[Personal disclaimer: Writer Anne Mackie is a donor to and campaign supporter of Russ Whidbee, candidate for the Bellingham City Council At-Large position]
As Bellingham continues to pump out new local breweries, proudly gaining its spot on the craft brew tour maps of the west coast, another industry is tapping into local money. High-paid campaign consultants have acquired a taste for more than just the local brews. A look at the money flowing in the race for Bellingham’s At-large City Council seat between Russ Whidbee and Kristina Michele Martens, reveals there’s a lot of draining going on.
Under its moniker of “Follow the Money,” the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) provides documentation of where campaign money is coming from and where it’s going. A mind-boggling amount of money has been raised by one of the two candidates in this race, Martens, and an equally mind-boggling amount has been funneled by her back out of town. None of this is in violation of campaign funding rules, however, it raises important questions for her local voting constituents to ask.
As of October 4, Martens’ campaign contributions were $59,398, of which nearly 20% (or $11,540) of the individual non-organizational donations have come from outside of Bellingham, mostly from the greater Seattle metropolitan area.
Opponent Whidbee had raised approximately one-third that amount at $27,636, of which 3% (or $944) of the individual non-organizational donations have come from outside of Bellingham, mostly from Whatcom county and three from outside of the area. These stark contrasts should highlight concerns for local voters.
Does money equate a “Win”?
A look back to the 2019 Bellingham election tells us that money does not necessarily guarantee a win. In the mayoral contest between Seth Fleetwood (the victor) he raised $71,557; his opponent, April Barker raised $91,145.
At the level of Bellingham City Council races, the dollars raised are typically lower. In the 2019 race for Ward 1, Hannah Stone (the victor) raised $18,591; her opponent, Beth Hartsoch, raised $18,226. The race between Ward 5 opponents Lisa Anderson (the victor) saw $18,333 versus opponent Chanan Suarez’s $16,937. These are reasonable campaign dollars to raise and spend on a small city’s council races.
Just two years later the price of participation in the candidacy process for the At-Large two-year position has risen to the level of what it costs to make a down payment on a home: nearly $60,000. While it can be acknowledged that the costs of printing, postage, signage and other forms of old-school advertising have risen in two years, does it rationally explain away Martens’ spending? It would seem that with the advent of social media campaign tools, such as websites and Facebook pages, a more level playing field would open the doors for participation.
Follow the Money
A deeper dive into Martens’ campaign spending shows that Seattle consultants are doing well in this contest. One consulting firm, Prism West, has been on the receiving end of a large chunk of Martens’ donation money. Its website self-describes: “The Prism West team of ‘Pro-Activists’ brings rich experience, a ‘can-do’ attitude, and a diverse breadth of skills to execute nimble digitally savvy, and design-first campaign strategies.”
Translation: “Digitally savvy” equates to bells and whistles and a big fat bill. Another recipient of Martens’ campaign dollars is Katherine Bobman Consulting in Seattle who is being paid for fundraising services. The nearly $12,000 donated to Martens, thus far, from outside of Bellingham comes with a price tag. Have our small city elections become a source of income for outside consultants? And, is the future of Bellingham’s local city governance to be manipulated from afar?
Take the “taste test”
As voters prepare to cast their ballots a final flurry of printed propaganda will land in mail boxes – both digitally and on the doorstep – and quickly be thrown in the recycle bin. Hopefully, there will be a short minute of contemplation. Please consider how hard the candidates and their campaign teams have worked to craft their messages to earn your vote.
Consider the qualifications the candidates present in their Voter Pamphlet statements. Martens: community activist, real estate agent, co-host of TV, radio, and podcasts; founder of the local singing competition Bellingham Idol. Although she states she is a realtor, it appears her license has expired (See Martens' realtor record extract at Attached Files below). Other local work history is difficult to pin down: her Whiskey Productions LLC event promotions company has dissolved (per Washington Secretary of State records). A few months ago she began work with the Chuckanut Health Foundation on its racial equity health campaign. While this most recent career step is admirable, her job qualifications and resume for elected office remain thin.
Contrast this to Whidbee’s Voter Pamphlet statement and resume: a financial advisor, adjunct faculty at Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College, plus a mile-long list of 40-years of local community service. His is a thick resume with a thinner, more typical stack of campaign dollars.
As my introduction disclosed, I am endorsing and have financially donated to Whidbee’s election campaign. I took the “taste test” afforded us through the Public Disclosure Commission. He is by far the most qualified, time-tested, and credible candidate. He may or may not do well at karaoke…I do not know; but I do not evaluate a candidate based on performance talent.
With its breweries, beauty, parks and livable neighborhoods our small city on the bay is no longer a secret. We do not want to also gain a reputation as a whistle stop on the political consultants’ opportunist train.