Primary to the Left
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
PRIMARY TO THE LEFT: The most interesting question in the August primary for local elections was whether south Bellingham held a sufficiently liberal voting surplus to allow two progressive candidates to square off against one another in the general election. Despite a relatively low voter turnout that threatened this presumed surplus, the question was answered satisfactorily in the affirmative: Progressive candidates Kaylee Galloway and Eddy Ury will test one another’s ideas for Whatcom County Council into November.
Progressives have been testing an idea for the better part of a decade, that of using primaries to pressure candidates and issues to the left and toward more pluralistic outcomes. It is gratifying to see the concept begin to bear fruit.
The math on this strategy is unforgiving. Under Washington’s wonky primary system, a voting district needs a surplus of liberals above 70 percent to avoid splitting the vote, allowing a conservative candidate to sail through the primary and into the general election—where they are simply guaranteed 40-to-50 percent of the vote.
This Galloway and Ury did, together collecting an average of 82 percent of the vote in Whatcom’s bluest blue district. Both candidates are extraordinarily well-informed and well spoken on issues of social equity and social justice facing Whatcom County, and they will lead a robust discussion into the fall. The choice for voters between these candidates will be a difficult one—and that’s a healthy thing for democracy.
South Bellingham is fertile ground for this experiment.
The progressives’ primary strategy was greatly assisted by redistricting in 2016, which strengthened Bellingham (at 39 percent of the county population) into a coherent voting bloc. Prior to redistricting, the city was carved into thirds; and while this (for better or worse) allowed someone from Bellingham to sit on every County Council position, the political realities of countywide elections steered candidates toward a plodding centrism.
Redistricting achieved laudable goals, creating geographically compact communities of interest that allow those communities to express themselves in elections: Bellingham, the smaller cities, and the county’s rural farmland districts.
Illustrating this is the legacy of Rud Browne, whom Galloway and Ury seek to replace on Council as he retires at the end of this year. Browne is doggedly pragmatic and strategically centrist, but it appeared obvious (and has now been demonstrated) that a coherent south Bellingham district could support a candidate well to the left of him.
An instructive counter-narrative blooms in County Council’s District 3. The Foothills district also includes the southernmost reaches of Bellingham (as well as some fairly durable old hippie enclaves in the east county), and is almost certainly more competitive than the glibertarian appeal of Tyler Byrd would suggest.
Gifted progressive organizer Rebecca Lewis delivered an amazing challenge against Byrd in the primary, failing to best the incumbent by just 55 votes out of 10,700 cast. Theirs will be a fiercely competitive race, particularly as it becomes clear this is where Whatcom County Republicans will spend the lions’ share of their enormous campaign war chest leading into the fall. Byrd is their key to holding Council’s strongly aligned conservative minority.
By contrast, Democrats will have to sprinkle their contributions liberally, and often in aid of competing candidates like Galloway and Ury, who are energetically similar in goals and approaches.
This is a second weakness of the progressives’ strategy to primary to the left.
Over the past decade, the strategy has dredged up the unintended side-effect of an increasingly corrosive election environment where many conservative candidates don’t even bother to campaign—they don’t attend forums, they don’t meet with voters, they don’t grant interviews or publicity requests, in some cases they do not even provide complete contact information when they file for public office—because their base is locked in. They are beneficiaries of enormous sums, contributed in many cases in large donations from outside influences like the petroleum industry.
The progressive strategy has to work, because the unintended consequences of failure are pernicious.
We’ll see some of these consequences play out in the third County Council race this fall, Council’s At-Large position.
Incumbent Barry Buchanan faces Kamal Bhachu. Bhachu is perhaps not the ideal candidate conservatives would like to see represent them on Council, preferring instead to write in some other candidate in elevated numbers, but he will nevertheless be the beneficiary of their campaign war chest in this countywide election. Rural conservatives undervalue the extraordinary passion of the Sikh community on farming issues. Buchanan, another pragmatic survivor of prior election cycles, may face a surprising challenge in November. If primaries are dress rehearsals for the general election, this race will be a close one.
Finally, the other countywide races—those for the Port of Bellingham commission—also appear to be competitive.
Business leader Kelly Krieger performed astoundingly well against incumbent Ken Bell—particularly in Bellingham precincts, where she outpaced him by an average of ten points.
While Commissioner Michael Shepard did not face a primary challenge, his opponent is even more staunchly conservative than Bell, yielding a familiar polarity to port races this fall.
The commission recently announced a revision of their waterfront concepts and their planning agreements with their master developer after nearly two decades of inaction on Bellingham’s central waterfront. The news is welcome, and should energize these races.
It’s the Gristle’s opinion that all four candidates would be a welcome addition to the port, and encourage the commission to map their three districts to the county’s five districts and expand the board. As we’ve seen, more minds yield better thinking on the commission. All could see office through this approach.
For progressives, the port expansion would be a windfall to continue a strategy that appears to be providing dividends in improved outcomes in our democracy.