January 2021 Bar Bulletin
By Scott E. Smith
In a profession rife with outsized egos and shameless self-promoters, Benson Wong is a refreshingly humble guy whose myriad accomplishments belie his aw-shucks persona. It’s not a put on. Benson excels at listening, learning and leading because he cares, he’s really smart, and he stays focused on the goals of whatever client, organization or community he’s helping.
He’s held the title of president, hizzoner, chairperson and, at home, Hey You. Nothing like the home front to keep you humble after a hard day saving the world. Benson has a better half, the effervescent and indefatigable Terry Mark. Married 38 years, they are life partners in the best sense. Raising kids (and now grandkids), creating a home, getting involved in volunteer and community activities, and traveling when they can, they have an enviably warm and loving affection for each other.
Outside of work and community service, family takes center stage. Benson is the youngest of five kids raised by Chinese immigrants who ran a grocery store on Capitol Hill. Throw in Terry’s extended family and they could host a 100-person wedding without inviting anyone they’re not related to by blood or marriage. Family gatherings are large and loud. A turnout of “only” 30 would be considered small and intimate.
Their daughter Brittney lives in Toronto with her husband Rich. Their son Trevor and his wife Leeching live on Mercer Island and have introduced Benson and Terry to the joys and exhaustions of grandparenthood. Was it really that much work and commotion when they raised their own kids?
Photos of the grandkids have bumped the kids off the front page of the annual Mark-Wong Family Newsletter (“Printing the news that no one else does or wants to print”), a breezy and lighthearted romp through the past year’s extended family activities, milestones and travels. There is often a sad and loving note (“our beloved patriarch passed away”) and a dash of politics.
A month after the 2016 election, Benson wrote, “While all of us were stunned and surprised at the results … the peaceful transition of this country’s presidents is one of the hallmarks of our democracy and is to be cherished.” Amen.
The family holiday letter reveals Benson’s sly and mischievous sense of humor, attributing acts of generosity to a lost bet, or competing with Terry to turn their home into the best “unlicensed and unregulated” day care for their first grandchild. Benson is the first to make a joke about his golf game, ballroom dancing “skills” or running accomplishments.
Benson and Terry have lived in the same house on Mercer Island for 36 years (except for the recent year they were forced to move out after an accidental fire caused extensive damage). Their kids went to the excellent local public schools. After serving on the Mercer Island School Board Foundation and M.I. Community Fund (including president for two years), Benson successfully ran for a seat on the City Council. Benson is known for his thoughtful study and analysis of the issues, even-tempered judgment, and ability to listen.
Benson is a solid public speaker except when the topic is himself. There was an awkward self-
consciousness when he introduced himself to potential voters during his first run for City Council in 2013. “Can’t we talk about something else?” I could see in his eyes as he rushed through the biographical part of his remarks before moving into the more comfortable terrain of public policy and his goals for the city. Compared to talking about himself, Benson much preferred meeting his neighbors as he rang thousands of doorbells during his campaigns.
After winning reelection to a second term, Benson was chosen by his fellow councilmembers to serve as mayor. He was a natural pick to lead an occasionally divided but smart and dedicated group of city leaders as they collectively grappled with budgetary challenges, a controversial Sound Transit station, and fundamental questions about growth, business development and the character of our community.
Councilmember Craig Reynolds observes, “Benson studies the issues thoroughly and thoughtfully, seeks broad community input, and then does his best in a non-ideological way to figure out what’s right for the community.” And then along comes a pandemic and a community reawakening to the racial injustices highlighted by George Floyd’s killing. Benson has been a steady and calming leader throughout these crises.
Benson has served the King County Bar, too. I first met Benson decades ago when the Young Lawyers Division let us in. Back then, his hair was thick and my belly wasn’t. We were working on the YLD’s neighborhood legal clinics program. Some of the other youngsters on the committee were John Ruhl and Marlin Appelwick. Like I said, it was a long time ago.
Since then, Benson has held leadership roles on the boards of the King County Bar Association and the King County Bar Foundation, which raises money to support legal aid programs and provide scholarships for minority law students. Benson is committed to diversifying our profession and ensuring that access to justice is available to people who cannot afford a lawyer.
Social justice is also important to Benson. He was on the legal team that vacated the convictions of Gordon Hirabayashi for resisting the forced internment and curfew of Japanese Americans during World War II. The U.S. Supreme Court had upheld his convictions in an infamous 1943 decision. In 1987, after six years of pro bono legal work, Benson and the other members of the defense team succeeded in proving governmental misconduct and racial bias leading the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate Hirabayashi’s convictions.
Sharon Sakamoto was still in law school when she joined the legal team. “The case was very demanding and required many evenings and weekends,” she notes, adding, “The case was truly monumental for Gordon, yes, but in essence, for all Americans and our democracy. Benson, with all of the others on the team, modeled for me what it meant to be a lawyer.” Sakamoto has continued to admire Benson’s style, humor and generous gift of his time and talent making our community a better place.
Benson’s community service has been eclectic. It has involved sports, public television, education and health care. He incorporated what is now known as the Kin On Health Care Center in 1984 and then went on to serve on its board and as chair. One of Benson’s more interesting roles was on the Washington Public Affairs Network Board, which he chaired for four years. Better known as TVW, the state’s version of C-Span, it reflects Benson’s interest in government and politics and the importance of transparency.
Benson also had a role in creating Seattle’s baseball and football stadiums. He served on the Washington State Public Stadium Board of Directors, which formed a public-private partnership with Paul Allen to build what we’re now calling Lumen Field. He was also on the Citizens Advisory Committee Regarding the Seattle Mariners Stadium. As an avid sports fan, Benson enjoys an extra dose of parental pride when he watches the Mariners or Seahawks play in the stadiums he helped establish.
For a longer list of Benson’s many civic activities and leadership roles, see the fanboy website I created — www.WhyBensonNeverSleeps.com.
Did I mention that Benson has a day job? He is a top-notch business lawyer. He graduated from Yale University in 1976 before getting his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He returned home to start practicing law and has been with Keller Rohrback for nearly 37 years. His practice is a mix of business deals, real estate transactions and non-profit clients, over a dozen of which he has represented pro bono.
Benson is a true professional and a pleasure to work with. Erin Howshar at Stokes Lawrence remembers a complicated multistate business deal she and Benson negotiated for more than a year for their clients. “Not only did Benson have a vast legal knowledge that allowed him to adeptly represent his client,” Howshar says, “he had a willingness to dig in and solve the problems that needed creative solutions. He was reasonable, but firm where the issues were important to his client.”
During their frequent conversations, she learned that Benson was on the City Council. She had just moved to Mercer Island and they quickly struck up a friendship. She adds that Benson’s “confident, problem-solving attitude serves him well as mayor. We are lucky to have him.”
Indeed, we are. Hats off, my friend. You make me proud to be a lawyer and doubly proud to be your friend.
Scott A. Smith is a mostly retired Seattle trial lawyer who looks forward to crashing the next Mark-Wong family gathering as soon as the pandemic is behind us. ScottSmith555@comcast.net