A Moment of Generations

Four Democrats seek election in the Skagit


What: League of Women Voters Candidate Forum

When: 9 am Sat., Jul. 21

Where: Bellingham High School Auditorium (2020 Cornwall Ave.)


District 40 and 42 representatives; County Council representatives; Court of Appeals positions. See schedule for details.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

“Voters aren’t going to lose in this race, no matter what happens,” Alex Ramel admitted of his race to replace Representative Kris Lytton in the 40th District. “It doesn’t necessarily help my own campaign to say that—and there really are great differences between the candidates—but all the Democrats I am running against are excellent people.”

It’s a statement that aptly sums up the essence of this race—out of a constellation of guiding lights, which star do you send to represent us in Olympia?

The blue coasts and islands of the 40th Legislative District are progressive indeed, and growing more so year after year as the most liberal sections of south Bellingham are peeled off and cast south through successive attempts to balance populations among the state’s representative districts. In this particular year of an anticipated blue wave, one might expect this district to fall 70 percent or more to Democrats.

There are Republicans in this race, too; and the strong polarity of our times and the peculiar aggressiveness of the math in the state’s Top-Two primary nearly guarantees one of them—the active Anacortes Republican, Michael Petrish—will make it through to the general election.

Thus the drama in this primary, and the focus, is on which one of four Democrats will make it through to challenge the Republican in November.

I confess, as I interviewed each I expected to find a great deal of similarity between these candidates. And indeed they all share a united core of progressive and liberal values and goals common among Democrats. Yet I found each remarkably different in focus and outlook: Alex Ramel, the expert community organizer and clean energy advocate; Rud Browne, the rational legislator and businessman with broad understanding of the issues that face cities and counties; Tom Pasma, the ethical rancher and rock-ribbed lifelong Skagit Dem; and perhaps most fascinating, the charismatic Debra Lekanoff, who radiates those values across seven generations and beyond.

“Having been in local politics for 20 years, and seen situations where it is often impossible to get anyone to step up and run, the fact that we have eight people running for three state positions in Whatcom and Skagit counties has been like Christmas,” Browne observed. “But, by law, only three of the eight can be elected.

“I think, that said, I would liken the difference between my opponents and myself this way—it’s not enough to get elected, it’s not enough to carry your values to the office. You have to be able to deliver on policy. And that requires a depth of policy understanding. It’s the exercise of policy that matters,” Browne said.

Understanding of policy and issues runs deep with these candidates.

“I’ve knocked on well over 2,000 doors at this point,” Ramel related. “The number one thing people bring up when you ask them what matters to them, what’s on their mind, what are they concerned with, number one thing by a landslide is housing.

“We’re really in a crisis in terms of affordable housing in western Washington, generally, and keenly in this district. It is a big deal, people are hurting,” Ramel said. “Different people bring it up in different ways. For some people it’s increases in rent—double-digit percentages of increase in the last year; wages cannot keep up. For some people it’s property taxes, and particularly people on fixed incomes. For others, it is the issue of growing homelessness—which has a lot of factors contributing to it, but there’s no doubt that housing costs are a primary factor.

“This is not a problem that gets solved in one year or with one piece of legislation,” Ramel cautioned, “but there are a couple of things we can start with. The Housing Trust Fund provides funding available to support developing affordable homes throughout Washington state/ The trend has been for that fund to be cut year after year. Since the recession, the fund has been cut almost in half. Ten years ago, the high water mark was $200 million; today it is around $107 million. That funding is critical to putting together affordable housing projects.”

Browne agreed housing is a problem.

“More than half of the people in the area encompassed by the district who are renters are spending more than they can afford on housing, based on their incomes” Browne said. “And there are those who can’t rent at all—they can’t find any accommodation, so they end up on the streets.

“Income inequality concerns me greatly,” Browne said. “We’re approaching full employment by the technical definition, but it is not at a living wage.”

Removing the barriers to the employment of lower-income families and youths is a particular passion for Browne.

“The way you raise wages overall in a global market historically has always been through education,” Browne said. “An educated work force brings more value to the marketplace. We complain about what we spend on education and we’ve stopped talking about what we invest in education.”

Browne said he will work on reducing the unintended barriers for employment, including the requirement for identification for youths who do not own a car or have a license.

“I was asked, as a business person, to help find low-barrier employment for homeless kids,” he said. “But half of these kids—all of whom are citizens—do not have a photo ID, and more importantly, they do not have the correct source documents to meet the requirements to get ID. It is a problem that affects 7 percent of the U.S. citizen population, who are unable to get proper identification. And I am convinced the state can help lower the barriers to acquiring legal identification.”

“We have a lot of issues we have to work on,” the laconic Tom Pasma admitted. “Strong investments in green jobs and infrastructure. Debt-free college for all, along with apprenticeships for vocational and technical schools. We need to protect our quality of life, and that includes protection of our natural resources.

“If we’re really committed to moving from a carbon-based economy to a green, sustainable economy, we have to have a superfund for workers. I grew up in a Roosevelt household,” said the 16-year veteran and committee officer of the Washington State Democrats, “and those are the values I try to hold true to. We’ve had a superfund for environmental cleanup; we’ve had a superfund bailout for Wall Street and bankers. We just passed a superfund tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent. We’ve spent more money on dirt in this country than we have on workers.

“We’ve invested in workers before, and made sure no one was left behind,” Pasma said. “We can do it again.”

Ramel agreed that the green economy will be one of his paramount concerns in Olympia.

“Our state is in a position to be a leader on climate action in a way that can set an example for the rest of the country and tell the rest of the world that the United States isn’t absent from this effort,” Ramel said.

“I’m excited by Initiative 1631, which would put a fee on pollution. When that passes in the fall, that is going to be a mandate from the people to continue working on these issues. Next year has the potential to be one in which we get a lot done.

“I want to help put a deadline on energy companies, electrical producers to get fossil fuels out of the mix, and requiring that there’s a plan in place,” Ramel said. “We’re already getting coal out of the mix, but we can do the same with natural gas. We can become a state that is well on its way to being powered exclusively by clean energy.”

Pasma is vice president of the Blanchard Edison Water Association, the largest water association in Washington in its eighth year of building new infrastructure for conservation. He believes his experience gives him insight into issues of water supply and water quality.

“Three of us from the rural ag caucus of the Washington State Democrats were asked to work on issues related to the Hirst decision. The Democratic caucus now has the summary of our work in their hands. What the Legislature did was not a sustainable solution. They just kicked the can down the road. We have to use common sense to make informed decisions. It is solvable, and solvable in our area and the whole state, making sure that everyone has access to water—our most precious resource—for the future.”

Debra Lekanoff did an extraordinary job of radiating with enormous appeal the principles that must guide the future of Washington. In doing so with such energy she set herself apart, then brought it back together.

“As a Democratic woman of color, I hold true to our way of embracing all and building coalitions to make it all happen,” she said.

“People are embracing one another more and more based on their diversity, and welcoming it. I have seen the wonderful breath of color and culture and languages in the Skagit,” Lakenoff said. “There are an enormous number of people, of all colors, who have never voted. I tell them, ‘Climb on my back, we’re going to climb that mountain, and roar from the mountain: This is my America! I think more people who look like me, sound like me—more women—are feeling more welcomed as part of this community. And I realized, ‘You have to welcome others, too.’

“As a first American, I was raised in the concept that a decision today really is a seven generational decision that impacts everybody—whether it is the people who have called this place home for generations, whether it is the people who call this place home now, or the people who will call this place home for generations to come,” the Alaska Native said.

“We’re going to bring something enormously wonderful to Washington state,” she promised, “and that is to remember that we are guided by seven generational thinking and planning. Everything happens in layers and moments, and that is why we—as Native Americans—are still here, against all the odds. We’re going to bring diversity, we’re going to empower people of color, and perhaps especially empower women.

“We do things a little differently,” she laughed, “and it works.

“I’ve been taught, and I know, and I make decisions in this way, that education builds the very foundation of generational development for our communities. If you can build your community on strong education—from early education all the way to job placement and beyond—you’re able to build healthy communities, safe communities, people who contribute to the community, people who help one another, and people who are continuously building and growing. That is the framework.

“As a people,” she said, “we always reach back and we give forward. We say, ‘Come on! Grab my arm, I will carry you forward.’ And then you grab the person in front of you as a means of teaching. That is how I perceive the world.”

“I’ve worked to help get other Democrats and other progressive leaders elected,” Ramel spoke of his gifts of activism and organization. “That role has varied from year to year, but over the past several years one of the things that I have contributed to is trying to bring a slate of candidates together, a coalition, so that different candidates running for different offices can work together so that the whole slate can win.”

“You can send any one of us down to Olympia, and I think three will be really good at building one wall of a house because that is their domain expertise,” Browne said. “My 30 years in business and my experience in local government means I can build all four walls, the foundation and the roof. Because at the end of the day, you have to build all these things together, and you have to have an understanding of how each of these things fit together and build on one another.”

“I love where we live,” Pasma said. “We can’t look back, but we have tomorrow to look forward, to make our world cleaner and better and more just. We just have to have the leadership and vision to do that.”

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