What Dreams May Come
Wednesday, January 1, 2020
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME: Who’s to be or not to be? That is the question legislators from three counties will answer next week as they gather in a special meeting to select the replacement for state Representative Jeff Morris in the 40th District. For several of these people, this will be their last legislative act before their replacements are sworn into office later this month.
The 40th District includes portions of three counties—Whatcom, Skagit, and San Juan—and the subtle differences in the makeup of their respective legislative bodies complicates the selection process for a replacement who will hold office through the current legislative year in Olympia, and until an election can be held next fall.
That complexity and uncertainty was likely a factor that guided the timing of the announcement of Morris in late November that he would not seek reelection to another term, and had taken a position with a leading technology firm effective Jan. 6. That set a hard deadline for Democrats to scramble to replace the quiet, hard-working technocrat from Mount Vernon while there was some certainty in the assembly of these legislative bodies. Whatcom County in particular is about to undergo a seismic shift in political representation at the start of this year.
Democrats from the 40th District met over the holiday and selected three names to forward to the three county legislative bodies for consideration. Two of the counties get one vote for each of their three representatives; Whatcom County Council must split a fraction of its three votes among seven members. A total of nine votes will select either Alex Ramel, Marco Morales, or Michael Lilliquist to represent the district for the remainder of this term.
Perhaps the most familiar to each of the county legislative representatives due to his policy analysis and energetic “get out the vote” activism is Alex Ramel, a field director for the extreme oil project of Stand.earth. He’s been in front of each of those legislative bodies doing good work in transformative energy and other initiatives. Ramel, who ran for a state House seat in 2018, was the 40th D precinct committee officers’ top pick.
Ramel’s organization helped spearhead a significant agreement this week between Skagit County commissioners and the Anacortes Oil Refinery that the company would withdraw plans to manufacture and export 15,000 barrels per day of mixed xylenes—petrochemicals used to make plastics—through the Salish Sea. In exchange, environmental organizations agreed to drop an ongoing appeal of permits to construct a marine vapor emission control system that could have been used for xylene manufacture but also has applications for other refining processes currently underway at the former Tesoro facility.
Less familiar to each of these county legislative bodies is Marco Morales, a graduation specialist working with migrant youth and children of migrant workers in the Mount Vernon School District. An active voice for farmworker rights, Morales said he would prioritize education and affordable health care and housing.
Familiar to Whatcom County Council but perhaps less so to the other counties is Michael Lilliquist, the second pick among 40th LD PCOs.
In his third term on Bellingham City Council, Lilliquist is known as one of that council’s most keen minds in policy analysis and is well informed on a breadth of emergent public issues. He also has been hard at work on housing security, transformative energy initiatives and—prominently among the three—criminal justice reform.
Whatever the outcome of the selection, these three names may continue on and factor in another energetic primary runoff among a constellation of candidates for Morris’ open seat next fall.
Lilliquist received a tiny, tangential assistance in his application to replace Morris in a timely decision by the state Attorney General last month.
The Attorney General had been asked by the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney whether, when county legislative bodies make appointments to fill vacant state legislative positions, currently seated council members are eligible for appointment. The question arose during the process that selected Anacortes City Council member Liz Lovelett to replace Kevin Ranker in the state Senate in 2019, and was specific to seated Whatcom County Council member Rud Browne, who also applied but was serving on a body that would make the selection.
“Nothing in the Washington Constitution, statutes, or case law precludes sitting county commissioners or council members from being eligible for appointment to vacant state legislative positions,” AG Bob Ferguson found in his opinion, “though ethical restrictions would prohibit council members from deliberating or voting in an appointment process in which they were a nominee.”
The opinion overwrites an earlier standard that county commissioners or council members in office at the time of nomination are not eligible for appointment by the joint county legislative bodies on which they sit. In a larger and less specific way, the opinion affirms “strong presumption in favor of eligibility for office in Washington” and that a common reading of the law imposes few restrictions on office seekers. The field is wide open, even if applicants are already holding another office.
Whatcom Democrats had sought an additional clarification and opinion on the issue of proportionate representation in the selection of a replacement for Morris. With south Bellingham as its nucleus, Whatcom County currently represents about 50 percent of the 40th District, yet its council gets only a fractional vote in the selection split among three counties. San Juan County with just 13 percent of overall populations gets a full third share of authority in selecting a replacement for the district. Whatcom Dems were unable to fully mount their challenge, but it is a fascinating question for another time.
With two applicants living in Bellingham, Whatcom Dems may still get their wish in the new year.