Whatcom County government is in the midst of what can be a confusing transition, as the seven seats for County Council leave behind the old three-district system and begin to plug into the new five-district system, approved by voters in 2015.
This fall’s elections are the first-ever for the new system, which consists of one council member for each of the five new districts, and two “at-large” members. In another new development, the five district representatives are elected only by voters who live in their district. In recent county elections, all council members had been elected by all participating voters in the county. Now, only the two at-large members are on the countywide ballot.
A political fight played out in 2015 over the changes, as conservatives pushed hard to get district-only voting on the ballot. Conservative leaders were frustrated with the progressive makeup of the council at the time. That measure was successful, but progressives had responded with their own proposal, which passed on the same ballot: redraw the districts and increase the number from three to five, in such a way as to protect a progressive council majority of at least 4-to-3. The thinking went, progressives should take the two Bellingham districts and the two at-large seats.
Four of the seven seats are up for election this year: District 1 (south Bellingham), District 2 (north Bellingham), District 3 (the east county “foothills” district, which actually extends as far west as Guide Meridian, up to Wiser Lake Road), and one at-large seat. Sitting council members have been shuffled out of their old seats and put in new ones, to make them compatible with the new districts. Of course, they all don’t necessarily live in the districts they were assigned. Hence a discordant musical chairs commences as the first election under the new system gets underway.
Carl Weimer and Ken Mann decided not to seek re-election, creating some room to maneuver. The foothills district is wide open, and Democrat-approved Rebecca Boonstra advanced to the general election for that seat, along with arch conservative Tyler Byrd. Barry Buchanan is leaving his seat and angling for the at-large position that is up this year. He will face another conservative seeking a spot on the council, real estate broker Mary Kay Robinson. Todd Donovan, who now is in an at-large seat and isn’t up for re-election until 2019, jumped into this year’s race for District 2, where he lives. He has said he does not want to compete with Satpal Sidhu for a seat in 2019. Sidhu, who was elected in 2015, lives in the foothills district, but, alas, that seat was put on the ballot this year. Sidhu was squeezed out and will presumably run for the other at-large seat in 2019.
Assuming you’re keeping score at home, everything should be in order. Except that Amy Glasser, a progressive inspired to seek county office by Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, lives in District 2 and declared her intent to run for that seat last winter. Glasser and Donovan have been bickering on social media, each accusing the other of disrespecting their campaigns. Donovan’s campaign escalated the tension when it mailed a flyer during primary election season that showed photographs of him and a third person running for the District 2 seat—A Republican, even—and made no mention of Glasser. This was clearly an attempt by Donovan’s campaign to elevate the Republican in the primary in the hope that Donovan would not have to face the progressive Glasser in the general election. It didn’t work; Glasser came in second behind Donovan’s 53 percent of the primary vote, with 28 percent. The Republican, Daniel Collick, was eliminated from the race after getting just 19 percent of the vote.
It doesn’t require a political analyst on the level of Nate Silver to forecast the outcome for District 2 in November. Donovan should win the seat easily. He beat Glasser in a head-to-head comparison almost 2-to-1 in the Aug. 1 primary. This will create a vacancy in his at-large seat. Disgruntled Sanders Democrats, angry at Donovan for blocking Glasser’s path to the council, would like to see the council appoint Glasser to that spot. Whomever the council appoints—they likely will accept applications and make a decision early next year—would have to run again in 2018 if they want to hold the seat just one more year, until 2019. The at-large seat will be up for election yet again that year, according to its regular schedule.
A question has been ping-ponging around Democratic circles recently (a discussion I’ve been privy to, and have participated in, as a Democratic Party precinct committee officer for my precinct in south Bellingham): Is Glasser even eligible to fill Donovan’s old seat? At the end of the winding discussion I present here, the answer may already be clear: Yes, she is. Since Donovan’s position is now at-large, anyone who lives in the county and who is eligible for elected office may apply. (I know, they call this “burying the lede.” I’m no longer a mainstream journalist; I don’t have to follow the rules.)
This is the word I got from Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein on Friday, Aug. 11:
“When the charter proposals were submitted to the voters, some implementation language was included and that is what we are following. Todd was originally elected as Pos. I-B, but that position became ‘At-Large B’ with the implementation of the new districts. Therefore, if he is elected in November to the District 2 position, the current seat that will need to be filled will be an at-large position, not a district assigned position. Therefore it will be open to anyone in the County. The Council will make an appointment to the position to serve until the November, 2018 election. The position will be posted to serve a one-year unexpired term. The position would then run in the 2019 election to serve the four-year term that will bring it into cycle with the other positions.”
I haven’t asked Glasser if she would apply for Donovan’s old seat. This is out of politeness; my question would imply that I assume she will lose (which I do). As far as I’m concerned, she can announce her intentions as soon after the November election date as she wants. Conservative and progressives both will come out of the woodwork in early 2018 to try to catch the sitting council members’ eyes. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, just as it has been fun for politicos to watch the drama of the 2017 election cycle so far.
Over the longer run, through 2019, I will be interested to see how much of a foothold conservatives can gain on the council, after securing district-only voting in 2015. They should gain one seat this year. District 3 appears to be a shoo-in for Byrd; the two conservatives took 61 percent of the overall vote in the District 3 primary.