‘I Have A Dream’
Wednesday, January 15, 2020
‘I HAVE A DREAM’: To audiences large and small, the Whatcom County Executive took office this week in ceremonies of historic proportions.
Standing alongside family and friends, Satpal Sidhu was sworn into office in a well-attended ceremony in the Meridian High School auditorium over the weekend. On Monday he took his oath of office in a more official setting at the Whatcom County Courthouse, alongside other freshly elected leaders who form interesting new caucuses in local government. On Tuesday, Sidhu delivered his first public address to Whatcom County Council and county residents.
Sidhu was born in India and immigrated to Whatcom County from Canada. He is one of only a handful of members of the Sikh faith who hold public office in the United States. Little more than a century ago, Sikhs were driven out of Bellingham and Whatcom County by mob violence, a sorry event memorialized by an Arch of Healing and Reconciliation that Sidhu helped erect in 2018 outside the downtown Bellingham Public Library.
The significance of that full circle was not lost on the new head of county administration and the people who attended and spoke on his behalf at Meridian High School. Those included state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Western Washington University President Sabah Randhawa, as well as tribal members from Nooksack and Lummi Nation.
“In 1907, Sikhs were literally driven from their homes and their jobs in Bellingham. Now the voters of Whatcom County have chosen Satpal Sidhu as their leader. An historic occasion,” Ferguson commented. “In addition to his obvious qualifications, Satpal’s election is important to many communities in Whatcom County and our state.”
Indeed, Sidhu sees his role as a uniter of diverse interests and a healer of past grievances through productive problem solving. He currently heads one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse administrations in the history of Whatcom County.
“Fifty years ago,” Sidhu noted in his first official address to Council on Tuesday evening, “I had the same dream as millions of young kids all over the world to become an engineer and work in America, the land of opportunity. I then became an electrical engineer and immigrated 40 years ago. And today, here I am! A true American dream is unfolding in front of us,” he remarked.
“I would like to start with the acknowledgment that we are gathered here on the ancestral homelands of the Coastal Salish Peoples, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, and thank them for their enduring care and protection of our shared lands and waterways,” he continued.
To help facilitate that, and to improve relationships with the tribes, Sidhu requested one of two positions on the committee of intergovernmental tribal relations, a position normally held by seated County Council members. Council favored his request at their reorganizational meeting this week.
“We must expand our cooperation for a meaningful and respectful relationship with tribal nations,” Sidhu said, “and embark upon the projects of mutual importance like water, salmon habitat enhancement, cultural heritage preservation, creating new jobs, economic expansion and other projects in the best interest of all residents. I look forward to starting a new era of cooperation with both Lummi and Nooksack governments and tribe members.
“I am so humbled and honored by the incredible support and trust from varied groups like farmers, labor unions, firefighters, environmental groups, tribal members, business owners, professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, students and common Americans, who gave me the opportunity to serve as your County Executive,” Sidhu continued in his remarks.
“It is my passion and commitment to serve my community and share the values of fairness, inclusion and equal opportunity for all. Together we can address the challenges before us,” he said. “My leadership vision is that working together, we can achieve something bigger than all of us, which we may not perceive or create as individuals.”
Sidhu outlined what he believes are the two tandem challenges that face the county.
“The first is getting Whatcom County working together. We all know that we are better than our current politics. Our land, water, housing, environment, climate change, jobs, criminal justice and most other local issues are not liberal or conservative issues. We as a local community are paralyzed to solve our common issues because of our inability to have civil and meaningful conversation. We must lower the temperature” of our politics, Sidhu advised.
It’s a tall order, with a new strong and coherent conservative axis emerging on County Council. Although their first organizational meeting was collegial and accommodating, already the 4-3 divisions that may characterize their future interactions are beginning to form.
“The second challenge,” Sidhu predicted, “is getting to consensus. Consensus does not mean we agree on everything. It means we can all live with the solutions we propose collectively. We have more in common than what divides us. Let’s not deprive our kids and grandkids from a bright and joyful future because of our empty and meaningless rhetoric of labels. We, the people of Whatcom County, need to have the courage to disagree and still love each other.”
Sidhu scoped the major challenges that face the county, including housing and land use policy as well as criminal justice and behavioral health reform.
“The rising cost of housing, at all income levels, is a serious threat to our economic vitality, public well-being and the health of our community,” the executive said. “It challenges the very livelihood of our future generations. Our businesses are unable to expand because employees earning decent wages are also not able to find affordable housing.
“I see myself more as Public Servant-in-Chief than as County Executive,” Sidhu said, ushering in a refreshing new chapter in local government.