No matter how you slice it, district-only voting is a good thing if you’re a conservative in Whatcom County. Right-wing politicos on the 2015 county Charter Review Commission managed to get district-only voting for county council members on the November 2015 ballot. Voters approved the measure, which means, starting this year, you and I don’t get to vote for all seven people who sit on the council. Two members are still elected countywide, but the other five must hail from newly drawn council districts, and only voters in those districts can choose them.
It’s easy to see why Whatcom conservatives wanted a district-only system. After countywide voting had been yielding a healthy balance of progressives and conservatives on the council, the balance swung decidedly to the left during the historic 2013 elections. The four seats up for election that year were swept by candidates endorsed by the county Democrats and who were painted—accurately or not—as being opposed to Gateway Pacific Terminal, the now-dead coal-port proposal. Now, all seven council members, with the exception of long-serving iconoclast Barbara Brenner, can be labeled as some shade of progressive.
As expected, the first victory conservatives can claim under the new district-only regime happened in the Nov. 7 election in District 3, the so-called “foothills district” that covers eastern Whatcom County. (Results as of Friday, Nov. 10. Election results don’t become official until Nov. 28.)
Recent actions by the current council have rankled Whatcom conservatives, who have been champing at the bit to get some of their people on the council. One decision in particular has resonated in rural parts this election season: the council’s moratorium on rural development that relies on well water, following the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision.
Progressives didn’t yield to the district-only system without a counter punch. The progressive council in 2015 put its own election change on the ballot that year—a proposal to redraw the existing three-district system and turn it into five districts. Progressives touted five districts as more fair. What they had in mind was to maintain a majority on the county council. The five districts would include the two countywide-elected (or “at large”) seats, plus two Bellingham seats. This should add up to four relatively safe seats for progressive candidates. Conservatives may get three council members—in the foothills, the farmlands, and maybe even in the northwest “coastal district”—but they wouldn’t get a majority.
That logic, of course, hinges on whether recent voting trends persist in countywide races: the progressive voting bloc heavily weighted in Bellingham continues to outnumber the largely rural conservative base. Given the demographic trend anticipated for Whatcom County—as an outpost for British Columbia expats and a bedroom community for overpriced Seattle—that logic seems sound. The only significant variable is turnout. Can a divisive issue like the Hirst decision boost conservative turnout enough to outpace the growing liberal base?
Last week, the progressive/Democrats’ assumption that their candidates should win at-large council seats passed its first test in the new district-only era. Barry Buchanan, a quasi-incumbent who actually shifted seats to run in the one at-large race in 2017, defeated conservative Mary Kay Robinson by a comfortable margin, 52.2 percent to 47.8 percent. Robinson used the controversial Hirst decision to propel her campaign, which raised and spent more money than Buchanan’s. Nevertheless, the progressive supremacy seen in countywide council elections since 2013 held, and the progressive assumption behind the five-district model holds for now. (The last outright conservative to win a countywide council race was incumbent Sam Crawford in 2011, when he beat challenger Christina Maginnis by less than a percentage point.)
Democrats thought they had a fighting chance in the foothills district, but Tyler Byrd defeated Rebecca Boonstra easily, 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent. Conservative donors were motivated in this race, too. They contributed more than $39,000 to Byrd’s campaign. The 19 donors who gave $1,000 or more included groups involved in building/construction, the local refineries, and real estate. (One feels the presence of the Hirst decision throughout the contributions to conservative Whatcom candidates.) Boonstra’s campaign, meanwhile, received a little more than $30,000 in contributions, including six at $1,000 or more. Her lead donors included Washington Conservation Voters, reliable contributors to Whatcom progressives; and the firefighters union.
Other tidbits gleaned from the Nov. 7, 2017 elections:
Jail goes down hard. The vote to create a 0.2 percent sales tax to fund a new jail in Ferndale was 58.6 percent “no” to 41.4 percent “yes”—much worse than the 2015 vote on essentially the same measure. That year, the jail tax went down 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent. Maybe next time, county leaders will pay heed to the naysayers, who want a lower price tag and more robust treatment programs for mental illness and addiction.
Will the coastal district be competitive? Everyone knows District 4, the so-called farmlands district, is Whatcom’s most conservative. It includes Lynden, Everson, Nooksack, Sumas and the surrounding farms. Counting only the farmlands district votes, Robinson defeated Buchanan 71 percent to 29 percent. However, going into the first District 5 race in 2019, Democrats will believe—as they did this year in District 3/the foothills—that they can be competitive in the coastal district—from Lummi Island to Blaine, including Ferndale and Birch Bay. Well, Buchanan didn’t fare too well in the coastal district, getting just 44 percent of the vote there. Democrats should fare better, however, in 2019, with a candidate and a campaign tailored for the coastal district. That said, early indications suggest the the political makeup of the council will be almost evenly split starting in 2020.