A Creeping Paralysis
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
A CREEPING PARALYSIS: Senator Doug Ericksen followed Governor Jay Inslee on to the stage at Western Washington University last week. Inslee met with students on Wednesday to discuss climate change and the need for individuals and local and state leaders to take action. Ericksen followed on Thursday, in a town hall sponsored by Students for Life and Young Americans for Liberty.
The senior Republican of the 42nd Legislative District undercut everything the governor earlier had to say about climate change and the duty of citizens to call for action from their elected leaders. Ericksen was the consummate representative of Cherry Point petroleum interests and—admittedly—the hundreds of people they employ and the hundreds of millions of dollars they supply to the Whatcom County tax base. He was characteristically glib and oleaginous, characterizing climate action as “radical” “extremism,” dismissing the challenges that face an emergent generation.
He is the face of Whatcom County politics.
He cannot be defeated. He cannot be primaried out of office in some future runoff by a more energetic, more effective challenger; and he cannot be eliminated in a general election by someone with a markedly different worldview. He can hold the office as long as he wants—a lifetime appointment to the office.
It doesn’t sound very democratic. But unless something changes it is very likely the future of Whatcom County politics.
Locally and nationally, the two parties have gotten very comfortable with locking in place for themselves safe political districts.
In 1992, there were 103 members of the U.S. House of Representatives elected from what might be called swing districts, those in which the margin in the presidential race was within five percentage points of the national result. By 2016, only 35 such Congressional districts remained.
At the state level, successive redistricting has peeled progressive voters out of the 42nd District and cast their votes south. In the last two election cycles, Republicans have averaged about 55 percent of the vote in the 42nd, the new floor in what was once a highly competitive swing district.
Some of this is the inevitable tide of demographics and population growth, and of the desire to create communities of aligned interest. And while it is hard to make the inevitable better, it is certainly easy to make the inevitable make much worse.
At the most local level, voters shot themselves in 2015 with district-only voting, virtually eliminating the possibility of robust political discourse in the majority of future county elections and locking in place the sorts of paralysis observed at the state and national levels.
Importantly, the outlines of the newly created five districts aren’t the problem. The inability of voters to have influence on any representative outside of their own district is the problem.
We may perhaps glimpse the effects on County Council races in the coming election, but its effects will not be severe. The severity lies in out-years.
Progressive representation for Bellingham districts is secure in this election. Rud Browne’s challenger in South Bellingham was stillborn. In North Bellingham, you probably couldn’t slide a piece of paper between how Amy Glasser or Todd Donovan will vote on issues scheduled to come in front of them on the Council.
The Foothills District 3 is fascinating—politically diverse and swing-y. Based on primary results, the district leans conservative. Which probably signals a coming shift on Whatcom County Council.
The At-Large District is old school, the way elections used to get done, with every voter in the county given a say on outcome.
All local races are “off year” in terms of the energizing effects of presidential politics and turnout, which means they do naturally skew conservative. This year, the lightning rod effect of the Trump administration may change levels of turnout in local elections.
Barry Buchanan has been an able and dependable vote on County Council for the work they’re currently engaged in. His challenger, a charismatic representative of the building industry, Mary Kay Robinson, would certainly erode but not entirely eliminate the plurality of Council support for that work. In other words, Buchanan’s loss would hurt; but Robinson’s presence alone will not change the makeup of county government.
That change happens in out-years.
It happens when Carl Weimer, the architect of so much Council work on land-use, water issues and fossil fuel export imperatives, reaches the end of his term and retires at the end of 2017. And it happens when Ken Mann, another able and dependable vote on Council in pursuit of that work, also retires. It happens if Donovan, perhaps defeated by Glasser in this election, declines to then run or is primaried out in his district in 2019. Then, therefore, we’re looking at a dramatically changed County Council—one that has lost momentum on issues of land-use, of water, of fossil fuel exports. And with district-only voting in place, we’re looking at that changed Council for a long, long time.
We’re looking at a paralyzed Council in out-years, with insufficient numbers to move decisively in any direction.
Voters in this election hold the power to accelerate or delay the paralysis of Council, by keeping its members in place and working toward goals (that will take more than two years to enact) or by eroding their forward momentum.
Council is changing. It will change. And when it does change, it will be a more conservative Council. And it will be very difficult to alter its makeup because most voters won’t be able to touch the majority of its members.
In the future, they’ll all be Ericksens.