When Bonnie Lowenthal took the gavel last August to become president of the Long Beach Harbor Commission, the Port of Long Beach appeared to be on the verge of a banner year.
The biggest question was whether the Trump administration could find a way to complete a trade agreement with China, the port's biggest customer. Otherwise, cargo container numbers were climbing and the biggest single building project in decades — replacement of the Gerald Desmond Bridge — was on schedule to be completed in early summer 2020. A brand new headquarters building had just opened downtown.
When Lowenthal gives up the gavel next week, pretty much everything had changed, due primarily to the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. But the port remains on an even keel for new commission president Frank Colonna, as Lowenthal and the rest of the commission navigated through multiple crises.
"The past year has presented economic and social challenges of historic proportion," said Mario Cordero, executive director of the Harbor Department. "President Lowenthal has done a good job in balancing the port’s business and social responsibilities."
Through the fall of 2019, everything remained relatively positive. Lowenthal led a trade mission to China in October, and came back with a 20-year extension on a lease with COSCO, the Chinese-owned shipping firm that's the single biggest customer at the Port of Long Beach.
And a Phase One trade agreement was signed in January. But relations between the U.S. and China started to sour shortly after that agreement was signed.
China is responsible for a bit more than 50% of the business at the port, putting the port administration in a delicate position when President Trump took an adversarial approach to trade negotiations.
"Part of what we do is to maintain connections," Lowenthal said. "We continue to advocate for lower tariffs and freer trade… Our port is responsible for 2.6 million jobs nationally. We have a lot of partners who are impacted by what happens with trade."
Lowenthal began her political public service in 1994 with her election to the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education. She went on to become the First District City Council representative, then was elected to the state Assembly in 2008 and served six years. While there, she chaired the Assembly Committee on Transportation, among other leadership posts.
"I'm very familiar with the process," Lowenthal said of state and national legislation impacting the port. "I can be a bit more persuasive at times, because I know the ropes… The key has always been that you must have mutual respect, even when you disagree."
While the uncertainty of trade relations made the port's immediate operations less stable, the real blow hit in March, with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. It brought business to a screeching halt and forced a complete revision of workplace protocols.
"I don't think you can make up for the pandemic," Lowenthal said. "But I couldn't be more proud of our staff. Within a few weeks, we had 80% of our 550 employees working from home. Even engineers were working from home on the bridge.
"Some (employees) are still on property, of course… I was amazed at the alacrity of our staff. They just pivoted, and I never heard one complaint."
Despite the onset of the pandemic, major construction projects continued, albeit more slowly. Opening of the Gerald Desmond Bridge replacement was pushed back to later this year, after Lowenthal's term as president ends. But she is sure to be a central part of the ceremonies, whenever it happens.
"I've been involved with that bridge since I was on the City Council," she said. "When I was in the (state) legislature, I helped get money for it, and I authored the bill that named the bike path for Mark Bixby."
Lowenthal said that the Harbor Department budget has been hurt by the coronavirus, just as the city's budget has been hit. Construction will continue, though, she added, with the next big project creation on an on-dock rail yard at Pier B.
"It's so easy to get caught up in dealing with the challenges that you forget the good things," Lowenthal said. "We have been able to maintain a top bond rating. Our partnership with LBCC for the Maritime Academy is stronger than ever, and the high school program at Cabrillo is strong. In the last year, we've allocated more than $800,000 to support the community, nonprofits, the arts.
"And we are working on our values statement, with a renewed commitment to equity, to take a closer look at it all through our operations."
Lowenthal is in the middle of her first 5-year term as a Harbor Commissioner, so could be president again as the offices rotate annually. Colonna takes over as president next Monday, Aug. 10.