Brighter outlook but no assurances for progressives in the coal port war

Whatcom County voting swung toward environmentalists but coal supporters and opponents have lots of battles ahead.
A crowd celebrates with progressive candidates for the Whatcom County Council.

A crowd celebrates with progressive candidates for the Whatcom County Council. Paul K. Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy

The coal train express missed a signal Tuesday in Whatcom County as voters went for a slate of four Democrats who were supported for county council seats by opponents of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would be built at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.

Council members will be asked — perhaps as early as 2015 — to approve permits for the terminal, which would eventually export 48 million tons of Powder River Basin coal to Asian power-plant furnaces. The terminal has been contentious in the county, and brought big money from conservation groups as well as industries hoping for the first coal terminal on the Pacific coast. SSA Marine of Seattle is the developer.

Results on Tuesday night buoyed anti-terminal forces; 55 percent margins for councilmen Carl Weimer and Ken Mann and challengers Rud Browne and Barry Buchanan prompted strategists to predict that late votes could not overturn the large early margins. The Democrats beat Republican-endorsed candidates (respectively) Michelle Luke, Ben Elenbaas, and apparently ousted council incumbents Bill Knutzen and Kathy Kershner.

Updated results after 5 o’clock Wednesday seemed to put the races out of contention, although conservatives closed the gap by about a percentage point in three races. The new margins remained at about 53-47 percent. Weimer clinched his re-election by 10 percentage points. Knutzen, who came closest among the conservatives, trails Browne by more than 5 percentage points, with a gap of more than 2,500 votes between them. Elections workers have counted 50,380 votes with 12,000 left to count.

The four progressive candidates ran as a slate — an unusual tactic in local elections and one fraught with the danger that a missed cue on the part of one candidate could bring down the whole slate. But that decision, reached early in the year, pushed conservatives to the Republican label, as parties lined up on a race that is ostensibly nonpartisan. Progressives quickly labeled opponents as “Tea Party Republicans,” helped greatly by reaction around the Northwest corner of the state GOP congressmen who were willing to shut down the federal government.

Polling revealed the vulnerability. “People were fed up with people who don’t believe in government running the government,” Whatcom Conservation Voters’ Alex Ramel said of a September poll, taken before the government shutdown. The two Republican-backed incumbents were associated with several unsuccessful legal challenges to state growth-management rules and all four campaigned on a platform largely critical of government.

As the race moved into its final weeks, progressives focused tightly on their opponents’ Republican endorsements, promised a comprehensive look at the coal terminal, and went to their base in Bellingham. Canvassers, mostly paid but also including volunteers, knocked on 40,000 doors in the final weeks, according to Brendon Cechovic, director of Washington Conservation Voters, which spent a record $274,540 on the race. A high proportion of those doors were in Bellingham, where early voting numbers show a higher turnout than in more conservative rural and small-town precincts. “We talked to our base,” Cechovic added, “this was the most targeted and sophisticated campaign I’ve ever worked on.”

Cechovic’s analysis was close to that of pro-terminal Craig Cole, SSA Marine’s major representative in Whatcom County. Cole, a former county councilman, noted that in a low-turnout election, “a lot of spending and a lot of hustle” appears to have prevailed. He noted that none of the eight candidates formally stated a position on the terminal. “All of the candidates stated they would apply the law objectively. There was a difference between what the candidates said and what people said about them,” he told Crosscut.

The difference between the two slates of candidates was their approach to reaching a decision on the coal terminal. Whatcom County must okay both a shoreline permit and a major project permit. Although a host of state and federal agencies also have permit authority over the terminal, the county’s votes are critical.


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