Progressive voices overwhelmed conservatives at a public hearing Wednesday, April 13 of the Whatcom County Districting Committee. Of the 52 people who spoke, those who supported the Republican position in one way or another would scarcely make a full poker hand.
Whether the lopsided show of support for the Democrats' position will be enough to sway at least one Republican on the committee and get the map approved remains to be seen. The four partisan members of the committee—Republicans Brett Bonner and Mark Nelson, and Democrats Lisa McShane and Mike Estes—set themselves up for stalemate from the start by deciding the fifth committee member, retired Bellingham school superintendent Dale Kinsley, would not get a vote.
(Full disclosure: Lisa McShane's husband, Dan McShane, is my employer.)
At least two of the citizens who spoke at the hearing suggested the committee reverse its decision and give Kinsley a vote. He was chosen unanimously by all four committee members for his reputation for fairness and his ability to run meetings.
Otherwise, a great deal of the discussion centered on the fate of little Sumas, a Whatcom border town with a population of 1,300 that hasn't gotten this much attention on an issue of countywide significance in recent memory.
The district map master, Western Washington University math professor Tjalling Ypma, managed to alienate both progressives and conservatives by moving Sumas from its original spot in the farmland (Lynden) district into the foothills (east county) district. Ypma left Everson and Nooksack in the farmland district, causing Republicans to cry foul. They asserted the whole process was rigged in Democrats' favor from the beginning, and the farmland district was unfairly packed with Republican voters to give Democrats more advantage in the other districts.
Ypma did not look at voting trends when he drew his map. He rejected the Republicans' accusation of voter packing, saying Wednesday that from the numbers he has heard second hand, the vote count on his map “was astonishingly similar” to what Republicans had asked for, which was to move Everson, Nooksack and Sumas away from Lynden and into the foothills district, to spread the Republican votes around.
“I actually feel in some ways my Republican partners here actually got what they asked for essentially,” Ypma said, which caused Bonner to shake his head vigorously.
(This meeting of the Districting Committee was among the most pleasant because for the most part the four committee members didn't speak. The Republican voices in particular have been grating for their whining and sniping about how unfair the process has been, and how they in fact haven't gotten what they had asked for.)
While Democrats McShane and Estes would prefer to see Sumas remain in the farmland district, they have to some degree shrugged off the move to the foothills, saying they are willing to compromise on this point for the sake of getting a map approved. Some of their progressive allies aren't so yielding. Many who spoke at the hearing said Sumas needs to be put back in the farmland because that's where voters were told Sumas would be before they cast ballots last November.
The description of the five districts published in the voters pamphlet and codified in the county charter can't be violated, these progressives said. For one thing, this disagreement with voter intent exposes the map to lawsuits.
“The current draft is unacceptable,” said Alex Ramel, who was an active supporter of the five-district election campaign last year. The success of that campaign is what prompted the Districting Committee to meet this year. Normally, the committee meets the year after the decadal census to redraw the lines based on the new population numbers.
“I'm very concerned this leaves the map open to a legal challenge by any voter,” Ramel said.
It seems almost inevitable that the map as drawn will be challenged in court, whether by a “voter intent” hard-liner who rejects the Sumas move, or by Republicans or their allies who have been threatening a lawsuit since the second committee meeting.
If the vote on the map is deadlocked at 2-2, as every sign so far would indicate, that would only make the map more vulnerable to a challenge. While the course of action in the case of a tie vote isn't written in any state or county law, it is highly likely the decision on the map would then fall to the progressive-dominated county council—a move that is sure to incite conservatives to a legal fight.
Watching the Republicans pull a no-show at the hearing makes me wonder—as do some of the progressives active on this issue—whether Republicans are playing a much longer game: Get the map into court, get a judge to issue an injunction staying the switch to five districts, and then conservatives get everything they want—the old three-district system and district-only voting, which conservatives fought so hard for in 2015. The three districts as they are now drawn divide Bellingham into three pieces and dilute the urban liberal vote. With district-only voting and a divided liberal vote, conservatives could take over the seven-member council more easily.
Republicans might end up with the better poker hand after all.
Chairman Kinsley said the committee is required to make its decision at its next meeting, on Wednesday, April 20. It starts 6 p.m. in council chambers at the courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.