AMERICAN TALIBAN: Of the many moving parts in this election season, the Gristle’s eye is fixed on the smoldering radicalism within the new 1st Congressional District, and the role rural Whatcom County may play in lighting that ablaze on election night.
In 2010, Whatcom County demonstrated it had sufficient electoral might to almost singlehandedly lift Rep. Rick Larsen back into office even while the congressman fared poorly nearly everywhere else in the 2nd District. Larsen beat his opponent by nearly seven points in this county. Elsewhere he limped to victory with barely a third that level of support. The lion’s share of support came from the population nucleus of Bellingham, where nearly seven voters in ten favored the moderate Democrat.
His opponent was John Koster.
Without Bellingham, Koster would have won.
That was 2010, in the raging heat of the Tea Party movement; and Koster was one of its most ardent advocates, telling voters at a forum the movement was “one of the most exciting things that’s happened to this country for a long time.” Endorsing Larsen, the Seattle Times admitted “the Arlington Republican’s very conservative social views—against a woman’s right to choose and gay rights—and his skepticism that humans have any role in climate change disqualify [Koster].”
The following year the state was redistricted. Blue Bellingham was carved off the flank of Whatcom County. A large new rural congressional district formed. Koster’s views haven’t changed, but his opportunity to win national office certainly has.
A poll of 1st District voters in mid-September gave Koster four points over his challenger, Suzan DelBene, 46 to 42 percent. Potentially more troubling for DelBene, the centrist Democrat carries higher negatives, six points over Koster, possibly a holdover from a bruising primary with many popular Democrats jostling for the general election. Overarching all, though, is the persistent enthusiasm gap among Democrats for their mild, accommodating candidates, versus the full-throated devotion bordering on bloodlust that Republicans shower on their fierce culture warriors.
“Koster is one of the most uncompromising and conservative members of the Legislature,” the Bellingham Herald commented on the lawmaker’s record in 2000, where he gained a reputation for extreme partisan obstructionism in Olympia. His is an intoxicating brew for teahadists.
Even as a survey in August pegged national support for the Tea Party at a severe low, with high associative negatives—down around the popularity of Taliban operatives and parking meters—the opposite might register in the nascent 1st District. Peeling off the populous, populist blue coastal areas might have only increased the fever.
Koster has a long history with the worst impulses of the far right, reaching back into the 1990s through associations with the Patriot movement and county secessionism. As a state legislator, Koster introduced bills that promoted and legitimized the far-right agenda of these groups, particularly their efforts at forming new counties, carved out by “secession” from larger urban counties in western Washington.
As freelance journalist David Neiwert has detailed, Koster was central to the development of a well-organized network of Wise Use “property rights” front groups. The majority of this activity revolved around opposition to the Growth Management Act, signed into law shortly before he was in Olympia. The organizing effort continues to this day as the Community Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR) in Whatcom County.
“A classic front group in this case was the Snohomish County Property Rights Alliance (SNOCO PRA),” Neiwert relates. “Like all front groups, it faced both ways: on one side, it was funded by the Building Industry Association of Washington (in Whatcom County, the Chamber of Commerce joined in, too) and a collection of timber and developer interests. On the other side were the far-right Christian Patriots, conspiracy-prone extremists, often with John Birch Society backgrounds, who rapidly infiltrated the key groups in Snohomish and Whatcom counties, including the SNOCO PRA. In the middle were mostly retired property owners with ‘nest-egg’ investments.”
If the players sound eerily similar to those who last month stormed Whatcom County Council to destroy Bellingham’s clean water initiative, the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, understand it is no coincidence. They are well organized and well funded by the same intermix of actors.
“By 1992, numerous property rights front groups had set up county secession front groups and were using the secession petitions for illegally pre-qualifying new voter registrations and collecting voter lists, which were used by property-rights candidates in local elections,” Neiwert relates. The atmosphere was toxic, bordering on lethal.
As a Republican state representative, Koster in 1997 introduced bills to create Skykomish, Freedom and Pioneer counties. The Freedom County and Pioneer County bills died, but the sentiment has continued to stain Whatcom County politics—both in local and state representatives—for a decade.
In all but the most hardheaded areas of the state, the game came to an end after a series of rulings in which high courts refused “to step through the looking glass into the strange world” of militias and the secessionist movement, finding their claims were—in the opinion of one judge—”legally incoherent despite a heavy larding of pseudo-legal rhetoric.” The public relations effort wasn’t helped after militia members began threatening public meetings armed openly with knives, proudly issuing death threats against the governor. Crackdowns on domestic terrorism, the collapse of a couple of burning landmark towers in New York City, and the spiraling depravity of BIAW state leadership contributed to the implosion.
The aim of such efforts was, always, to wrest resource lands from the (democratic) control of their population centers, creating a geopolitical divide that looks—ironically—a whole lot like Congressional District One.
They lost the battle to do this by force. But redstricting may yet yield them the war.
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