Haves and Have Nots
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
HAVES AND HAVE NOTS: Ballot returns will continue to firm throughout the week for more detailed analysis, but on election night it appears a robust primary remains a reliable barometer of outcomes in November. Turnout in the general was only a fraction higher than in the primary, which means much of August was baked into November.
The election included a crowded ballot of state issues, including a referendum on affirmative action and an initiative on the price of car tabs, along with several critically important local legislative and administrative races.
The short of it? Whatcom County Council may finish their work on Cherry Point. And Bellingham has a dynamic new City Council to better represent an underrepresented generation. Bellingham voters in particular had an extraordinary slate of applicants for political office; and, indeed, based on the quality of candidates, Bellingham voters could not lose in this election.
The hardest race to forecast was also that of the most fascination—the contest between Seth Fleetwood and April Barker for mayor of Bellingham: A good guy but bad at the game of politics, Seth ran a haphazard campaign of limited visibility; and April ran an excellent and determined campaign. That imbalance made the race seem a nail-biter. Yet the Gristle had a sense throughout the fall the noise-to-signal ratio was unusually high in Barker’s campaign—with ardent supporters beating her drum loudly, and effectively. But they weren’t the majority of likely voters.
The noise-to-signal distortion created an expectation this contest could be hairsbreadth. In actual returns, it was not.
The entire slate of Bellingham races were characterized by new excitement and new energy from an emerging cohort of younger voters and newer arrivals.
Yet, although it is not easy data to parse, this election became largely a contest between those who’ve lived here a while versus those who haven’t lived here as long. That observation is not meant to be facile or condescending—we badly need both sets of voices to be represented by city government. The passions of both are needed to create social justice and social equity. In future elections, a new and youthful cohort will dominate outcomes; and their voices in this election help usher in the most dynamic policy-focused City Council we’ve seen in many years. We’re confident this Council is a group who can tackle the city’s myriad social justice and housing security issues.
More surprising is the hairsbreadth race for Whatcom County Executive, where Bellingham’s center of gravity may still play an outsized role in future counts.
Low turnout favors conservative outcomes, and this may indeed be the story of county races. We expect the Executive race may be volatile in later returns.
Tony Larson holds a tiny lead that could erode. Sidhu, the genial centrist, holds a broader range of support than firebreathing Tea-Party Trumper Tony—and this was everywhere evident in the contributions and support each received. The metrics in every way favored Satpal. Alas, his funny-sounding name did not favor him in Whatcom County. We’ll predict Sidhu’s numbers will strengthen in later counts.
County Council’s progressive majority has thinned but still holds, but with Larson heading the administration their policy is subject to veto or sketchy implementation. In jeopardy is their ability to finish their work on Cherry Point land-use, and criminal justice and behavioral health reform.
The Gristle’s not a fan of district-only voting (councils craft our county policy and spend our county taxes as a group, not as individuals, and each of them should be answerable to all voters) except in one particular aspect—communities of interest should have elected officials who represent them. For that reason, we’re at peace with Kathy Kershner’s easy win in the Farming District 4. She fought for the position, and she has proven herself a thoughtful voice on past councils.
Circling back to larger election themes, new voter engagement strategies—automatic registration, more dynamic and engaged organizing committees, postage paid vote-by-mail—has increased the number of registered voters overall, but it hasn’t translated into ballots that are actually filled out and returned. Turnout in this election was only a fraction more than the August primary and—despite a wealth of choices—down, comparatively, from recent past election cycles.
There’s a political theory afoot that one needs to be a firebrand to get things done. The system needs shaking up or set on fire.
In the Gristle’s observation of government, the opposite is true. Firebrands throw sparks and smoke, set things ablaze in unpredictable and chaotic ways, but aren’t so good for illumination. Disruption is seldom productive in the short term, and creates a recipe for counter-disruption over the long term. Staffs endure longer than their administrations, and they work more competently and effectively in an atmosphere of trust and know-how. Effective leadership directs those assets, and assigns them goals and purpose. And effective leadership knows who else to call to get things done.
Throughout the debates, candidates were frequently asked how they would respond to this or that particular problem. “I don’t know” is not a desirable or “politically correct” answer. “…But I know who to call to help with that problem” is the more complete and satisfactory answer, and it is frequently the best humble answer.
The reality is the issues that face Bellingham and the wider Whatcom County community are too weighty for any single individual or administration alone to lift—and particularly so without good technique.
Just showing up helps. Voting, and voting often, helps.