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Democrat infighting emerges in Bellingham’s at-large race

By Ralph SchwartzOn May 14, 2017

​Democrats are in a major fight in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. Sure, they are throwing everything they can at the new White House, up to and including calls for Trump’s impeachment. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Democrats nationally and in Whatcom County are fighting among themselves over the identity of the party.

The Democrats’ civil war has been apparent since well before Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, in a result surprising to most everyone except Trump supporters. The presidential primary, in which Clinton bested Bernie Sanders, was far from amicable. Some Sanders supporters haven’t let go of a belief that their man would have defeated Trump. (For what it’s worth, Trump supporters I spoke to in Lynden on May 7, 2016—before the Democratic nomination was decided—agreed that Sanders would be a more formidable foe than Clinton.) Clinton’s supporters, meanwhile, assert that their candidate couldn’t overcome this nation’s sexism, so endemic that it sullied even the views of progressive voters.

Here at home, the Democratic Party has been perhaps the single biggest player in the nonpartisan-in-name-only elections held within the county. Dems deserve a lot of credit for making the 2013 Whatcom County Council elections about the proposed coal terminal, and endorsing a slate of environmentally friendly candidates who swept the ballot that November.

At Bellingham City Council, where conservative candidates don’t stand a chance, the Whatcom Democrats are the closest thing we have to king makers, or if I may say, queen makers.

Roxanne Murphy and Pinky Vargas won open city council seats in 2013 with the Whatcom Democrats’ endorsement, coupled with a concerted effort by party leaders to elect more women to the council. The 2013 results brought the number of women on the seven-member council to three, where it stands today.

Murphy defeated longshot candidate Bob Burr in 2013 with 74 percent of the vote. As the city’s at-large council member, Murphy faces re-election every two years and got through 2015 without an opponent.

If participation in the city elections is any measure, progressives were complacent in 2015. Not only did Murphy win a second term on the council’s most vulnerable seat without drawing a challenger, but April Barker took an open seat in Ward 1 (northwest Bellingham) unopposed.

Trump has brought an end to complacency. Riveters Collective, formerly Pantsuit Bellingham, is encouraging people to file as a candidate for local elected offices. And oh by the way, filing week in Washington state is this week, May 15-19. Members of the Bernie Sanders revolution also are going after local offices in 2017. One of them is Jean Layton, who I expect will give Murphy a run for the at-large seat.

Even if no one else steps up this week to file for that at-large position, this race will be the biggest challenge of Murphy’s political career so far.

The at-large seat was designed to draw a lot of candidates. The term of office is only two years, and unlike the other six council seats, registered voters who live anywhere in the city can run. The at-large position is a way for a neophyte to get on the council, to build experience and bide her time before running for a four-year term in her ward.

“The at-large position was the only one open to me this cycle,” Layton said. “I’m bringing my activism to local politics this season.”

Layton said she has been especially active the past two years or so as a political organizer. She has doorbelled for Democratic candidates, helped with the 2017 campaign of county council candidate Amy Glasser, and sits on the York Neighborhood Association.

“I’m one of those people in the background of any campaign,” Layton said. “I find a candidate who satisfies my desires for progressive ideals, and I work like hell for them.”

Now she’s decided to be that candidate, and she says she’s been inspired by the Bernie Sanders revolution.

“Bernie reminded everybody democracy is not a spectator sport,” Layton said. “You have to show up and participate.”

Layton’s No. 1 issue is tenants’ rights. If elected, she said, she’d be the only renter on the council.

“Nobody’s got their back,” Layton said of the city’s renter population, which she puts at 54 percent. (I couldn’t verify this number. Maybe somebody can help with this.)

The rental inspections passed by the city council in 2015 and implemented starting last year do not go far enough, Layton said.

For one thing, the public isn’t seeing detailed reports from inspections if landlords opt to hire a private company to conduct them. Furthermore, Layton would require business licenses for anyone who rents property in the city, and she is developing a tenant’s bill of rights.

Murphy has the benefit, or the disadvantage, of having a four-year record to bring to the campaign trail. Two items high on her own list of accomplishments are her fight to require paid sick leave at businesses within the city limits, and her resolution, passed by the full council, supporting the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. (More than one person has mentioned the renaming of Indian Street as Billy Frank Jr. Street as among Murphy’s accomplishments; however, she herself notes council member Terry Bornemann took the lead on that, with her support.)

“I really want to work hard to protect quality of life in Bellingham—protect our citizens and government in light of national uncertainty,” Murphy said.

Politically, Murphy said she identifies with the Democratic Party. She supported Clinton but was inspired by Sanders.

She is “fiscally conservative and majorly socially liberal,” she said.

“I really try hard to be a centrist on all of the issues and think, ‘What is the most fair option?’” she said.

City council observers generally agree Murphy is a quiet council member, and when she speaks it’s often to praise the city for an action she liked.

For her own part, Murphy says she’s proud of her accomplishments, and includes among them championing the Greenways levy and the EMS ballot measure, working on a “right-sized jail,” and seeking solutions to homelessness and protections for the environment.

Murphy also is proud of her many endorsements so far this election season. They include Washington Conservation Voters, Teamsters Local 231, Washington State Democrats Native American Caucus and the Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. Layton doesn’t have any endorsements so far that I’m aware of, which may only mean that Murphy, the more seasoned politician, has been around the block and knows how to rack up endorsements.

That brings us back to perhaps the biggest endorsement of all this election cycle—that of the Whatcom Democrats. They hold their endorsement meeting on June 15.

Murphy and Layton agree the Dem endorsement is crucial.

“I think it’s really important,” Murphy said. “I’m going to work really hard to get that endorsement.”

Layton said the Democrats’ endorsement is a shorthand for voters who aren’t able to study all the candidates for themselves.

“I think we’re both going to get endorsed,” Layton said. “I think (Murphy) has valid things going on, and I know I do.”

Layton made another prediction: That June meeting won’t be pretty.

“That division between Democrats and Democrats is going to show up in that meeting. That’s sad. That’s really sad,” Layton said.

“There’s no reason for that crap to happen in the party,” she added. “Let’s all move to the left and be where the Democrats have historically been.”

About Ralph Schwartz

Writer • Member since May 23, 2014

After 13 years in mainstream journalism, Ralph Schwartz left The Bellingham Herald in November 2015 to get more involved in the community. He's now a freelance editor and writer, and works in [...]

Comments by Readers

Michael Chiavario

May 17, 2017

All I learned from the article about Jean Layton’s position’s on issues  is that she supports renters rights because “nobody’s got their back”. I would like more specifics. I would also like to know how the “Nobody’s got their back”  statement squares with a Council that enacted rental inspections, listened to citizens concerns and required ADU’s to be owner occupied,  and has supported several low income housing projects in town, while working with the mayor to get more space for unsheltered folks. 

I will be voting at the Dems endorsement meeting. I need to know more  and I will do my homework.

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Dick Conoboy

May 17, 2017

I find it amazing that someone like Roxanne, elected as an at-large member of council, would try to alienate right off the bat over 50%  of Bellingham’s population known as renters.  This is exactly what she did shortly after being elected when rental ordinance inspection proposals were before the city council.  She proposed her own rental inspection ordinance based on her prior “experience” in Tacoma.  The problem was that the Tacoma program she profferred was not about rental safety and has largely failed in its other stated goals.  When faced with overwhelming support for an effective rental safety program she finally voted along with the other council members.  This is not leadership.

As for her performance otherwise, have never heard her utter any substantive comment or add facts of any sort bearing on problems before the council.  Her commentary from the dais consists mainly of thanking staff or some other person or program or speaking of some dream or desire for some sort of outcome. Mored egregiously, I know from personal experience and from comments from others that she rarely, if ever, returns a phone call or an email.  She has NEVER  once answered a single phone or email query from me nor did she respond to me during her initial campaign. 

Before her first election I wrote on this site. “As for Roxanne, I am flabbergasted that a candidate for an at-large position on the Bellingham City Council, which essentially represents all wards, would not even respond to a prospective constituent’s email. All I know about her is from some statements published in various media, and her performance during the League of Women Voters debate. I am not a single issue voter, but some topics are of greater interest to me and I regard these subjects, to some extent, as bellwethers to gauge a candidate’s thought processes and the use, or lack of, factual data. From what I have been able to determine, her opinion on rental health and safety has been muddled by an experience in Tacoma, a city with a badly flawed ordinance that is no more effective, and a lot more cumbersome, than what we currently have here in Bellingham. You can read my exchange with Riley Sweeney in the comment section of his blog entry on candidates by clicking here. When asked for a statement on issues for the Voters’ Pamphlet distributed by the Whatcom Couny Auditor, Roxanne wasted valuable space listing the people and organizations that have endorsed her. Endorsements are not ideas. Endorsements are not policy concepts. Endorsements are not positions on issues. Endorsements proffered by a candidate are nothing more than statements of obligations to groups or individuals.”

During the last the last four years I have been a director on the Samish Neighborhood Board.  During that time I have never seen Roxanne at one of our board meetings nor have I ever received any communication from her to me as a board member or our board as a group.  The Samish Neighborhood is one of the largest (geographically) in the city with much undeveloped land.  One might think Roxanne as at-large member, might take an interest in how that land might be developed for the good of all residents in Bellingham.  But she has not.  Murphy should not be returned to the council for another term. 

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