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Ericksen faces his detractors at town hall

I don’t know what state Sen. Doug Ericksen, the Ferndale Republican who represents north Whatcom County in Olympia, thought he would accomplish by hosting an unfettered discussion dominated by his political opponents on Saturday, March 4 at Meridian High School. He could not have been surprised by the large turnout—standing-room only in the rural school’s auditorium, where play props had to be moved so everyone could fit. He likely had steeled himself for the outrage he ended up hearing for 90 minutes from his liberal constituents who, in this time and place at least, appeared to be in the majority.

He likely didn’t want to pull a Dave Reichert. The Auburn congressman and former sheriff who put away the Green River Killer lost a couple hero points last month when he refused to hold town hall meetings, out of concern for the safety of his staff. To his constituents, his decision not to “do his job” and talk with them came across as cowardice.

U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state have ducked questions about their support of President Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, and their votes against cheaper prescription drugs, by similarly declining to hold town halls.

(Ericksen may have been willing to stick his neck out and hold the town hall, but he had backup: an unusually large contingent of watchful Whatcom sheriff’s deputies and several blue-shirted security guys were always close at hand.)

No wonder, then, that Ericksen sounded more like he was congratulating himself than praising his audience when he said, when all the shouting was over, “We did it much better in Whatcom County than in most other districts,” adding that his town hall was “a model example of why people shouldn’t be afraid to have these events.”

But the event was far from a model example of civility. Ericksen was booed loudly many times, although he invited this by saying early on, “If you’re going to boo anyone, boo me” and not the people from the audience asking questions. (That of course elicited the first “boo” of the morning.) Audience members also shouted Ericksen down repeatedly if they didn’t like what he was saying, especially if they thought he wasn’t answering their questions.

And pointed questions they were. More than one was about Ericksen holding down two government jobs presently: state senator and temporary communications director of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. Fair to say, the federal job was quid pro quo for Ericksen’s work as deputy director of Trump’s presidential campaign in Washington state.

Ericksen’s job under Trump and the 2017 state legislative session both began in January. A citizens group filed an action in Whatcom County Superior Court to have Ericksen recalled from his state office, arguing that he couldn’t adequately conduct himself as state senator while away in D.C. A judge dismissed the recall effort just two days before the town hall.

One woman in the second row introduced herself as a state employee who is aware of the responsibility she carries at her job, which is funded by taxpayers. What about you, senator? the woman wondered. When you are going to resign from one job or the other, so you can concentrate your efforts properly?

He said that when confronted with the question of whether he can hold down two jobs he says, “My wife can do eight jobs at once. This is not unheard of.”

He also pointed out that he has court precedent on his side. The state Supreme Court ruled in the 1930s on the provision in the state constitution that bars state officeholders from also holding a federal position. The court established five standards that must all be met before the constitutional prohibition on holding two government jobs kicks in. None of those five standards applies in his case, he said.

More hectoring and rancor erupted at the town hall over discussion of a bill that didn’t even make it out of committee: Ericksen’s “Preventing Economic Disruptions” act, which would have made civil protests that blocked commerce or transportation a felony.

Ericksen said he modeled the bill after a federal law protecting women who sought abortions. “You do not have a constitutional right to physically prevent somebody from entering a clinic,” he said. “My legislation was based upon that. ... I do not believe you have a constitutional right to stand in the freeway and block traffic”—a likely allusion to an action last month in Bellingham where protesters blocked Interstate 5 for about an hour on a Saturday.

Ericksen angered environmentalists—well represented at Saturday’s town hall—by inviting climate-change skeptic Tony Heller to testify in early February before the senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, which Ericksen chairs. Ericksen consistently invites the scientific fringe to testify on climate change. Past speakers have included Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute in 2014 and in 2013 Don Easterbrook, an emeritus Western Washington University geology professor who has been disavowed by members of his own department and field.

Unfortunately, members of the town hall audience used the weak “97 percent” argument on Ericksen—the oft-repeated assertion that 97 percent of scientists say global warming is caused by humans, so ... I guess it must be true, right?

Except science is not a popularity contest. If it were, we might still believe the earth stood at the center of the universe. Galileo’s contrary stance wasn’t all that popular 400 years ago.

When you talk about the 97 percent, Ericksen replied, you’re talking about consensus. But when you talk about consensus, “you’re no longer being a scientist, and you’re becoming a politician.”

Ericksen is right about that.

“I think it’s important all voices be heard,” Ericksen said, adding that Heller’s dubious claims that federal scientists altered climate change data should be taught in high schools.

Only a few hard-nosed questions had been asked before an Ericksen supporter piped up to ask how many in the audience of 500 or so actually lived in Ericksen’s 42nd Legislative District. Ericksen waved his hand to dismiss the question. “We decided not to make that decision” to limit the crowd to his constituents only, he explained. “I also represent the entire state,” making decisions that affect everyone who lives here, he added.

He thought he was doing a pretty good job, if he did say so himself. His committee moved out 25 bills, which is about average, despite his limited availability. He said he only missed 10 votes compared to 15 for Kevin Ranker, his rival from the neighboring 40th district, which includes south Bellingham. (People in the audience countered this was because the Republican-controlled Senate held votes until Ericksen was available.)

In the end, even the liberals applauded after Ericksen’s concluding remarks. I’m guessing no one on either side of the political divide changed their mind on this Saturday morning, but at least they sat down to talk.

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

John Niles

Mar 04, 2017

Informative report!  Thank you.

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David MacLeod

Mar 04, 2017

Thanks for the report Ralph, much appreciated! One slight correction. You noted that play props were moved “so everyone could fit.”  However, not everyone did fit. Many people were turned away at the door, being told that maximum capacity had been reached.  50 to 75 folks stayed around, sometimes breaking into a “Let us in! Let us in!” chant.  Eventually folks crowded around a vehicle that broadcast someone’s livestream of the town hall through their bluetooth and vehicle speakers.

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David Camp

Mar 05, 2017

Excellent reporting, Ralph! As you note, Ericksen has the courage and accountability to hold a town hall even knowing that he will be catching a lot of flack, unlike our our Democrat Senators who prefer to hide out than actually meet with the citizens they putatively represent. Also Ericksen is actually trying to do something for his rural constituents who can no longer drill an exempt well and whose land is thereby unbuildable and decreased in value - what has Democrat Kevin Ranker done to help rural property owners regain exempt well water rights?

Of course his climate change denialism is ridiculous and absurd - he will fit right in with the Trump administration in this regard - as was his reactionary and dangerous anti-first amendment-defeating proposal to ban some forms of public assembly. But I suspect these views are representative of his constituency, however wrong they are - and the last time I looked, we do live in a representative democracy - which our Democratic representatives seem to have forgotten.

Finally, regarding “civility” - have we really reached a point where public displays of anger are considered “uncivil” and therefore not acceptable? Really? It seems to me to be rather an excuse for politicians to dismiss legitimate concerns. It is possible to be angry about an issue, and to express that anger in a civil manner. Nerfing the world and hoping that unpleasantness will go away is never going to work. Encouraging open honest debate and discussion in a civil context is a necessary component of democracy.

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Anne-Marie Faiola

Mar 05, 2017

Thank you for the report for those of us that weren’t able to attend in person. 

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Jerry Vekved

Mar 06, 2017

At least the list of typical Schwartz molehills and obfuscation in this article is short: Ericksen’s strong “security” presence, the discussion on the apparent majority of liberal constituents (how in Sam Hill was he elected?), and the assertion of quid pro quo for campaign support.  

This constituent is very pleased that Ericksen has been granted this access.

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