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Redistricting: Democrats may have upper hand

By On

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.

About Ralph Schwartz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since May 23, 2014

After 13 years in mainstream journalism, Ralph Schwartz left The Bellingham Herald in November 2015. He's now a freelance editor and writer looking for a regular paycheck.

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Feb 09, 2016


A good, informative article.  I take exception, however, with one point and that is the characterization of those who are not conservatives as “progressives”.  I continue to hear references to our city and county councils as being “progressive” but I don’t know what that means.  More liberal than before I would accept but I do not see the far reaching policy making that might merit the rubric of “progressive”.  But then again, these terms are part of a large mish-mash of political jargon of punditryland that have, by and large, lost any meaning allowing politicians of all stripes to don this or that political robe.  Andrew Tillett-Saks [in an article in Counterpunch in 2014 entitled Defining “Progressive” and Spotting the Impostors] quotes Noam Chomsky at the outset: “The framework of thought is consciously manipulated by an effective choice and reshaping of terminology so as to make it difficult to understand what’s happening in the world, to prevent people from perceiving reality, because if they perceived it they might not like it and act to change it.”  More here:  http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/25/defining-progressive-and-spotting-the-impostors/


David McCluskey

Feb 09, 2016

“Republican Party operative Mark Nelson, didn’t do themselves a favor on day 1 by agreeing with Democrats Lisa McShane and Mike Estes”

“Maybe Republicans have some other angle they’re working in the committee?”

So even when the Republican’s take the same side as the Democrats they are deemed wrong for doing so?  They must be up to no good?  How are we ever going to get a long in the country, or this county even, when one side is bashed for agreeing with the other?

Is this what being a progressive is?


Jack Petree

Feb 09, 2016

Ralph needs to read the charter before analysis

Section 4.41 Districting Committee.
During the month of January, 1981, and by January 31 of each tenth year thereafter, a five-member Districting Committee shall be appointed. The County Council shall appoint four persons to the committee, two from each major political party, the four to appoint the fifth who shall be the Chairman. The Districting Committee shall within thirty (30) days of its appointment meet and appoint a Districting Master who shall be qualified by education, training and experience to draw a districting plan. If the Districting Committee is unable to agree upon the appointment of a Districting Master within thirty (30) days, the County Council shall appoint a Districting Master by March 31 of that year.

Section 4.42 Districting Plan.
The Districting Master shall draw a districting plan for the county which shall be submitted by May 1 of the same year to the Districting Committee for adoption with or without amendment. The Districting Committee shall adopt the districting plan within fifteen (15) days. Upon adoption, the districting plan shall be filed with the County Auditor by the Districting Committee. The plan shall become effective upon filing.

Note:  The four people appointed by the County Council (the Districting Committee) MUST appoint a fifth…  In law, shall means must, shall, ya’ll got to do it, etc….  There are no provisions for the Council appointing the fifth…

If the Districting Committee can’t agree on a Districting Master the Council must appoint one… That is the last the Council has to do with redistricting.

Because the Districting Master MUST be qualified the master is usually someone who crunches the numbers as required by state law without bias.  The Districting Master can consult with the Committee or, ignore the Committee… the Master’s job is to do a proper job without politics involved.  Apparently the head of the Western math department is the primary candidate.  His professional reputation will ride on the job he does properly following state law without bias.

The Districting Committee does not draw the districting plan, the Districting Master does.  The Committee can only amend it if they wish after the plan is done.  Once filed with the County Auditor the plan becomes effective.

Notice the law (charter) has already been broken here…  the Committee is supposed to be appointed by January 31st but the fifth member, the Chairman) has yet to be appointed.  Is violating the law going to be the standard throughout this process?


Sam Crawford

Feb 09, 2016

How about Pete Kremen as chair? He’s always eloquently expressed to me the need for - and benefits of - a ‘balanced’ county council. Although Pete generally identifies as Democrat, I don’t know him as particularly partisan (and I know him quite well).


Walter Haugen

Feb 10, 2016

“I do think they have a great deal of prejudice,” Nelson said of the Democrats’ nominees.

WTF? Nelson proposes Gary Jensen, former Mayor of Ferndale, and then says the DEMOCRATS have a great deal of prejudice? My god, what planet does Nelson live on?

When I spoke out against the new Ferndale police station at a Ferndale City Council meeting in February 2009, I was stopped by the Ferndale police the next night and given a warning. It was supposedly about speeding, but the officer let me go a mile past him before stopping me, could not tell me how fast I was going, and told me that it was not 35 MPH until the end of the city limits on Mountain View. (Patently false as anyone who notices the 35 MPH sign on the hill can tell you.) I complained in an email to Gary and he denied it of course. I have often slammed him with this fact over the years and he always denies it AND impugns my integrity.

In 2011, when Art Rojsza’s son Norbert ran against Gary Jensen in the primary election for Mayor, Gary didn’t like Norbert’s signs, so he had the City impose 104 criminal violations against the Rojszas. All of these violations were dismissed in court.

These are just two examples of what a fascist Gary Jensen really is. There are plenty of other examples. He has targeted activists like myself and foreign-born immigrants. In the Rojszas’ case, they have been subjected to more prejudice in Ferndale than they received in Poland, which they fled in the 1980’s as political refugees! In my case, it is like I am back in the 1960’s.

And Mark Nelson says the Democrats’ nominees are prejudiced? I guess Nelson does not even have a grasp of what the word means.