Mike Fong’s interest in public service may have started with a fruitcake.
Every year during the holidays, Fong’s great-grandfather, Jack Eng, who lived in Spokane, personally brought his Congressman Tom Foley a fruitcake.
Foley – who represented eastern Washington in the House of Representatives for 30 years and served as speaker among other things – had helped Eng deal with the immigration system to bring relatives to the United States
“I think[the fruitcake]was kind of his, great-grandfather Jack’s way of showing his continued appreciation for that help,” said Fong, a Spokane Native.
Fong, who was appointed to head the Small Business Administration’s Pacific Northwest office in November, said he believes his great-grandfather’s interest in politics may have subtly influenced him.
“I just always thought it was very interesting that he felt so much friendship with the congressman over those years,” Fong said. “And maybe, subtly, some of that seeped into my subconscious, right down to… my interest in politics and government and government’s ability to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Before joining the SBA, Fong worked for the City of Seattle for more than 20 years. He worked as a city council officer for over 10 years before moving to the mayor’s office in 2014.
Fong served as the mayor’s chief of staff, eventually becoming Seattle’s deputy mayor in 2017. He held that position until last year, during which time he helped coordinate the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fong also moved to Snohomish County in September to coordinate that county’s COVID-19 recovery efforts as chief recovery and resilience officer.
Fong’s interest in politics and government has been apparent since he was a student at Spokane’s North Central High School, his friends and former teachers said.
Paula Korus, who taught social studies at North Central, said she remembered Fong’s participation in an essay contest hosted by the United Nations Association.
“It’s just that memory of this young person who worked so hard to learn government, politics, bureaucracy, politics and to be able to have an opinion on it in the sophomore year of high school and do it well enough to win the award on site,” said Korus.
Fong’s high school friend Josh Belzman also said that Fong was always serious about politics, even back in North Central.
“You could tell early on that he was really passionate about stuff like that,” Belzman said.
Fong was honored with North Central’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award.
“Sometimes you have students and you just know they’re really good kids and they’re going to keep going and doing things. … They’re going to go out and be good people in the community,” said Kim Rieken, who taught Fong in her Advanced Placement US history class at North Central. “And I think that was something that was really obvious and obvious with Mike.”
Fong started in government as a legislative adviser to Heidi Wills, a former Seattle City Councilman.
“[Wills]asked me to come and work for her, and I accepted the offer, and then spent almost continuously the next 21 years at Seattle City Hall,” Fong said. “Two decades goes by pretty quickly.”
In early 2020, Seattle faced the first widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. As deputy mayor, Fong said he and other city officials were forced to switch gears quickly when the virus emerged.
“The whole experience of the mayor essentially having an agenda that we were heading towards, (and) suddenly coming to an abrupt halt in the middle of her term in office to go on to essentially crisis response … and just a 24/7 kind of thing.” Focusing on pandemic response was really quite extraordinary,” Fong said.
After Fong left the Seattle City Council last year to lead Snohomish County’s pandemic recovery efforts, he had to anticipate what post-pandemic recovery and a “new normal” might look like.
“I think our goal is not just to go back to normal pre-pandemic business,” Fong said. “And I think that’s partly because the pandemic has made it clear to everyone how the disparities that existed before the pandemic have only been exacerbated during the pandemic.”
He said he believes efforts to recover from a pandemic should aim to increase justice.
This interest in addressing historical injustices is in part what drew Fong to his new position at the SBA. Fong said he was also encouraged by the commitment he’s seen from the Biden administration and from SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman to channel justice into the agency’s work.
“I truly believe that entrepreneurship is a way to build both opportunity and prosperity in the community and generations, especially for immigrant and communities of color,” he said.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said Spokane has worked to improve access to resources for all groups, particularly historically excluded communities and businesses. He added that he believes Fong can help with this effort.
“If you look at the work he’s done reaching out to historically marginalized communities, I think he’s well-placed to understand and make that happen,” Beggs said.
In addition to his pursuit of equity, Fong’s family history also drew him to the SBA. His father ran three different restaurants from the 1970s to the 1990s – House of Fong in downtown Spokane; Al Morse’s, also in downtown Spokane; and the Pagoda Restaurant in Post Falls – and his great-uncle owned the Gung Ho Restaurant in Spokane.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said she is pleased that Fong is now the SBA’s regional director.
“I’m sure he understands the challenges and struggles of small businesses,” said Woodward. “Our hospitality industry and Spokane’s restaurants and bars have really struggled during the pandemic, so I’m confident he can find resources and support for them.”
As he assumes the position leading the SBA in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, Fong said his first step is simply to just listen.
“In order for me to be effective and helpful in relation to the needs and challenges, I think it’s really important to be able to meet with as many people as possible and hear what the current challenges are,” he said.
North Central’s Rieken said she doesn’t think that should be a problem for Fong.
“He needs to connect with (small businesses),” Rieken said. “He has to listen to them. And if anyone would connect and listen, I think it would be Mike.”
Editor’s note: The title of this article was changed on May 18, 2022 to correct the restaurant owner’s relationship with Mike Fong, the restaurant owner influencing him.