Republicans on the Whatcom County Districting Committee accused the Democrats of “political packing” when they drew up the five districts that will determine representation on the County Council starting in 2018.
But by introducing politics into a negotiation in which the topic is expressly forbidden, the Republicans may have tipped their hand.
Republican Mark Nelson said at the committee’s Monday, March 7 meeting that the decision by progressives about a year ago to include Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas in the same district was a conscious effort to gerrymander a large majority of the county Republicans into one of the five districts. This presumably would restrict the opportunities for conservative candidates to win seats in the other four districts.
The map that eventually came before voters in November and that is similar to what the Democrats are proposing in the Districting Committee originally came from Todd Donovan, a member of the 2015 Charter Review Commission’s progressive minority and currently a County Council member.
“(Putting) 75 percent of Republicans in one of the districts … is effectively what the Donovan map would do, and it does so deliberately,” Nelson said.
As in previous meetings, Nelson threatened legal action against the county if it approves the map now promoted by the Democrats.
“It’s going to cost our county money and our citizens money, and that’s not necessary,” Nelson said.
The other Republican on the committee, Brett Bonner, backed up Nelson.
“This (process) is inevitably going to go down in flames, and it ought not. We should be able to reach an accord,” Bonner said.
Republicans made several concessions with the latest version of their district map, presented on March 7. They aligned their map more closely to the one favored by Democrats, putting Lynden in the center of a farmland district and combining Ferndale and Blaine in a coastal district. They also agreed with Democrats not to stretch the Bellingham districts so far along Lake Whatcom, and Bellingham mostly fit into two districts as the Democrats have always wanted.
The last battle in the war between the parties will be on the county’s eastern front. Nelson said he would not budge from his position, which is to move Sumas, Nooksack and Everson across the district line into the foothills district with Glacier, Acme, Lake Samish and most of Lake Whatcom.
Lynden as a city would stand alone in the farmland district, which on the Republican map would extend west almost to Blaine; east to the Sumas, Everson and Nooksack city limits; and south to Cordata in Bellingham.
Putting the conservative strongholds Lynden, Sumas, Everson and Nooksack together “is very close to political packing by the definition of the state,” Nelson said.
State law doesn’t have a definition of “political packing,” but it commonly understood to mean making a minority ethnic group or race, or the minority political party, the majority in one district to weaken their influence in the other districts.
Nelson engaged in a taboo topic by bringing up politics in a districting committee meeting. Committee members aren’t allowed to make decisions on district boundaries based on race or political party. While Nelson has accused the Democrats of doing just that, he provided no direct evidence—he only stated the claim.
At the same time, Nelson exposed the Republicans to an accusation of trying to boost the conservative vote count in the foothills district by moving the three small cities into it.
The Democrats gave no indication they would agree to move the three cities.
After the meeting, Democratic committee member Mike Estes said in an interview that the Lynden district and the foothills district should be drawn along the boundary between farmland and forest land, and as such it should remain east of the small cities.
Lisa McShane, the other Democrat (and the wife of my employer, Dan McShane—full disclosure), insists on sticking to the language in the charter, which establishes approximate district boundaries that combine Lynden, Nooksack, Everson and Sumas.
Republicans openly disapproved of the likely outcome if the two parties can’t agree in committee: The districts would be drawn by the County Council, which is majority progressive.
The Republicans have made it clear that in that case they would challenge the map in court, which to this point has been unfriendly turf for conservatives unhappy with the progressive five-district concept.
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Here’s what’s coming up in the Districting Committee:
One more meeting in March, at noon on March 14 at the County Council conference room, Suite 105 of the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. Then the committee takes a break until April.
Districting master Tjalling Ypma, a math professor at Western Washington University, must present the final map to the committee for possible amendments and/or their approval by May 1. The committee will hold a public hearing on the final map proposal between then and mid-May, when the committee’s decision is due.
The committee will discuss on March 14 whether to hold an earlier hearing in April, to let the public weigh in on the Democrat and Republican map alternatives.