Fire and Frost
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
FIRE AND FROST: The most remarkable outcome of last week’s local election was, of course, the astonishing performance of Seth Fleetwood for mayor of Bellingham.
Let’s be clear: Seth was always the safe, reliable bet to come through the Top-Two primary in first or second place; but by the Gristle’s jaundiced eye he performed six points above forecast. His matchup against April Barker, who arrived in the second slot, promises a very dynamic and intelligent policy discussion through the fall.
Why did Seth perform so well? We’ll argue (without intending to take an atom away from this celebrated and familiar native son), it was in part because dark horse Garrett O’Brien performed poorly. O’Brien, by our forecast, should have picked up a leading 30 percent of the vote; instead, he arrived in last place behind Pinky Vargas.
A deeper dive into more accurate data than what was available on election night perhaps tells the story. At nearly 40 percent, Whatcom’s turnout for this election was one of the highest in the state, and certainly the highest in populous counties around Puget Sound. Likely it is a fairly reliable barometer of outcomes we may expect in November.
Tony Larson collected about 4,400 votes in Bellingham precincts in his bid for Whatcom County Executive. O’Brien received 5,073 votes in the Bellingham mayoral race. Each are about 20 percent of the roughly 23,400 total votes cast in each race—a good apples-to-apples comparison.
Why would a vote for Tony match a vote for Garrett? Their campaigns each offered a private-sector alternative to a slate of government insiders, and appealed to a particular demographic eager to “Throw the Rascals Out.” They both held strong credentials in the FIRE lobby—finance, business, construction industry and real estate. They both promised to throttle government regulations and promote growth.
Larson’s performance in Bellingham precincts eerily paces support for Donald Trump in 2016, and that support is also matched in countywide ballots for Larson at around 38 percent. That’s an important number in Whatcom County politics—it’s essentially the dimensions of hardcore, always-dependable Republican votes. That’s the size of Trump Country.
But Bellingham is not Trump Country. Only 20 percent of the city voted for Trump in 2016, and that appears to be the ceiling for appeals to that particular demographic in the City of Subdued Excitement.
The forecast model was wrong.
But Garrett outperformed Tony by nearly 700 votes in Bellingham, which suggests his appeal was broader overall—and he did present himself as an extremely charismatic and likable new face in local politics.
We’ll make the case that Seth—long a familiar and calming and stabilizing voice in local politics—may have also picked up a lot of secondary votes as the alternative choice to other candidates’ higher perceived negatives. Certainly, a candidate with a boldly stated platform and agenda like April Barker has picked up some negatives along with the positives in her journey. O’Brien was mostly a cypher on local issues; but with Fleetwood you knew where he stood, and it was nearly always in a good and thoughtful place. He was the safe, secure bet for Bellingham’s future.
Barker, as we mentioned, stands out as having a boldly articulated campaign. She runs on a platform of social justice reform, with a laser focus on affordable housing. These positions undoubtedly underscore her support, and the reason she arrived in the second slot in the general election.
There is a reason April is running; and in politics a stated clarity of purpose is remarkable.
We give April credit for campaigning on specific issues that face the city, and her voice continuing into the fall is an important one. There are tangible things she wants to accomplish through the mayor’s office. Her directness is refreshing.
Because she is running on issues with quite a bit of controversy and heat that undergird them, we’ll speculate that April’s negatives—the reasons a voter might prefer someone else in office—going into the general election are higher than Seth’s.
Theirs is an interesting inversion.
A former City Council member, Seth has been out of government policymaking for sufficient time that he is plausibly an outsider to those issues. Whatever problems exist, he was not part of the making of them; and he could be critical of them. He’s not. His message is a positive, affirmative one—that the city has made great strides, and needs to continue its stride.
April, currently serving on City Council, is an outspoken critic of city directions. Her position is that the city has been on the wrong track for a number of years, and needs to take aggressive steps toward a more inclusive, pluralistic future. Yet those years also equal her span on Council, and are measured in the number of votes she has delivered 7-0 with the Council majority. Arguably, the immediacy of her term on City Council has given her insight into administrative weaknesses and areas that need attention.
Seth, the outsider, is running as the consummate insider—the youthful spirit with deep roots everyone expected would one day be mayor. April, the insider, is running as an outsider—promising to shake things up and make Bellingham a better place.
April is specific. Seth is not, and is by nature and approach an accommodating generalist. She can be sharp-tongued and direct; whereas he is soft-spoken and circumspect.
She is fire. He is frost.
It’s a terrific throwdown in style and delivery.