More money pours into Whatcom election coal fight

A new KCTS documentary examines the debate around exporting coal through Northwest ports. Credit: Photo: Michael Werner

Whatcom County Democrats find themselves in an unusual position with less than a week to go before a quartet of important county council seats are decided: Party-endorsed candidates have a 3-to-2 advantage in fundraising over their more conservative opponents.

And the two sides together are on course to a million-dollar race in a county with only 205,000 people. Nothing remotely close has happened in the state’s far northwest corner, and it’s all due to coal. A race for part-time employment (council members earn $21,000 a year) has become a national news story because it could ultimately decide whether the county hosts the nation’s largest coal-export terminal.

The terminal needs approval by public agencies — notably including the Whatcom County Council — and its backers have plunged $198,500 into the races. That amounts to 55 percent of the $358,376 contributed to the four GOP-endorsed candidates: incumbents Kathy Kershner and Bill Knutzen and challengers Ben Elenbaas and Michele Luke.

The largest contributors are Cloud Peak Energy and Global Coal Sales at $50,000 apiece, $32,000 from Houston coal baron Corben Robertson and his wife, and $12,000 from SSA Marine, developer of the proposed coal terminal. Earlier in the year, SSA also sent $40,000 to the Washington Republican Party; BNSF Railway added $14,500.

That’s less money than the Democrat-backed candidates are receiving from Washington Conservation Voters. WCV has added another $24,013 in its Oct. 28 filing report, bringing its total to $274,540 to back incumbents Carl Weiner and Ken Mann and challengers Rud Browne and Barry Buchanan. The WCV money is big bucks, but only 43 percent of the Democrats’ money.

The Democratic candidates are raising more local funds than their GOP opponents in all of the four races. Particularly active is Browne, who founded a firm recycling computer parts and made it a major county employer; he’s new to elective politics and has raised $126,970 compared to incumbent councilman Knutzen at $57,815. The races are ostensibly nonpartisan but from the opening of the campaign the candidates have campaigned as party-endorsed slates. Whatcom is closely divided between Bellingham liberals and rural and small-town conservatives.

The Oct. 28 funding deadline was the last before Tuesday’s voting; late expenditures have limitations and must be reported immediately. Ballots from some 16 percent of registered Whatcom voters were recorded as of Wednesday evening. 

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