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How the big money ended up opposing coal ports

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.

There is no question that the progressive panel has markedly different views of how Whatcom County should handle economic growth, water and land issues and the hot-button of urban sprawl and development. The four conservative candidates already sit either on the council (Kathy Kershner and Bill Knutzen) or the county’s planning commission (Michelle Luke and Ben Elenbaas). They have voting records more attuned to developers and landowners, and are associated with individuals and groups that back the export terminal. 

The WCV handbills and funding have handed Republicans a much-needed issue in the final month of the campaign, coming at a time when the party and its slate looks to have been caught napping while energy built on the progressive front. Knutzen, seeking re-election, told a Birch Bay forum Tuesday night the progressives have made up their minds on Gateway in exchange for WCV dollars; Elenbaas, a Lynden farmer and refinery worker, warned against outside money and influence.

Earlier Tuesday, Whatcom Republicans issued an “emergency” alert to volunteers, calling them to rally around their candidates three days before the mailing of ballots. “This is an all out last ditch chance to preserve our county’s current jobs and not turn Whatcom County into an extremist environmentalist’s wasteland without jobs or a viable human future for anyone,” warned GOP Chair Charlie Crabtree.

Suddenly, the Friday cash from Big Coal changed the dynamics of “outside money,” as progressives could wield the same sword that Republicans hope to use. In fact, both sides in the coalport battle have spent thousands over the past two years in Whatcom County: SSA Marine and its allies in the coal and rail industries have crisscrossed rural Whatcom to build support and in Bellingham, Power Past Coal has been on the doorstops for two years to rally anti-coal forces to speak at forums and, now, to support candidates. 

SSA and the BNSF Railway gave $40,000 to the Washington Republican Party, and $17,000 has found its way thus far into the Whatcom GOP or the four GOP-endorsed candidates.

Democrats feared more of the same prior to November, but the big outside checks are benefitting their WhatcomWins. In the next two weeks, contributions are limited to $5,000 to a party or $900 from an individual to a candidate. It would take a remarkable surge and maybe some sleight-of-hand to overtake the Democratic funding advantage.

Political history is littered, of course, with better-funded campaigns losing elections and Whatcom County is sharply divided between Democrats in Bellingham and Republicans in rural and small-town areas. The city is 40 percent of the county’s population, but voting among young people and university students always falls dramatically in non-presidential years. Rural Whatcom elects very conservative legislators; the 42nd District’s delegation is the only one in Olympia to score an absolute lifetime zero on WCV’s conservation voting chart.

County government is more visible outside the city, and some newer city residents need to be reminded that it exists. All these elements give the Republican slate an edge despite the huge financial advantage of the Democrats.

But the coal issue has energized Democrats inside and beyond Whatcom County; coordination among candidates began in January, and the WCV made its endorsements early in the year as candidates with known records announced. Incumbents Weimer and Ken Mann were easy choices, as was former Bellingham councilman Barry Buchanan. Browne, an Australian who moved to the area in 1990, founded an electronics-recycling firm that employed 360 people before he sold it in 2011 and he has a history of involvement in sustainable business. He was also an easy choice for the WCV. 

For the progressives, the slate made sense because the candidates have shared values; it also made the money go further, with joint mailings and offices. The candidates seem comfortable with each other, but likes or dislikes of one person can be transferred to an entire slate. “We get painted with each other’s pimples,” is Weimer’s description.

Formation of the Democratic slate also pitched Republicans together; all are conservatives, although Kershner, the council chair, is seen as more pragmatic than her counterparts. A “pimple” for the GOP slate is the party label; the national Republican brand is toxic to many right now, and that may seep down to the county level.

The intangible element in the run-up to the Nov. 5 conclusion of voting is energy, motivation and organization. Democrats sound and look energized and are more specific in responses at public forums; they have been organizing for months and benefit from polling by WCV as well as from cash on hand.

So far, the Republicans appear less energized and have failed to gain their usual advantage in campaign funding. Big Coal money hasn’t arrived, and a big independent effort at campaign’s end could backfire. For more than a year, the emotional and energy level of anti-coal forces has dominated public forums, and has now translated into dollars; the “pro-jobs” campaign has failed to generate the same level of commitment.

All the usual stereotypes seem reversed in this race: Democrats have led Republicans in money from both big and small donors; progressive candidates have far more business experience than Republicans. Republicans, on the other hand, have fielded two female candidates to none for Democrats and have the always-popular gift of “outside money” to deplore, even if the donations are leveling off.

"Incumbents always win” is not likely in 2013, and we’ll see if a money advantage has its usual potency. 

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