The Gristle

Polar Chill
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POLAR CHILL: As above, so below; and the sorts of polarization and ultimate dysfunction seen at the national level becomes manifest at the local level.

By charter and design, Whatcom County races are nonpartisan; but political parties and their associates are powerful, their selection mechanisms for candidates tend to be polar and mutually exclusive, and their organizing assets are indispensable to a campaign. Single candidates become grouped and promoted as blocs of candidates, defeating the nonpartisan design of local elections.

Run as blocs of candidates (with even the port races pulled into the polar fracas)—organized under the Whatcom Wins aegis for what we might consider progressive candidates versus the traditionalist Save Whatcom flag—the Gristle’s expectation is they will be elected as blocs of candidates, with Bellingham voters (whether through active, issue-based engagement or off-year indifference) providing a very large piece of that outcome.

What really distinguishes County Council candidates, in our view, is their understanding of and respect for the regulatory framework of the laws of the State of Washington. Understanding and respect is not a revolt against that framework, nor is it a deferment or abdication to a remote authority; it is a recognition that local governments play a central role in applying that framework to local goals and outcomes. The framework provides the tools and the rules; elected policymakers decide how best to apply those tools and rules.

Nowhere will this understanding and respect be more vital than when County Council studies and considers the coal export facility proposed at Cherry Point. County Council holds the keys in deciding not only whether, but how the Gateway Pacific Terminal gets built.

Council will be provided with well-crafted guidance through state and federal environmental protection acts, and their respect for those materials—their willingness to read them thoroughly and consider them carefully—will produce best outcomes for Whatcom County’s future. Dismissal of or contempt for those materials will produce poor outcomes.

For this reason, the Gristle is dismayed to see coal export interests laundering large amounts of campaign contributions to candidates who are not respectful of that framework. It’s suggestive, quite clearly, that the early promise of coal export interests to be good corporate citizens was a lie.

As noted by Western Washington University Professor Todd Donovan, and detailed by local political blogger Riley Sweeney and Seattle media, Pacific International Terminals donated $30,000 to the state Republican Party. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad donated another $10,000. These contributions were turned over to state party vice-chair Luanne Van Werven, who also heads the Whatcom County Republicans. Van Werven then distributed $1,500 to each selected candidate, along with $17,000 to Whatcom Republicans. Whatcom Republicans in turn funneled $17,000 to Republican-endorsed Whatcom County Council candidates. The transfers, Donovan noted, are not typical for local elections. The transfers both exceed the cap on contributions an individual may make and disguise the contributions’ origins. Coal interests do not appear on these candidates’ disclosures, but the laundered funds are available for candidates’ use in the election.

“It appears that Pacific International Terminals and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad have earmarked campaign funds given to the state Republican Party such that these funds exclusively benefit candidates in Whatcom County,” Donovan wrote to the state Public Disclosure Commission, which investigates alleged campaign finance irregularities. Donovan is a political scientist and elections expert.

“This practice allows Pacific International and BNSF to disguise the fact that they are a primary source of campaign funds for these candidates and for the Whatcom County Republican Party,” Donovan wrote to the PDC. “This practice allows Pacific International and BNSF to spend money on Whatcom County candidate races in excess of what is allowable under state law.”

Despite campaign finance shenanigans, the progressive slate of Whatcom Wins candidates—Barry Buchanan, Rud Browne, Carl Weimer, and Ken Mann—have logged more than double the amount of campaign contributions as competing candidates for their respective positions. In a more telling metric, more than three-quarters of these contributions are in amounts under $100, an important indicator of vigorous grassroots support. On a per contribution basis, these candidates have received roughly six times the number of contributions as their opponents—Kathy Kershner, Bill Knutzen, Michelle Luke, and Ben Elenbaas—who have received the greater portion of their campaign funds from large donors.

And, yes, all candidates have received sums from interest groups outside the area and outside the state.

State Republicans denied the contributions of coal interests were earmarked for their slate of candidates. But the detail of how money passed hands hardly matters: Through whatever happenstance or coincidence, these funds arrived uniformly in the coffers of people who have campaigned against the state’s regulatory framework and have expressed aggressive contempt for the application of state law. This bloc of candidates has also shunned forums where they might be accountable to wider public opinion. They’ve not been respectful, and coal money has flooded into their hands.

Coal has placed its bet; voters need to consider that gamble.

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