Don’t Think of a Elephant

Forty-Two, and the Five Percent Solution

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Here’s another bold prediction for the 2018 elections: Republican Senator Doug Ericksen will make it through the August top-two election in the 42nd Legislative District, and very likely in the top slot. Given the makeup and election history of the 42nd District, he’s also likely to win reelection in November—but that’s not guaranteed.

I have come to perceive local elections in the 42nd District as a Five Percent Equation—a campaign either has to convince a slim percentage of the voters who would normally support Sen. Ericksen for reelection that he may not be their best, most engaged and ethical representative in Olympia. Or a campaign has to encourage and convince a portion of the many thousands of registered voters in the 42nd District who do not vote in non-presidential elections to hand in a ballot.

Of the two options, the first is harder because Ericksen has been effective in positioning himself as an able representative of hardcore conservative interests in a conservative district, a bull elephant for the elephant party. Which leaves the second option, which requires that challengers are electrifying, with compelling messages to activate voters. An ideal campaign would try a little of both.

Challengers in this race are Pinky Vargas and Tim Ballew II, both Democrats.

Pinky currently serves on Bellingham City Council, a population nucleus that has nevertheless been denied a direct representative voice in Olympia since its mayor served in that capacity a decade ago. Tim served as Chairman of Lummi Nation during the ferment of the debate over a coal port at Cherry Point and their rise as a national voice of integrity on issues of ecological wholeness and the sovereignty of place. He currently serves an interim seat on Whatcom County Council.

“I’ve been thinking about this race for quite a few years,” Pinky confessed. “Living in Whatcom County where it is so amazing and beautiful, I feel our senator should be someone who protects our land and protects our people.

“But thinking about it,” she said, “I realized we really needed somebody who was not super far-left, but a little bit more center. I feel I am just a little bit left of center—that I have progressive values, but am pretty moderate in my decisions, particularly fiscal decisions. I tend to try to lean toward ‘how are we going to help people.’

“I’ve tried to focus on what drives us and supports us economically, but also what helps us as a community,” Pinky summarized.

For Tim “it took a lot of soul-searching to get to the point of deciding to run,” he admitted. “I think that with the variables one could look at and say ‘this is the year,’ for even the best candidate this is an uphill battle against Doug Ericksen, a heavy lift.

“But I think all that aside,” Tim said, “I’ve always taken the approach regardless of what public office I’ve been in to try to do best and right by the families in the community. I think this is an opportunity to continue that practice.

“I want to continue to play my part to ensure that our families have a future that they can look forward to,” he said.

Of the two candidates, I perceive Pinky as more in the mold of a strong mainstream Democrat of long standing in the party and an able champion of that platform. Ironically, due to some shifting inter-party friction, she did not receive the endorsement of 42nd District Democrats. She has been endorsed by Whatcom Women Democrats in a constellation of support from women’s organizations; and she has received strong support from organized Labor.

Tim’s not of that party mold at all, really, and is awkward in it. And strangely, that might work to his advantage. His list of endorsements is as thick as hers; and many are joint endorsements.

Of the two, I perceive Tim holds a slight edge to build wonder, to excite and energize that disaffected portion of sidelined voters who do not normally care to cast a ballot in 42nd District elections—essential to that Five Percent Equation. Or to put it another way, what Pinky has to say is of keen interest to Democrats; what Tim has to say is also of interest, and then some.

The difference is one of framing, a term coined by cognitive scientist George Lakoff in his seminal book on the topic, Don’t Think of an Elephant.

“At a time when we should be harnessing the energy of a grassroots movement to revitalize American democracy in 2018, Democrats are beset by infighting and chaos,” Lakoff wrote recently of a phenomenon spooling out at both national and local levels.

“The major rift,” he explains, “is between bold progressives who want a new direction and the fellow Democrats they see as the establishment wing of the party. The two sides mostly agree on about 98 percent of issues, but have serious differences on key points.

“Framing,” Lakoff explains, “is about reclaiming our power to decide what’s important. Framing is about making sure we set the terms of the debate, using our language and our ideas. We need a long-term strategy for positive persistence,” he says. “Positive persistence beats negative resistance. And while words are important, action prevails.”

Both candidates are surely positive and persistent.

“Obviously one of the biggest issues for Whatcom County is water—access to water, and clean water,” Pinky summarized. “Affordable housing, which affects Bellingham but is also starting to affect the county as well. And family-wage jobs—economic development. Having people have to work three jobs just to survive—that’s a huge issue.”

For Tim, the issues are more organically derived from his own experience on a tribal council.

“The opiate abuse epidemic is something that crosses the entire community, the region, and even the country,” Tim admitted. “I think that is a leading cause or contributor to many other disparities in the community, such as we’re seeing in the criminal justice system. It is not an issue that is going to go away any time soon, and all levels of government can do a better job of responding to that public health issue.

“There is a model that is available, and it is not being provided,” he said.

On the issue of water and water availability, Tim observed that, “What the Legislature did last session was more kicking the can down the road, saying that we will allow the use of water for some, find out what the impacts are and mitigate them later. That is not a healthy way to manage resources, any resources that are finite.

“I am more and more convinced that the community is able to and willing to address more than just the smaller issue of residential use—that the community wants to address water certainty for all of the existing water users. Which is a good thing, because we need to empower local governments to be able to take a leadership role alongside other stakeholders to address the issues of water quantity, water quality, maintaining good fish habitat,” Tim said.

The role of the Legislature, he believes, should provide the policy that encourages that discussion and provides the resources to do so—to empower local governments to solve their local issues.

Pinky’s answers and policy positions are crisp and sharply defined. Tim’s are halting and imprecise, but they percolate from a deep understanding of generational values that form the essence of tribal thought and tribal life—encompassing a thing larger than one’s own life.

“We need to stop denying our reality,” Tim said. “Ask any harvester—any farmer or fisherman, anyone who harvests in the district, and it is getting increasingly more difficult, season after season, to put food on the table. I hear a desire to not lose those historical heritage economies. We need to prevent the decline and failure of those economies.”

“We need to build unity to move forward,” Pinky agreed.

“The four committees I am very interested in working on when I get to Olympia,” she notes with precision, “are Agriculture—so that our farmers know they have representation; Economic Development—because creating jobs is very important to me. I want to work on Law and Justice—because I want to work on criminal justice reform,” she said. “And, of course, Energy and the Environment.”

Both candidates agree that policy differences between them are slight, and they’re in agreement on the fundamentals.

“We are both environmental advocates, and I think we are both well known in that community for that issue,” Pinky observed. “Where I think we differ is that my breadth of experience—being on City Council, in all kinds of different roles, and working throughout the county.

“A big difference between Tim and I is the breadth of our contacts throughout Whatcom County,” she said. “Mine are very developed in the business community, and I have worked with all kinds of organizations and boards and commissions. And it has not been just as an elected official,” she noted, “it has been part of my job creating energy efficiency for Puget Sound Energy throughout Whatcom and Skagit counties. I work with the cities, I work with the school districts, with small businesses and environmental organizations.”

“I think the leadership qualities and decision-making processes that a tribal leader typically has—I don’t know if it is a set that only belongs to or is defined by tribal leaders,” Tim confessed, “but I think state government could definitely benefit. The generational thinking and the planning for the future I think is something we all value and we all could benefit from,” he said.

“The largest population center in all of the 40th and 42nd districts is Bellingham, and not one single representative in Olympia,” Pinky observed. “I think we deserve a representative from Bellingham. And just because we have a representative with experience with the city, does not mean I do not understand or do not work in the county.”

For both candidates, their primary concerns are building teams and keeping their coalitions together for the big push in the fall against the incumbent Ericksen.

Successive years of redistricting following a Census have peeled progressive voters from south Bellingham and cast them into the very blue 40th District. That’s had the effect of “reddening” the remaining 42nd District, making it a safe territory for Republican aspirations in lower-turnout non-presidential election years. But the 42nd has also seen remarkable population growth in its cities, and that growth tends to favor an urban, progressive vibe.

Despite its reputation as a fortress of Trumpland, the 42nd is still pretty “swingy,” politically, when large numbers of voters turn in their ballots.

“In 2016, Jay Inslee and Hillary Clinton actually both won in the 42nd District,” Pinky observed, “by a little over 1 percent. It’s not huge, but it’s a win. That means that the Democratic votes are out there. That means candidates who have more progressive values actual can win in the county. Getting out the vote is our biggest issue.”

Tim agreed.

“Getting people to turn out to vote, and getting them to stay engaged throughout the process is important,” he said. “The constituency is there and the set of values are there in the district. It is just a matter of making sure they make it to the polls and participate in the vote.”

“We can’t lose a single vote,” Pinky said.

In fact, they’ll have to find about five percent more.

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