Updated at 11:15 a.m. Friday
They worried from the start about big money from deep corporate pockets, the four progressives running to tip the balance on the Whatcom County Council on Nov. 5.
It was all about the coal-export terminal proposed at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, a contentious issue in Washington’s far northwest corner. Rumors of large checks from deep corporate pockets permeated the mist from Bellingham Bay.
“It was the big gorilla in the room, and it caused us to raise more money,” says two-term Council member Carl Weimer, one of a slate of four progressives. “We raised lots of money and the other side never showed up.”
With ballots in the mail Friday and limitations on last-minute cash drops in place, the early rumors about corporate money pouring into an election that could determine the fate of the coal port seemed groundless — until Friday, when the Public Disclosure Commission posted a drop of $144,000 from pro-coal forces during the previous week. That includes $50,000 each from Cloud Peak Coal and Global Coal Sales and $32,000 from coal baron Corbin Robertson Jr. of Houston and his wife. SSA Marine added $12,000. Suddenly an independent committee, Save Whatcom, based in Bellingham, expanded from a modest $18,055 to a total of $162,055. Only $1,932 was reported as an expenditure, so the money has yet to hit the street.
That cash dump closed the gap; the four-person slate endorsed by Democrats and the Washington Conservation Voters has raised $479,995 compared to $288,331 for the four persons endorsed by Republicans. The Democratic slate raised its money from 2,217 contributors, Republicans from 1,497.
The progressive slate — which is almost universally believed to be more critical of the coal port than the conservatives — still enjoys a funding edge that is unprecedented in Whatcom County. But the decision to form a slate under WhatcomWins has overshadowed the individual campaigns and candidates and places an unusually high premium on political loyalties in contests that are ostensibly nonpartisan.
At stake is control of a seven-member county council controlled 4-3 by conservatives, whose decisions on zoning, urban sprawl, water and land use regulations have tilted toward developers and property-rights crusaders. Progressives watched from the sideline as the council butted heads with the state’s growth-management rules. But victory in at least three of this year’s four races could tip the balance for the progressives.
Would it also tip the balance for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, the huge project planned by SSA Marine, slated to deliver some 48 million tons of coal annually to Asian factories and furnaces? The county council will decide two of the major permits for the terminal, but probably not until 2015 at the earliest. Events and an environmental impact statement will influence council voting. And the state retains a big role in the decision making.
Voters have in their hands literature from Washington Conservation Voters stating that the four progressives “oppose the coal terminal.”
Not so, say the four, and no one to this point has produced any evidence to the contrary. Candidates on both tickets have studiously avoided stating a position, following guidelines from the county’s lawyers, who have stressed that the council must go into its decision-making without bias. Otherwise, the council's decisions will be vulnerable to legal challenges. “Keep this decision local,” says Rud Browne, an entrepreneur who is seeking one of the council seats. “Let’s be sure the decision isn’t made in a courtroom.”
If the Washington Conservation Voters tripped over its own eagerness to cash in on anti-coal feelings — and many believe it did — the organization isn’t backing off. Brendon Cechovic, the WCV’s executive director, agrees that none of the progressives has publicly opposed the terminal, but their records on environmental issues would tilt in that direction. “Politics and elections are a blunt instrument,” Cechovic told Crosscut. “There’s not a lot of room for nuance.” The WCV Action Fund is behind a “fire wall” that prevents it from talking to candidates; the progressives say they were not consulted on the “oppose the terminal” wording.
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