A Community of Color
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
A COMMUNITY OF COLOR: Consolidation in city policy and continued fracture at the county level appear to encompass the political dynamics of local elections heading into the fall.
Filing week has concluded, and some seats for Bellingham City Council have been decided with no election at all. The candidates who have stepped forward, however, bring a welcome range of diversity (and passion for the city’s most pressing and continuing issues of of equity and social justice) to City Council.
First, some shuffling of positions as labor organizer Skip Williams moves into the seat vacated by Pinky Vargas, becoming the first African-American to represent Bellingham. Downtown business advocate Hollie Huthman moves without challenge into north Bellingham’s Ward 2 seat long held by the venerable retiring Council member Gene Knutson. Huthman’s vacated seat has drawn a primary challenge. Fitness coach Tonia Boze squares off against racial justice advocates Kristina Michele Martens and Russ Whidbee (the latter two are also African-Americans) for the two-year At-Large position. Eve Smason-Marcus, a talented vocalist and a Whatcom Human Rights Task Force board member, an advocate for the homeless and unsheltered, will challenge Michael Lilliquist for the Southside’s Ward 6.
“I was honored and humbled to be a part of rallies that brought our community together this summer to focus on racial justice,” Martens said in her announcement for office. “In the process, it became apparent that Bellingham needed more visible elected leaders of color who could craft policy based on their own lived experience.”
These candidates will bring a powerful alignment to Bellingham City Council—and expertise, as several have already served on city boards and committees addressing these issues. The emerging Council is as dynamic as the city has ever seen—with enough musicians they could even form their own band.
Similarly, candidates for the Port of Bellingham make us wistful for additional positions on the commission. Incumbents Ken Bell and Michael Shepard have brought a welcome breadth and dynamic energy to the commission, and deserve to continue. They are challenged by business leaders John Huntley and Kelly Krieger, who each want to supercharge the agency’s leading role in economic development. Airline pilot Austin Chapin rounds out the group, bringing an interest and expertise to airport operations. Frankly, the port would be stronger with all of these applicants elected to the commission—five seats rather than three. Perhaps the commission may consider this expansion.
Whatcom County Council also draws an August primary, as three people challenge Council veteran Barry Buchanan for the At-Large position. Kamal Bhachu, Misty Flowers, and Bob Burr represent a spectrum of political viewpoints for one of the Council’s few positions that represent the entire county. Kaylee Galloway, Eddy Ury, and Jeremiah Ramsey have filed for the District 1 seat being vacated by Rud Browne, the county’s most liberal district representing South Bellingham. North Bellingham’s incumbent Todd Donovan is challenged by affordable housing advocate Kelley O’Connor. Rebecca Lewis, Kathy Sabel, and Fred Rinard have stepped up to take on District 3’s Tyler Byrd in a primary challenge. We suspect the demographics of District 3, which includes south Bellingham and community enclaves in the Foothills, could readily support a less arch-conservative representative than Byrd, and that this will be a competitive race. Whatcom Republicans are building a significant war chest—and we expect a great deal of that will be directed to keeping Byrd on Council.
The peculiar dynamics of district-only voting mean future Councils will remain strongly bifurcated and polarized politically—and therefore, incoherent on policy; however, the weight of Bellingham’s population means four of the Council’s seven positions will likely draw county policy toward centrism and in sufficient majority to get things done.
For certain, several of the Council candidates running for election this season intend to make sure the county focuses on issues that are important to Bellingham: affordable housing, justice and equity issues and responsible energy policy. Several have served on county panels related to mental and behavioral health, criminal justice reform, and housing security.
The transformation in county politics over the past decade has moved from compartmentalization—tackling rural issues divorced from her municipalities—to integration and a realization that the county’s resources and capacity (and tax base) can assist with those municipal issues. Housing security and homelessness are examples of the range of public policy matters, and it is notable that several candidates running for county office have interest and background in those efforts. Public safety and criminal justice reform, long thought the problem and purview of cities, has similarly drawn candidates with interest in those topics.
The county’s meetings agenda tells of this shift in a powerful way, with the creation of a racial equity commission added to other committees and task forces on behavioral health, housing security, child and family well-being, and incarceration prevention and reduction—agendas far more rich and diverse than the Ag focus of previous decades. But there’s still Ag.
All establish a role County Council is meant to play in this assembly of community resources, encumbered only by the polarity imposed by district-only voting. That has not prevented talented and motivated people from stepping up for office, though, and we welcome them.