First meetings of new committees are almost always uneventful, but the Whatcom County Districting Committee, which met for the first time on Monday, Feb. 8, promised on its first day to be refreshingly different from last year’s Charter Review Commission.
At least this year, Republicans and Democrats aren’t pretending to like each other.
The 2015 Charter Review Commission, made up of nine conservatives and six progressives, grimly tried to keep up decorum even when in a pitched battle over what charter amendments would appear on last year’s ballot. Charter commission emails released to the public told a much different, more honest story of schemes on both sides to change how council members are elected. Conservatives and progressives both sought an election format that would enable them to reliably control the council election after election.
When voters finally had the chance to weigh the options in November, they gave both sides something they wanted. Conservatives got district-only voting, which they thought would create four conservative seats on the seven-member council. But the progressives got a five-district system to replace the current three districts. Five districts could lead to four safe council seats for progressives.
I figured Republicans on the Districting Committee might try to undermine the progressives’ five districts by proposing a map that doesn’t create two seats for Bellingham, two countywide seats that should also lean progressive, and three minority conservative seats in the rural areas. This “two for Bellingham, three for rural parts, two countywide” map is what progressives had advertised during last year’s election, and it’s what those citizens who were paying attention are expecting to come out of this committee.
What can Republicans do to stop the 2-3-2 map, where the 2 and the 2 equal four progressives?
The Republicans on the committee, conservative ex-radio host Brett Bonner and Republican Party operative Mark Nelson, didn’t do themselves a favor on day 1 by agreeing with Democrats Lisa McShane and Mike Estes that the fifth, ostensibly impartial committee member will not have a vote.
(Full disclosure: I work for Dan McShane, who is Lisa McShane’s husband.)
Both sides put forward two candidates for that fifth person, who would chair the Districting Committee. Nelson and Bonner named ex-Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen and Rick Sucee, who retired this year from the Bellingham Police Department after 42 years.
McShane, who is more at home behind the scenes when it comes to Democratic strategy, and Estes, a recent county party chairman, proposed Dean Brett, a personal-injury lawyer who was appointed federal district court judge in 2015; and Mary Swenson, an attorney who worked on the highly partisan 2012 campaign for county Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett.
Neither side was eager to embrace the others’ choices.
“I do think they have a great deal of prejudice,” Nelson said of the Democrats’ nominees. He figured these first proposals by the Dems were just a negotiating maneuver. “I think you will give us who you really want to consider next (meeting).”
At least Nelson, the more vocal of the two Republicans, is willing to acknowledge that the two parties are antagonistic. He and McShane traded plainly audible barbs throughout the meeting, which could be an indicator of the tenor of future meetings or just a way for them to chase off the first-meeting jitters.
At the next meeting, at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 22, the two parties will bring their first drafts of what a five-district county map should look like. The Democrats made theirs public months ago, during the 2015 election season.
“Our map is no secret,” McShane said.
As for what the Republicans put forward in less than two weeks, it’s not clear that it will matter. If the two parties can’t agree on a fifth member, then there’s no rule that says they must select one. In any case, thanks to Monday’s 4-0 vote, that fifth member won’t get a vote. That means that if the Republicans and Democrats can’t compromise, they may very well offer a split recommendation to the County Council.
As Cascadia Weekly Editor Tim Johnson pointed out when he and I huddled after the meeting, this puts the decision exactly where the Democrats want it—in the hands of the progressive council.
Johnson, who deserves credit for some astute analysis immediately after the meeting, was mildly surprised that the Republicans went along so readily with the non-voting fifth member.
Maybe Republicans have some other angle they’re working in the committee?
The next meeting, scheduled for the evening to accommodate those who work during the day, will be held in the council conference room, Suite 105 of the County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.