Less Wave Than Slosh
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
LESS WAVE THAN SLOSH: Election 2017 was not so much a referendum than a barometer for state and federal midterms next year. And for the struggling progressive Left—consuming itself in a nonproductive generational holy war—the forecast is mixed.
Remarking on the sluggish early returns and the attendant probability of a low-turnout election, the Everett Herald editorial board last week observed, “The irony is that off-year elections, where the races are local, often have the greatest impact on communities and residents, determining the local officials who will be making decisions regarding public safety, transportation, zoning, businesses, schools, fire protection, local taxes and more.”
Voting counts; and elections carry consequences. But there are also consequences in not voting.
The most expensive and most watched legislative race in state history ended in little better than a stalemate and continued paralysis of the upper chamber of the Legislature; and unresolved issues likely set the stage for the takeover of the lower chamber by Republicans next year.
Democrats seized their slim one-seat majority in the state Senate, with Manka Dhingra in a 55.4 percent win over Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund in Redmond’s 45th Legislative District race. The candidates and their supporters spent a record $9 million in an effort to capture the district to control the Senate. The campaign was only a portion of the more than $40 million that candidates and political committees participating in the 2017 election reported spending to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, called independent spending in the 45th District a “painfully, horrifically unprecedented assault on common sense and a healthy democracy.”
Democrats—now with a single vote margin—will require extreme discipline within their caucus to thread their needle and achieve limited advances.
The affluent and urban Redmond district is one Democrats should be able to easily win, and they did, but the fact that they battled mightily in an all-out, all-in race foretells the struggle for anyone anticipating an easy tidal shift in midterms next year.
Locally, tepid early turnout threatened the coalition fighting against the expansion of fossil fuel exports at Cherry Point. Whatcom County Council remains empowered to replace Todd Donovan in his current district when the decision comes in front of Council early next year. A tidal shift and paralysis in membership might have allowed the County Executive to appoint a replacement for that position until a special election next November. Instead, with the reelection of Barry Buchanan, Council will control its own membership.
Council wins spell continued action on criminal justice reform; water and resource issues; and efforts to bring the county in compliance with state law. Council’s discussion of a special purpose taxing district to help pay for the restoration of Lake Whatcom will continue as a result of Tuesday’s election.
In her race against Council President Buchanan, challenger Mary Kay Robinson in particular racked up more than $164,000 in contributions and independent expenditures, much of it from realtors, land speculators, and gas and oil interests—eight times what the incumbent Buchanan received in independent expenditure support.
A more perilous outcome threatens the Bellingham waterfront.
A plurality had already formed on the current Port of Bellingham commission to turn the site immediately over to Harcourt Developments, the Irish firm still struggling to complete its overdue contract on the Granary Building, and declare the responsibilities of the port discharged. The election of Ken Bell—who will otherwise be a perfectly fine representative of an agency whose primary mission is economic development—perhaps cements the port’s deference to a remote developer with sketchy finances and spotty, mercurial performance on development goals. If he’s a smart businessman, Bell will consider carefully and cautiously the partner he’s asked to empower.
Overall, the unease of this election was based on a worrisome phenomenon: “Democrats do not tend to turn out like Republicans do in non-presidential elections, mostly because the two parties are now polarized between demographic groups that do (old white folks) and don’t (minority voters and millennials) proportionately participate in down-ballot contests,” political analyst Ed Kilgore noted in a recent column.
The Ds have lost their powers to dazzle a new generation, but what replaces their powers of GOTV?
One can admire the fervor of young progressives to seek new and better avenues of representation than the tired party lines that have served their demographic so poorly. But they’ve decided elections don’t work at a moment where we need elections very badly. And—much like Neville Chamberlain’s commitment to peace in 1938—their dissolution arrives at a moment of supreme risk for progressive outcomes, with nearly two-thirds of state legislatures and the national Congress in the hands of one of the most determined and well-funded political machines in world history—an increasingly authoritarian and unhinged Republican Party.
We can decry political parties and wish them gone, but what replaces their organizing power and their sustained ability to subordinate competing goals and build coalitions?
“If you don’t vote, your hostility to Trump—or to Republicans—doesn’t much matter electorally,” Kilgore comments dryly. “And to be frank about it, if you are a progressive voter who doesn’t consider President Trump to be a sufficient motivator to show up, whether he’s on the ballot or not, then Democrats do have a big challenge next year.”
Democracy is a venture that suffers under boycott. Know hope.