Four conservative candidates for elected office in Whatcom County have gotten together to chart a third way through local politics—one that doesn’t involve Republicans or Democrats.
The four—Whatcom County Council candidates Mary Kay Robinson and Tyler Bird, and would-be Port of Bellingham commissioners Ken Bell and Dan Robbins—have been politically aligned with the Whatcom Republicans. Their decision to not run under the GOP banner in this year’s elections amounts to a snub of that party (at least partially—as I detail below, three of the four recently have given money to the Republican Party).
Robinson and Bell, whom I met at their booth on Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden, said they did not seek the Whatcom Republican’s endorsement this election season. Before this year, the county Republicans’ endorsement was a prized feather in most any conservative candidate’s cap. Bell, who ran a primary election campaign, had received a $300 donation from the Republicans, which he returned. (Public Disclosure Commission records still showed the donation as of Monday, Aug. 21. The forms the PDC requires for returned contributions were filed recently, I was told, and the Republican money should disappear from Bell’s PDC list in the next few days.)
Republicans and Democrats both have enjoyed a lot of control over the local election process, especially given the fact that most local elections—city councils, county council and port included—are nonpartisan. Both parties manage these putatively nonpartisan campaigns from beginning to end, recruiting candidates, funding them from hefty coffers, anointing them with their prized endorsements and then hitting the streets with their “slate cards”—little fliers that tell people who identify as either Republican or Democrat whom to vote for. In the case of the Democratic Party at least, progressive candidates who filed for office but were not among the Chosen Ones were sometimes told to withdraw from the race.
The decision by these four candidates to disassociate themselves from the Republicans might mean the beginning of the end of political parties’ grip on local elections.
Bell and Robinson had a booth in the Commercial Building at the fair. They sat on stools under a banner that read, “Putting Community First: Nonpartisan candidates standing together for Whatcom County.”
By eschewing the “R,” the two candidates said, they have been able to focus on issues. For example, Bell said he spoke to farmers at the Lynden fair about how to use the waterfront to export their crops—a conversation he never got around to when he was at the fair four years ago, running for port commissioner as a Republican.
“You face further obstacles by being associated with one of the two parties. There are things you have to answer to,” Bell said.
One topic he didn’t need to discuss this year was the recent antics of the Republican Party, particularly within the Trump administration. Bell particularly mentioned Steve Bannon, the ultra-right-wing former Breitbart News executive who was recently ousted as President Donald Trump’s chief strategist.
Republicans locally have stepped in some shit, too. The Whatcom GOP tarnished its image when it supported Bellingham City Council candidate Eric Bostrom. Trump may have found enough of a base for his bigoted worldview to get him an Electoral College victory. But even if local Republicans were making a cold, calculated tactical move, they must have taken leave of their senses to donate $300 to Bostrom, who has no chance against incumbent Roxanne Murphy in the council at-large race. The hateful preacher routinely denounces Bellingham citizens on street corners, telling them they are going to hell unless they stop being gay and committing certain other “sins,” according to his narrow and twisted reading of the Bible.
When asked if local Republicans’ decision to back Bostrom was another reason he wanted to distance himself from the party, Bell said, “Add that to the mix.”
“We can’t control what someone else does, but we can control what we do,” Robinson said.
This is not to say that Robinson, along with Byrd and Robbins (who were not interviewed for this story) have entirely cut the cord with Republicans. All three donated to the Republican Party this year: Robbins $350, Robinson $90 and Byrd $50. Byrd’s two-year total, dating back to 2016, is $300. Robbins pitched in another $85 to the local GOP in 2016, making for a two-year total of $435.
Robinson has never run for public office before. Bell ran for port against Mike McCauley in 2013, losing by less than a percentage point with the Republican endorsement.
What accounts for his change to a more nonpartisan identity four years later?
“Both sides had become hyperpartisan since then, with very little compromise,” Bell said. He said he remembers productive discussions with his ideological rival, Todd Donovan, when both sat on the county Charter Review Commission in 2015. In Bell’s view, two people from opposite sides of the political spectrum should be able to sit together and have substantive discussion of issues and—gasp—even reach compromise on occasion.
Donovan has since parlayed that elected charter review position into a seat on the County Council, which he won in November 2015. He opted to run for a different seat on the council in the middle of his current term and has a progressive opponent in this year’s general election: Amy Glasser. That race has shown what hyperpartisanship can do to a local “nonpartisan” election. Donovan, who has the Whatcom Democrats’ endorsement, has expressed a sense of entitlement toward the position, taking Glasser’s campaign as some sort of personal affront. Glasser’s supporters, meanwhile, have expressed a sense of betrayal at the hands of their party—although they identify with the ultimate Democratic Party outcast, 2016 presidential contender Bernie Sanders.
Who knows? Maybe candidates on both sides can figure out how to campaign without the support of the local parties. Bell said the feedback from passers-by at the Lynden fair for running a nonpartisan campaign has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Eighty percent of people say, ‘Thank God. It’s about time,’” Bell said.
“We’d like to change the paradigm.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the paradigm shift, if this is one, started on the Republican side. People who might identify as Republican have a lot to be embarrassed about—if not downright incensed about—from the Trump administration. But the time might be right for local progressive candidates to cut the cord, too. The frustrations felt by Glasser and her friend and ally, losing city council candidate Jean Layton, might serve as impetus for a similar rejection of the Democratic Party path in the next local elections, in 2019. On the other hand, one might say the Democratic Party has nothing to be embarrassed about. They are doing all they can, in fact, to rail against Trump and all the immoral things he stands for. But if the Dems fall on their collective faces in 2018 and don’t win at least one house in Congress, maybe there will be a reckoning among progressives, too. Maybe they’ll realize that their Whatcom County campaigns also would benefit from being nonpartisan in spirit and not just in name.