The Gristle

When Fringe Goes Mainstream
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WHEN FRINGE GOES MAINSTREAM: Ballots continue to flow in the August Top Two primary, a queer beast with an unusual pedigree that need not necessarily produce a candidate each from the two standard political parties, D versus R, but—due to extremes of polarization, and the continued influence of money and organization in modern politics—probably will.

Case in point, the odd runoff among conservatives for Position 1 in the 42nd Legislative District, a reliably conservative rural district diluted by the progressive sensibilities of north-central Bellingham.

Luanne Van Werven was encouraged by influential county interests to help wave away the horrid stink left behind by departing neanderthal Rep. Jason Overstreet; and a more capable and sturdy party centrist than Van Werven you could not imagine, having already amassed contributions of more than $54,000 at this point in her campaign. Her donor list is a veritable who’s who of grounded county conservatives, tellingly with large grassroots support in amounts under $100.

She is challenged on the right by rockheaded dullard Bill Knutzen, whose persistent obstinance nevertheless proved effective on Whatcom County Council. Knutzen has raised only a fraction of Van Werven and has spent less than a pittance, according to campaign contribution sources, meaning he will hold his powder dry pending his survival in the primary.

In a reflection of trends that have confounded political analysts nationally, you could not a shine a single photon of light between the policy positions held by Van Werven and Knutzen. The positions of mainstream Republican centrists are identical to those held by the extreme radical fringe of conservative thought—the fringe is the mainstream—which renders the “tea party” schism within the conservative movement a perplexing curiosity—there functionally is no difference, and therefore why all the froth and ferment? Whatever minor differences might be imagined are utterly flattened by caucus.

Refreshing the contest among conservatives is the campaign of Nicholas Kunkel, whose libertarian apostasy is bound to peel off a few votes from conservative frontrunners.

All that erosion on the right will undoubtedly leave the lone candidate on the left, genial Democrat Satpal Sidhu, standing as the effluent clears, clutching a war chest of more than $40,000 as the race begins in earnest this fall.

We can expect similar outcomes in the race in the 2nd Congressional District seat held by incumbent Democrat Rep. Suzan DelBene, challenged by molecular slices of Republican riffraff who vary from one another less in tone and pitch than in loudness.

Certainly the most interesting countywide primary fight is over the soul of an obscure entity, Public Utility District 1, and the important role that entity will play in future water resource allocation. The PUDs were formed early last century as a means to pipe utilities into rural areas after the large investor-owned utilities refused to do so. Baked into their centers is a dynamic sort of populism that favors nimble small business entrepreneurialism and the transparency of public process.

Bellingham architect and developer Jeff McClure originally ran for district commissioner with a plan to tap that engine for entrepreneurial growth, perhaps using the district’s powers to wheel energy and water at discount to those start-ups. The economic collapse of 2007 foreclosed on much of what originally interested McClure about the potential of the PUD.

In 2009, in a transfer of limited transparency, Pacific International Terminals, proponents of the Gateway Pacific coal terminal proposal, bought from Chevron the rights to 2 billion gallons of water a year from the Nooksack River. The district has since been at work shifting water resource assets—most notably with the City of Ferndale—to, in part, make that delivery possible. The PUD last year unanimously approved extension of water service to PIT for 30 years until 2042.

Bob Burr challenges that decision of the PUD. He says, “The PUD should not have been a Gateway Pacific facilitator. It should serve the public interest. It hardly fits the first stated mission of PUDs around the state, namely to ‘conserve the water and power resources of the state of Washington for the benefit of the people.’”

Matthew Goggins ably cites the distinguished mission and role of the PUD to help offset the power and monopoly of large corporations and increase public accountability, but offers little comment on the most energizing issue of this decade, a plan to ship up to 54 million tons per year of coal using the resources of the public utility district.

The race therefore becomes a referendum between one man eager to talk about the role the PUD may play in this decision, versus two content to talk about other matters. Voting for Burr in the primary allows that dialogue to continue into the fall.
Heavy industry at Cherry Point is, and will continue to be, the defining county issue of this decade, with tremendous amounts of outside money and interest flooding in to influence that discussion, even as development and home construction dominated the last decade.

Earlier this month, the Building Industry Association of Washington made final settlement on claims the construction lobby had skimmed member funds for political mischief. The trade association had skimmed rebates due to members who had paid into an insurance program designed to cover the costs of their employees’ workplace injuries. When premiums paid in are larger than claims paid out, the state Department of Labor and Industries sends out a refund. BIAW siphoned these refunds to finance their toxic political organizing.

“Right wing zealots were using the BIAW’s illegal practices to maintain their power and to divert millions of dollars of trust funds toward conservative causes and candidates,” attorney Knoll Lowney announced on behalf of a lawsuit initiated in part by Bellingham-based RE Sources and A-1 Builders. “Our lawsuit drove out the zealots and ushered in new leadership that has more or less brought BIAW into sanity. It is no longer breaching trust duties; it is no longer the right-wing money machine; and it seems to play a more productive and less polarizing and partisan role in the community.”

It’s a sobering reminder and a lesson of hope as we enter a new round of ugly money in politics.


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Past Columns

July 22, 2014

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