From the Political Junkie: Why is Dan Pike talking about Coal Trains?

Writer's Note: I realize that because this article is about a specific candidate, I might be stepping on some people's toes. I have tried to include as much documentation as possible to help my case. Please feel free to click through the links and examine the materials. And as always, you can email me directly with your concerns here, and always, you can read my blog on its native site here: The Political Junkie

Tuesday night, I made my way down to the Young Democrats meeting at the beautiful Chuckanut Brewery, where I found Dan Pike answering questions and campaigning. He discussed Red Light Cameras and had some intriguing ideas for the waterfront, but before long, he got around to "Coal Trains."

His boisterous public opposition to the proposed terminal at Cherry Point has been the centerpiece of his mayoral campaign. You'll find reference on his campaign literature ("The first and only elected official and candidate to stand up for Bellingham and say 'No' to coal,") on his Facebook page ("Mayor Dan showed enormous integrity in standing up to protect Bellingham . . . and remains the only candidate who will continue to show that leadership!") and in his speeches (see my write up from the Dems endorsement meeting). This is a hot button issue in our community, drawing large crowds to public meetings and aggressive, sometimes illegal, action.

Pike's track record on the issue has been erratic, or as veteran reporter John Stark put it in his July 29th article, "Pike's journey to his present position has not been direct." He put forth a resolution supporting the Cherry Point Terminal back in October 2010 saying "Whereas the Mayor of Bellingham, Dan Pike, joins with the council in its strong support of this project." City Council president Gene Knutzen pulled the resolution before it could come to a vote. UPDATE: Dan Pike just called me to contest this issue. It is unclear who proposed the resolution, but Dan Pike says he asked for it to be removed. Read about that conversation here. When that failed, he held a couple of public hearings about it before coming out for the project with some serious conditions, and then finally coming out against the project by sending a rather confrontational letter to the governor without warning, or consulting the County Executive and Council.

Regardless of how Pike got to the issue, what confuses me is why this is even an issue in the mayoral race. The mayor of Bellingham has no jurisdiction. The city will not be approving permits (that's the county council's job,) or conducting environmental impact analysis (state agencies,) or even dealing with traffic and land use concerns (state and Port of Bellingham.) The city has zero authority over this issue, so why is Dan Pike making it a central issue of his campaign?

I've heard Kelli Linville talk about how she is opposed to the project and would prefer a different industry be installed in that space. So if both Pike and his opponent are in virtual agreement (Herald Article confirms this) and the post they seek has no authority over the issue, why all the chest thumping about it?

So at the Young Dems meeting I asked him, "Aside from the bully pulpit, what jurisdiction does the mayor's office have on this issue?" His campaign manager, Isabel Vanderslice, tried to jump in but Dan Pike answered, "Well don't discount the bully pulpit, it is important."

"I'm not," I said. "But what jurisdiction do you have?"

Isabel answered for him at this point, "Bellingham has no jurisdiction." But Mayor Pike continued, "I never claimed to have any jurisdiction over this. In fact, in a way, it is a good thing because I'm not constrained by what I say." He then continued about how the County Council is unable to speak out on this issue because of the appearance of fairness issue (see Jean Melious' discussion of this at her excellent blog Get Whatcom Planning).

But it left me wondering, why are our mayoral candidates spending all this time talking about an issue they cannot change in office? Is it because they know it's a highly recognizable yet safe issue since most voters within in the city are opposed? I suppose it's far easier to campaign by railing against the coal trains than it is to run the risk of articulating a forward thinking vision for our many municipal-based issues. So before the campaign dialogue strays into how the candidates opposed rabid dogs and major earthquakes, I'd like to set forth a few issues I would rather see our mayoral candidates talk about:

1) Revitalizing our Urban Core:

If you are downtown after 7:00 p.m. on a weeknight, you might have noticed the eerie silence that permeates our downtown. We need to have an economic engine that runs 24/7. I got the bad news that yet another friend of mine is having to pack up and leave town because there are no jobs. He's bright, energetic, a real credit to any employer, yet he can't find work in this town because of our anemic economic growth. I would love to hear fully articulated plans, something beyond "Let's speed up the permit office!" Safety also needs to be addressed. I've talked to some Ferndale and Blaine folks who have mentioned they would never walk with their kids down Railroad, even in broad daylight, because they don't feel safe. Everyone should feel able to walk around and shop in our urban core and that needs to be addressed.

2) Infill and Rental Housing

We have a drastic shortage of rental properties here in the City of Bellingham. I discussed this issue recently with Clayton Petree, read that interview for more details, but the short version is, we need more apartments and no one is willing to start building. I would like to hear the candidate's ideas on how to drive down the cost of renting by spurring more apartments to be built. I realize we cannot build our way out of the recession, but right now we have a serious problem. Related to that, how do we inspect and maintain the properties that are available to make sure they are safe for our renters. What is the city's role in all that?

3) Cordata, the Guide-Meridian, and Barkley Village

Right now, we have four economic horses running in opposite directions. We have the established Bellingham and Fairhaven centers, which have a good mix of housing, shops and stores, and green spaces. But we also have the Guide-Meridian, home to some of our larger chain stores and the mall, and the new upstart, Barkley Village. Both of the latter seem to lack planning for housing, walkable areas, or even basic access to transit that doesn't involve crossing five lanes of traffic. How are we going to build sustainable communities if Barkley Village is where we are giving our tax breaks? Finally, Cordata, a community that has rapidly expanded its residential base in the last ten years, but now lacks stores and services. How are we going to better integrate our city, and build sustainable neighborhoods? I would like to hear our candidate's vision on those issues.

We should demand the best from our elected and future elected officials, even if that means pinning their feet down and demanding they talk about the issues they will be able to affect if we elect them. I urge all the voters reading this to ask your candidates about issues relevent to their office, and the candidates reading this to expand on what they can do about those issues.

About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Sep 08, 2011

I support Mayor Pike?s stance regarding the concerns surrounding the proposed terminal at Cherry Point, and I agree with Pike?s comment regarding the power of the bully pulpit.

While it?s true that Bellingham?s mayor has no ?legal? jurisdiction, authority, or power over this issue, there is another court besides the legal one.  In many cases, the court of public opinion is as powerful as - if not more powerful than - the legal courts.  I appreciate Mayor Pike taking a strong position to represent the interests of Bellingham residents, and I believe it can certainly have an impact on the final outcome.  Public pressure can be intense, and many companies eventually succumb to it.  Even Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway?s network of corporations are not immune.

That being said, I doubt this issue will decide the Bellingham mayoral election regardless of how much ?chest thumping? either candidate does.  And I absolutely agree with you Riley, it would be better for both candidates to focus on issues they can impact directly.  What I really wish is that Mayor Pike would display more courage on matters under his control when it comes to representing the public?s interest.  Too many times he has deferred to his advisors who caution against taking a stance that might result in legal action against the city. 

As someone I admire explained, ?You cannot prevent every lawsuit.  The best course of action is to make decisions that are in the best interest of the public while ensuring your decisions are legally defensible.  If your decisions are in the public interest and are legally defensible - and you have a quality legal staff - then you have done the best you can.?

I have witnessed many times when Mayor Pike refused to take a courageous - and appropriate - stance because his advisors feared potential legal action against the city.  That is simply no way to run a government created for, by, and of the people.  It?s no secret that I have been an outspoken critic of Mayor Pike; but my primary criticism involves his over-reliance on overly cautious advice.  Had he shown the same courage on matters under his control as he has shown with the Cherry Point terminal, perhaps I would have been an outspoken supporter rather than critic.



Sep 08, 2011

I agree with Larry, Dan has too often deferred to the too timid advice of staff; and similarly, supported foolish ideas brought forward by them.  Red light cameras being, perhaps, the most glaring example of the latter.

Though his opponents in the current campaign would paint him as combative and confrontational, Larry’s right, criticized for starting out courageously, he’s too often let himself be persuaded to stop short.

But I can not agree with Riley’s appraisal, both candidates “are in virtual agreement” on taking a stand against the coal port.  And moreover, the Mayor and his opponent will be quite different going forward.

Linville has basically straddled the issue, stating she favors letting the “process” run its course.  A process most of us have seen gamed over and over.

Pike would actually attempt to affect the process.

The other issues Riley mentions are interesting, but not the game changer that driving this black stake into Bellingham’s heart will be.  Those other issues will go away or become intractable as Bellingham sinks under the weight of train traffic and pollution.

Having worked many years now on growth management issues in the county, the one thing that works against revitalizing downtown, stimulating infill, and realizing critical mass for better public transportation etc is sprawl into rural and resource lands around the city.

Much to the chagrin of the realtors and developers supporting his opponent, Pike has remained courageous in his opposition to unneeded expansion of UGAs and development in the watershed around the Lake Whatcom reservoir.


Tip Johnson

Sep 11, 2011

I know!  Let’s build the equivalent of six Bellis Fairs on the waterfront, festooned with oodles of high-end condominiums and foo-foo boutiques.  That might rip the guts out the old downtown for many years, as one Bellis Fair did for a couple decades, but it would replace it with all the glitter and charm of a fake tinsel town organized by our Port Authority, with the help of the City.  And gutting downtown should bring down the rents on apartments in the Central Business District, helping increase the supply of much needed affordable housing.

While we are at it, let’s turn one of Washington State’s largest water treatment facilities into a yacht basin for 60 foot yachts no one here can afford to own, forever foreclosing on our ability to support living wage jobs and insuring that the sewer ratebase will pay top dollar to supply additional capacity.  That keeps the cycle going!  More and more people needing all the newly affordable housing units will spur continued development, whether it’s in the tsunami/liquifaction zone or not.  That’s what Bellingham has always really thrived on, right?

Pike is definitely on track.  It may not be the one the Cole Train’s on, but it’s a train wreck just the same.



Sep 12, 2011

You are, of course, correct, Tip.  Little could be as discouraging as the conversion of a water oriented industrial site to housing, retail shops and offices.  Ditto for a commercial asset such as the lagoon.

As an observer though, I hardly think Pike is this trains engineer.  For my part, he’s not been uncooperative enough with the Port Authority who got us into this boondoggle.  And now, the hotshots who did have largely moved on, leaving this stinker in the public’s lap.

But while we castigate Pike for failing to call this what it is, pray tell, what do you really expect of the alternative?

Do you actually think the realtors, developers and BIAW operators hoping to push Pike aside and install their pal Linville have a different vision than the Port?

It is wearying to continue to ask who can really believe Linville will make a positive difference.  If it’s hard to get Pike to see what’s needed, twill be impossible to get Linville to see things any differently than her supporters; just the way she was down in Olympia.

Pike may be an amateur, but I don’t think we could survive a real professional like Kelli!


John Servais

Sep 12, 2011

Fascinating how uber Pike confidant Kirsch continues to invent hypotheticals in an effort to absolve Pike of responsibility for his term as mayor.  Just as Pike also is trying to deny his own short sighted actions that are now coming back to haunt his campaign.



Sep 12, 2011

I realize you still feel jilted for not becoming the “uber Pike confidant.”  But don’t blame me.

And just to make the record clear, that’s “former uber Pike confidant” my friend.

When I earlier took on Kelli Linville, Pike, like most of you, couldn’t run away fast enough or far enough. Like most, contributors, endorsers and electeds, lips needed to remain amply applied to a posterior with a big seat in the legislature.

But my time as a director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy showed me the insidiousness of her politics.  So, in spite of generous ridicule for the same, I said what I thought.

If you and others had not been so possessed by your personal animosity towards Pike for what you took as slights, and had actually organized to promote a better alternative, I’d probably still be with you.

But you took the lazy way, and went with Linville, satisfied to simply get even with Pike. 

Whatever you think, the choice is not between Pike and someone better to advance our interests. 

It’s a choice between Pike and a toady for the realtors, developers and the BIAW, Kelli Linville.