After a childhood full of obstacles, Cary Bozeman entered politics to make real change
One day, at the end of June, I checked my mailbox and found, among the bills and grocery store coupons, a small white envelope hand-addressed to me and marked in the upper left-hand corner with an official-looking stamp from the Port of Bremerton. Inside was a 4-by-6-inch laminated card with two typed lists. On one side: The Four Fundamentals of Change (under each subhead—Vision, Discipline, Trust, and Passion—was a short description); on the other: Core Values of Leaders (Learning, Choice, Feedback, Comfort Zones—again, each with its explanation). Even without the return address or any identification on the card, I would have immediately known who sent it.
A couple of weeks prior, I had coffee with Cary Bozeman, ’65, now in his second six-year term as a commissioner for the Port of Bremerton. Known best for being one of the only persons in Washington history to hold mayorship in two cities—Bellevue and Bremerton—Bozeman made a name for himself thanks to his steadfast commitment to community and penchant for doing what he considers the right thing, even if it goes against the status quo. I was struck by his genuineness, his open manner, and his willingness to discuss all sides of an argument—not just shut down opposing viewpoints. One of his strengths is meeting people on their level and letting them know he’s rooting for them and that he’s there to help.
The laminated card that Bozeman sent me contains two sets of principles that have guided him through a nearly 40-year political career that, despite his age (Bozeman is 82, but you would never guess it), doesn’t seem to be nearing its end.
“Cary has a story that is so different from so many other mayors,” says Tom Luce, managing principal at Inveris Partners. Luce worked as a senior aide for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, ’63, ’68, from 2000 to 2007, during which Bozeman was Bremerton’s mayor. Dicks, who is from Bremerton, and Bozeman worked together to completely revitalize the city’s downtown core, and Luce had the opportunity to work with the latter as well. “Cary Bozeman is someone who was not just the mayor of Bellevue or the Bremerton—he’s someone who thinks differently about how public service is supposed to be. He is there to get things done.”
Cary Bozeman’s story doesn’t begin in Bremerton, or Bellevue, or even Washington, for that matter. Born in New Orleans, Bozeman and his two siblings were left at a Catholic orphanage when he was just 6 years old. Taken in by their aunt and uncle, the children were shuttled around the country (and to Guadalajara, Mexico, and back) as their uncle relocated for his government job. (Bozeman also ended up in a series of foster homes, living in 12 cities before age 14). Eventually, the family landed in Seattle, and Bozeman attended Hamilton Junior High, then Lincoln High School, where he was a quarterback on the football team.
“I couldn’t read or write very well,” Bozeman recalls. “When you go to that many schools when you’re that young, it’s hard to build on language and math skills. I graduated with a 2.8 GPA, but I was still able to get into the University of Washington—someone like me would not get into UW today. That experience changed my life. Getting that diploma gave me a lot of confidence to go on and accomplish the things I have.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in education (“I still have my diploma sitting right in front of my desk at home”), and with plans to become a teacher, Bozeman worked a night job at the Boys Club of Bellevue (a branch of what is now known as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America). Shortly after graduation, he received an offer to teach at Tyee Junior High School, in Bellevue, for $6,500 a year.
“One day, one of my board members came by,” Bozeman recalls, “and he said, ‘Cary, we’re going to have an opening here for the director of the Boys Club of Bellevue. You should think about it. We’ll pay you more than if you were teaching.’”
More than the money, it was the opportunity to continue to work with youth—many who had grown up in circumstances adjacent to his own—that hooked Bozeman. “I loved working for a nonprofit,” he says. “I knew I was impacting people’s lives.”
For the next 30 years—11 of which he served as the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County—Bozeman worked with the organization. Three years into his directorship, Bozeman, who claims that “the trait of challenging the status quo is part of who I am,” posed a question to his staff: “Why don’t we start taking in girls as members?”
In the 1970s, the organization only served boys, but Bozeman advocated for starting a soccer league for girls, and nearly 400 participants turned out. Despite cease-and-desist notices from the national offices, Bozeman stuck to his guns, and the Bellevue club became the first in the nation to change its name to the Boys & Girls Club. A movement for other clubs to do the same followed, and in 1990 the national organization became the Boys & Girls Club of America.
“Out of everything I’ve done in my life,” Bozeman says, “that is the most impactful. It is the thing that I am most proud of.”
Bozeman’s entry into politics came in the late ’70s. Noticing that Bellevue had few public parks and playfields, he started addressing city officials about the issue. “I’d go down to city council meetings, and they wouldn’t pay attention to me,” he recalls. “So, one day, I decided I should just run myself.”
In what seemed like a long shot—he was running against council member Milford Frank “Mel” Vanik, who would go on to be mayor—Bozeman secured the seat. He served on the Bellevue City Council from 1976 to 1993, and it elected him to three terms as mayor. Of all the things Bozeman accomplished during his tenure, the one that aligns most with his community-centric goals is envisioning and developing the 20-acre Bellevue Downtown Park, which remains a popular regional destination.
“I’d go down to city council meetings, and they wouldn’t pay attention to me. So, one day, I decided I should just run myself.”
“I love working locally,” Bozeman says. “I could have never done anything at the state or federal level. Working local is where you can really impact people’s lives. I’m a project guy. I love building projects. It gives my life purpose.”
After leaving Bellevue and trying his hand at consulting (“I didn’t like it,” he confesses, “I want to see the job through to the end!”), Bozeman took a job as the executive director of the Olympic College Foundation in Bremerton. While he enjoyed the work—specifically interacting with young people looking for a second chance or a new path in life—the state of Bremerton’s downtown core had caught his eye. A formerly bustling shipbuilding town with a Navy base, by the 1990s, the city felt uninspired, with blocks of abandoned buildings and stagnant civic life. Ever the far-sighted thinker, Bozeman saw massive potential.
“I came home one night, and I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to run for mayor,’” Bozeman recalls with a smile. “In my campaign, I talked about vision and change and improving the town.”
While statements like these are often written off as political rhetoric, they won Bozeman the 2001 mayoral race. Even though he started as an outsider, his track record of getting things done—and his earnest, positive, no-nonsense attitude—were hard to ignore.
“When Cary Bozeman became mayor, all of the sudden we saw a path to making a difference in downtown Bremerton in measurable ways,” says Tom Luce. “This is a guy who is not interested in ‘politics,’ this is a guy who was interested in getting things done.”
In his two terms as the mayor of Bremerton, Bozeman pushed aggressively for rejuvenating the downtown waterfront, upgrading the park system, and erecting housing, offices, and a new municipal campus. New restaurants and parking spaces made it easier and more desirable for people to spend time downtown. Bozeman also secured funding for a tunnel that funneled traffic from the ferry dock away from the center of the city—another move that made Bremerton more pedestrian-friendly.
“The sad part about most politicians today is that they have no interest in actually making change,” Bozeman says. “Every politician has the same goal: they want to be reelected. When you take a chance on change, it puts you in jeopardy, and most people will avoid that at all costs.”
Not Bozeman. He’s always gone headlong in the face of change, even (or perhaps especially) when difficult decisions are involved. A man whose life started with the cards stacked against him, Bozeman does not feel sorry for himself, nor does he believe in blaming circumstances for the outcomes we face. “We are the products of the choices we make,” he says. “I chose to be a leader, and when it comes down to it, leadership is about the ability of one person to create change.”