The Gristle

One Rule to Ring Them All
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ONE RULE TO RING THEM ALL: Filing Week for public office ended last week, and two themes seem emergent. First, a subtle yet important fault line appears to have cracked within movement conservatives. Second, the very documents that undergird local government draw more spirited attention than government offices themselves. The first point feeds into the second in important ways.

Perhaps more symptom than cause, the fissures within movement conservatives oozed a small amount of blood last month with the decision of perennial idiot Rep. Jason Overstreet (R-Blaine) to attack the inartful comments of Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard and demand Shepard’s resignation over his (frequent and repeated) commitment to diversify the college. While Overstreet’s stunt perhaps opened right-wing checkbooks nationwide and exposed local political races to slavering scrutiny, the scrutiny was uniformly negative and harmful to the university.

Our guess is Overstreet closed as many checkbooks locally as he may have opened nationally.

You see, there still is a variety of influential Republican who puts on a nice suit, attends business luncheons, donates time to clubs and charities, and generally considers himself or herself a business and community leader. Frequently, they fondly call WWU their alma mater and are bursting proud their children attend there. They understand the university’s function as a powerful engine for the local economy and community. And these are the sorts of people who might ordinarily be counted on to write a generous check for a local candidate.

These sorts of people are embodied by Ralph Munro, the accomplished and charismatic former secretary of state, broadly considered the dean emeritus of local Republicans. Munro penned a stern letter last month, publicly (and pointedly) condemning Overstreet, paddling his fanny like a headmaster.

Political parties still matter; and they help organize and direct the desires and passions of their members. So it is perhaps no surprise that the consummate party organizer and enabler, Luanne Van Werven—chair of Whatcom Republicans—stepped in to replace Overstreet as he melted down into goo. She is especially gifted to smooth irritations and get campaign funds flowing.

Yet there are also flavors within the local conservative movement, tea party conservatives, who cheered Overstreet’s idiocy. And there are flavors for whom markets are the primary motivator, who have little interest in the controls of “value” conservatives and express a libertarian view. Thus we have, in this election, no fewer than three conservatives running to replace Overstreet, expressing this spectrum.

It’s a conundrum seen nationally made manifest at the local level: The sorts of furor and ferment, the vying to demonstrate who is most wrathfully pure and toweringly inflexible, that energize movement conservatives in primaries do not often thrill moderate centrists when general elections roll around.

It’s a conundrum also seen in the most active race this season, for a seat on the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission.

The county’s home rule charter mandates periodic review every ten years. Candidates are elected, then review and recommend updates, which are passed along to County Council for possible action. Sometimes, the council’s action is to put proposed changes to voters in the form of a resolution that can potentially change the very structure of county government.

Broadly, changes proposed to the county charter are of two types: Changes to a procedure or construction intended to address some thorny particular or perceived deficiency in this organic public document. Or, changes to its construction that fundamentally favors or advantages a particular ideology. The first is like housekeeping fidgeting with the place settings at a banquet. The second is more like yanking the whole tablecloth out from under the banquet, with varying degrees of interest in whether the china remains in place or goes flying.

Passion to serve on the Charter Review Commission is keen, historically drawing four or five times as many candidates as there are positions available on the commission. This year is no exception, with fully 48 candidates applying for 15 positions, five positions for each of the county’s three voting districts.

Many candidates are hard to place along the standard left-right political divide, and it might be more useful to scatter them into varying quadrants of interest.

One axis might be to assign whether a particular candidate would agree that there are interests—social, economic, community—that compete in a meaningful way with private property rights. For nearly half the candidates, the answer is clearly, honestly no—whatever merits, nothing can or must compete with private property rights. A second axis might probe the depths of that absolute commitment, descending even into paranoid conspiracy fantasy—what we might call the Agenda 21 Factor. Clearly, some candidates grouped along the first axis do not belong on the second. But several do. Consider this axis the crazy fault line across which conservative thoughts diverge.

The enduring shibboleth for the Right is always the desire to shave down the voting power of progressive Bellingham into tranches small enough that allow the Right to permanently rule. Historically, these efforts have been both subtle (“district-only voting”) and gross (“county secession”), but they each ignore the reality that progressive Bellingham pays the county’s bills, both through property tax and a jaw-dropping percentage of sales tax.

Home rule charter review is a powder keg that gets lit every ten years, usually producing smoke and fizzle, a few sparks. But it can do much more, explosively more.


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