Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Big Oil is trying to buy Whatcom County’s elections, and they seem willing to break the law to win.
Seventy thousand dollars is an enormous political donation in the little local elections in Whatcom County. It’s more than most candidates raise in an entire year and it’s one of the largest donations in Whatcom County, ever. The contribution came in at the last minute and was reported after the deadline. It’s funding a barrage of nasty attack ads against County Executive candidate Satpal Sidhu. And it looks like a clear violation of campaign finance law.
Last week most of us received our ballots. We also started receiving an onslaught of campaign mail and attack ads. It turns out, a lot of those attacks are being paid for by oil companies and their allies, including at least $70,000 from Phillips 66 to a brand new political action committee named “Coalition for a Better Northwest WA.” They are backing Tea Party favorite Tony Larson.
The message of the ads is clear: Big Oil and the politicians they support believe we have to choose between jobs and the environment. They want us to believe the interests of people who drink water and the interests of boaters are opposed to each other. They think they can beat Satpal Sidhu by sowing these divisions.
I know most of us disagree with that message and don’t like those tactics being used in our community. The advertisements so far focus on misleading quotes, taken out of context.
Those of us who know Satpal, know these attacks against a smart and honest leader are mean-spirited and disingenuous. But it’s more than just seeding cynicism. This PAC also seems to have gone out of their way to conceal the source of the money.
State campaign finance laws limit large donations close to the election. It’s called the 21-day rule for donations over $5,000. The PAC admits that the $70,000 was received on Oct. 10, but was not reported until the evening of Monday Oct. 21—a week after the 21-day rule took effect.
This matters because the rule is designed to let voters know who is giving and receiving large campaign donations before they get their ballots. Because we have a right to know who is trying to influence our elections.
If you are one of the tens of thousands of Whatcom voters who voted over the weekend, you were denied that right by this underhanded tactic.
So why would the company hide the ball like this for two weeks? Because they know that when we all find out that Big Oil is backing Tony Larson, we’re going to ask why. They know we will be reminded that on the County Council, Larson brought forward a resolution to fast track the coal terminal. They know we’ll ask questions about his opposition to rules intended to protect the climate and the public safety at the refineries. They don’t want us to have the time to make those connections.
This is part of a pattern.
In 2013, illegal, last-minute donations were made by the coal industry and their allies to a political action committee that launched attack ads against progressive County Council candidates. In 2015, Tony Larson himself was held responsible by the Public Disclosure Commission for illegally acting as an officer of another political action committee and transporting funds for the company behind the proposed coal terminal, Pacific International Terminals.
A complaint has been filed with the Public Disclosure Commission to hold these people accountable this year. But the unfortunate truth is that this election will probably be over before any enforcement happens. Consequences after it’s too late may just be considered a cost of doing business.
As we may be learning with Donald Trump, in a democracy, our strongest remedy to wrongdoing is to vote the corrupt people down.
Our best way to stand up to Big Oil is to hold them accountable and vote. Vote against their candidates. Get involved in the election, donate to support Satpal, volunteer on the campaign, and talk to other voters. Let’s remind them why most voters supported Satpal four years ago. And let’s remind them that these cynical tactics won’t work in Whatcom County.
Alex Ramel is a member of the Whatcom County Democrats Campaign Committee.