The Gristle

All Thumbs on the Scale

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

ALL THUMBS ON THE SCALE: It’s early days and the official filing date is still weeks away, but this year’s local election season is shaping up to be robust, complex, fractious—and potentially earth-shaking.

As a teaser of the shaking, the normally quiet Whatcom Conservation District board of supervisors election ended in an upset after sustainability advocate and fish biologist Alan Chapman in current counts defeated the well-funded and well-organized electioneering of the incumbent board chair and fire-breathing property rights advocate Larry Helm by a little more than 30 votes. The five-member board of supervisors oversees the district, which is chartered to develop and implement programs that protect and conserve soil, water, farmland, rangeland, woodland, wildlife, energy and other natural resources in Whatcom County. The election, managed internally by WCD staff, holds a low profile, with many ballots submitted to the WCD office on the day of election. This year, thousands of ballots were received. The outcome speaks to the organization and resolve of progressives who sought to refocus the district’s activities toward practical issues of sustainability and low-impact farming. It also teases—as special elections have across the country—a powerful surge of tidal energy and interest in outcomes, a Blue Wave, that could sweep elections in November.

As for the robust, complex and fractious, Whatcom Democrats at their general meeting this month struggled to come to terms with how they will handle the super-abundance of challenges and challengers that are already lining up to face off in an August primary. Do they endorse? Do they not endorse?

The problem is particular and peculiar to Democrats. Republicans, much more autocratic and top-down in their party organization, rarely field more than one challenger in a local election. The nature of the state’s Top Two primary system rewards them, as the left splits its organizational energy among an array of candidates while conservative voters coalesce, guaranteeing them a slot in the general election.

The problem is well framed and illustrated in the left-leaning 40th Legislative District.

Representative Kris Lytton will not seek reelection, having successfully championed the effort to fully fund public education, the signature issue on which she originally campaigned. Her open seat has already drawn two Democratic challengers from Bellingham—Whatcom County Council chair and business owner Rud Browne, and clean energy policy analyst and activist Alex Ramel. More Democrats may seek the seat from outside Bellingham. Meanwhile, it is quite likely only one Republican will run. And even in a district as liberal as the 40th, odds are the Republican will squeak through in the Top Two.

Similarly, in the 42nd District, Tim Ballew II, the former chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council (the governing body of Lummi Nation) who is holding an interim seat on Whatcom County Council, will soon announce that he will challenge incumbent Republican Senator Doug Ericksen. Ballew must first square off against Pinky Vargas, the Bellingham City Council representative who announced her interest in the position earlier this spring. Both are fine candidates, but even more certainly they will bruise one another in an August primary while Ericksen glides through to the general election in November.

In a ferment of “robust interest” in running, the problem and question for Democrats is, Do they endorse in primaries? Do they not endorse in primaries?

In an age of ubiquitous social media, party endorsements are perhaps not so critical in elections as they once were. But endorsements do serve to “pick favorites,” to weight which candidates best represent the party and its goals, and to channel and direct campaign energy and fundraising to candidates best suited to move on in the general election. Endorsements are a tool a party has to crown their own, and rally around their own.

Yet for many young Democrats, who think the party should be fiercely challenged from the left, “picking favorites” is exactly the concern: A mechanism that keeps the old guard from yielding ground to the reformers.

It’s no secret the interplay between the “outsiders” and the “insiders,” the reformers and what they seek to reform, is as old as the modern Democratic Party. But the concern of young Dems is a legitimate one: No thumb on the scales.

After some chaotic process and messy direct democracy that angered some in attendance, local Dems ended up on the issue pretty much as they’ve been for the past several years: No endorsement unless you can convince a supermajority present at an endorsement meeting to make that selection: A thumb may be placed on the scale, but only if the thumb was oversized in the first place.

The platform adopted by Whatcom Democrats at their March 24 County Convention is a heady and energizing one, cap-stoned by unanimous support for universal healthcare in Washington, as well as broad economic and election reform.

That Big Blue Wave is certainly possible. But Democrats are going to have to fight hard for it, and they can’t be sloppy. They have to match the right candidate to the right race, the candidate best suited to inspire large numbers of voters in the general election.

Which leads to the second piece of the Democrats’ dilemma.

With so many excellent candidates ready to knock one another about in an August brawl, meanwhile some positions have drawn no challengers at all.

Both lower House seats in the 42nd District have no challengers at this point. And even more alarmingly, the seat on County Council currently held by Ballew has drawn no interest among progressives at this point.

It’s early days. But in their enthusiasm to run to the left of one another, Dems should not forget that the right is still fully functional and largely in control of local politics and elections. Sloppy can take the sloshy out of the Blue Wave.

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