Mike Fong’s interest in public service may have begun with a fruitcake.

Every year during the holidays, Fong’s great grandfather, Jack Eng, who lived in Spokane, would hand-deliver a fruitcake to his congressman, Tom Foley.

Foley – who spent 30 years representing Eastern Washington in the House of Representatives, including serving as speaker – had helped Eng deal with the immigration system to bring relatives to the U.S.

“I think (the fruitcake) was sort of his way, great grandpa Jack’s way, of showing sort of his ongoing appreciation for that help,” said Fong, a Spokane native.

Fong, who was appointed in November to lead the Small Business Administration’s Pacific Northwest office, said he thinks his great grandfather’s interest in politics might have subtly influenced him.

“I always just found it really interesting that he felt so much friendship with the congressman over those years,” Fong said. “And maybe subliminally, some of that seeped into my subconscious as far as … my interest in politics and government and the ability of government to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Prior to joining the SBA, Fong spent more than 20 years working for the city of Seattle. He worked as a staff member of the City Council for more than 10 years before moving over to the mayor’s office in 2014.

Fong served as chief of staff to the mayor and eventually became the deputy mayor of Seattle in 2017. He held the 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 North Central High School in Spokane, his friends and former teachers said.

Paula Korus, who taught social studies at North Central, said she remembers Fong participating in an essay competition put on by the United Nations Association.

“It’s this memory just of this young person who worked so hard to learn government, learn politics, learn bureaucracy, learn policy, and to be able to express an opinion about that as a sophomore in high school and to do it well enough to win the award locally,” Korus said.

Fong’s high school friend Josh Belzman also said Fong was always serious about politics, even back at North Central.

“You could tell early on that he was really passionate about that kind of stuff,” Belzman said.

Fong was honored with the North Central’s Distinguished Alumni award in 2020.

“Sometimes you have students and you just know that they’re really good kids and they’re going to go on and do things. … They’re going to go out and they’re going to be good people in the community,” said Kim Rieken, who taught Fong in her Advanced Placement U.S. History class at North Central. “And I think that was something that was real apparent and obvious about Mike.”

Fong got his start in government working as a legislative aide for former Seattle City Council member Heidi Wills.

“(Wills) asked me to come in and work for her, and I accepted the offer and then pretty much spent almost continuously the next 21 years in Seattle City Hall,” Fong said. “Two decades goes by pretty quick.”

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 quickly switch gears when the virus appeared.

“The whole experience of essentially the mayor having an agenda that we were driving towards, (and) really in the middle of her term all of a sudden coming to a screeching halt to pivot to essentially a crisis response … and just the around the clock nature of focusing on pandemic response was really quite extraordinary,” Fong said.

After leaving Seattle city government to head Snohomish County’s pandemic recovery efforts last year, Fong was forced to reckon with what recovery and a “new normal” could look like after the pandemic.

“I think our goals are not to just get back to pre-pandemic business as usual,” Fong said. “And I think it’s because, in part, the pandemic highlighted for everyone how the disparities that existed before the pandemic only got exacerbated during the pandemic.”

He said he believes pandemic recovery efforts should have the goal of increasing equity.

This interest in addressing historical inequities is partly what drew Fong to his new position at the SBA. Fong said he was also heartened by the commitment he saw from the Biden administration and from SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman to center equity in the agency’s work.

“I really have a strong belief in entrepreneurship as a pathway towards building both opportunity and also community and generational wealth, in particular for immigrants and communities of color,” he said.

Breean Beggs, Spokane City Council president, said that Spokane has been working to increase accessibility to resources for all groups, particularly historically marginalized communities and businesses. He added he believes Fong can help in these efforts.

“Looking at the work that he’s done in reaching out to historically marginalized communities, I think he’s well positioned to understand that and to make that happen,” Beggs said.

In this 1984 photo, family members gathering for tea are former Spokane restauranteur Jack Eng, 81, left, his great-grandson Mike Fong, nephew Paul Eng, grandson Sam Fong and Mrs. Sam Fong. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

In addition to his aspirations of increasing 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’s excited that Fong is now the SBA regional director.

“He, I’m sure, understands the challenges and certainly the struggles of small businesses,” Woodward said. “Our hospitality industry and the restaurants and bars in Spokane have really struggled during the pandemic, and so I’m hopeful that he will be able to find resources and assistance for them.”

As he takes over the position leading the SBA in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, Fong said his first step is simply to listen.

“In order for me to be effective and helpful in terms of what the needs and challenges are, I think it’s really important to be able to meet with as many people as possible and listen to what the challenges are currently,” he said.

Rieken, at North Central, said she doesn’t think this should be an issue for Fong.

“He’s got to make a connection with (small businesses),” Rieken said. “He’s got to listen to them. And if anybody would make a connection and listen, I think it would be Mike.”

Published in conjunction with Spokane Spokesman-Review