encourages expansion of our technology sector.
And what we really need is a governor who has a strategic plan and that’s largely a perspective that I hold because I built a company over the last 24 years. And when I was starting alone in my basement with just a phone and a fax machine, I also had a plan of where I wanted that company to be in four, seven, and 10 years. And I put all of our resources into that plan. The state has these 10 sectors but it has no strategic plan on how to use the regulatory power of the state and a budget of the state in a way that will allow the private sector to expand in all 10 of those areas. Technology is critical. We need to have a conversation between the governor, the legislature, and the technological sector on how we can reform our regulatory and our tax and our budget to actually help the technology sector thrive. And what does it need over the next 10 years to be even more of a part of Washington’s economy than it is today?
GW: You mentioned trade. What do you think Washington could improve on when it comes to international trade, specifically?
Bryant: Well, Washington state is already the most trade dependent state in the union. Over a third of our jobs are dependent on international trade. And even if you just take hard durable goods and agricultural products, about a third of our gross domestic crosses or is related to products that cross the docks and commencement at Elliott Bay.
We are already a trade-dependent and globally-integrated state. State government needs to ensure that we have an environment that allows companies to thrive here so that they want to locate here, so that they will export their products from our ports. State government also need to ensure that we have airports and seaports that are globally competitive so that products can move efficiently in and out of them. That also requires investing in our load and rail infrastructure so that we can move hard goods, reliably, through our state and to markets in the Midwest and to Asia.
[Editor’s Note: GeekWire has contacted the Inslee campaign for an interview, as well.]