In Search of 

Jennifer Sefzik and Sharon Shewmake

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

In a year of remarkable social and political tumult, ideological dynamics have taken center stage in the Whatcom County community, as residents reflect and respond—in public and private—to summer protests and pandemic policies. With November approaching, the county continues to search for its political bearings, as the races intensify for both house seats of the 42nd Legislative District.

The district itself is very dynamic, with Bellingham at its epicenter and vast stretches of rural farmland along its northern tier. The tensions that frame urban and rural voters nationally are mirrored here.

The second position seat is currently occupied by Democrat Sharon Shewmake, a Bellingham resident and professor of economics and energy policy at Western Washington University. Elected in the autumn of 2018, Shewmake defeated incumbent Republican Vincent Buys, triggering reflections on the county’s current and future political leanings.

Shewmake’s win galvanized the Washington State Republican Party to regain the seat and frame the most recent term as an outlying blip in an otherwise solid string of Republican representation.

Asserting herself as Shewmake’s 2020 contender, high school debate coach and small-business owner Jennifer Sefzik hopes to realize this return to Republican control.

Residing in greater Ferndale, Sefzik has been critical of Shewmake’s representation of Whatcom County. In a post entitled “Reject Extremism,” Sefzik writes on her campaign page, “My opponent, Sharon Shewmake, represents Seattle’s values more than those of Whatcom County.

“‘Seattle Sharon’ is out of touch with the majority of the people, small businesses and vital industries which form our community,” she notes.

“We have to fight fire with F.I.R.E.,” Sefzik asserts, characterizing the current action of Democrats as a blaze of extremism spreading across the state and singeing local values. F.I.R.E. is her four-part formula of financial responsibility, individual rights, representation of local interests, and environmental policy grounded in property rights.

Sefzik narrows in on the policy issues over which they disagree: “My opponent votes to expand government, raise taxes, damage parental rights, intrude on the Second Amendment, over-regulate and devalue human life…. These are the reasons I am in this race. We need to take back our government from extremists of all kinds who are pushing Seattle’s agenda rather than working for us.”

“My goals,” Shewmake countered, “are to increase access to rural childcare, reduce incarceration rates through improved data collection, green our transportation, and find ways to boost affordable housing.”

With local focus, last session Shewmake helped chair the House committee on Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources, and served on House committees focused on transportation, energy and the environment.

Yet the traction of Sefzik’s message was undeniable on the night of the Aug. 4 primary, where she eked out a narrow win over Shewmake by just shy of one percentage point. As with any candidate challenging an incumbent, Sefzik faced an uphill battle, but by early August she had clearly gained ground.

While the Sefzik campaign did not respond to interview requests from the Cascadia Weekly, Representative Shewmake did.

In August, Shewmake and I met for a Zoom call. She spoke about representation, the nuances of her race against Sefzik, and the results of the primary election, among other topics.

“It’s really easy to run a divisive campaign,” Shewmake observed. “But I think we need to realize that our leaders need to represent everyone in the community. Getting outside your bubble is really important.”

Although—or perhaps because—Sefzik ardently criticizes Shewmake’s capacity to represent those within the district fully, Shewmake stresses themes of unity and dialogue.

“To build community,” she asserts, “we have to talk to each other more.”

Shewmake recognizes that traditional avenues for creating this are no longer easy—that a coarseness has entered our public dialogue, made worse by the isolation of the pandemic.

It’s been hard, she reflects, campaigning in a pandemic.

“Normally what I like to do is knock on people’s doors and talk to them about the issues,” Shewmake said. “I wasn’t able to do that. I think the Republicans were doing that—they were doorbelling without masks.

“I am not willing to get someone sick out of my own political ambitions,” she said. “That’s not an OK strategy for me. So we’re going to be careful there, and we just have to figure out new tools—new ways of reaching people.”

Shewmake remains optimistic about another term in the state Legislature. Shewmake continually pulls her narrative back to themes of unity and common ground—as being distinct from Sefzik’s combative characterizations.

Last session Shewmake introduced the Rural Childcare Access Act (HB 2619), aimed at ensuring all areas of the state have access to childcare.

“At the time in their lives when kids need care the most, families in rural areas are met with rising prices and a lack of options” Shewmake said. “My bill will lower costs by expanding the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) to make sure it reaches all corners of our state.”

Shewmake is currently drafting a bill aimed at reducing incarceration through streamlined data collection.

“We can’t fix what we don’t measure,” she said. “Whatcom County has been working to pioneer a better approach to collecting data on who is in our jails, which led me to ask how other counties do it. Turns out, it’s a totally dysfunctional patchwork across the state.”

Last session, Shewmake passed three bills, all of which had bipartisan cosponsors. Two were passed with unanimous, bipartisan votes. Yet several initiatives she supported—several related to climate and energy policy—failed to get traction in the assembly.

“Obviously the results of the last session were not entirely what I was expecting or hoping for, but I think that this is going to be a good year for reasonable Democrats,” she observed. She predicted, “We see a lot more people voting in a presidential year.”

She followed with a note of reflection as our conversation drew to a close: “I think a message of unity, of coming together, of reasonable leadership—I still think that’s a winning message.”

Come November, we’ll know for sure. For now, we watch as the rhetoric of division (rural versus urban, represented versus forgotten, and partisanship more broadly) continues to dominate elections in the 42nd District.

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