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

A crowd celebrates with progressive candidates for the Whatcom County Council. Credit: 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.

“We talked about quality of life, taking an in-depth look (at the terminal),” Weimer told Crosscut, “and that includes health, transportation and even climate change; we spoke a lot about that.” The losing slate tended to take a narrower view of the role of the county in examining the terminal.

No one should assume, however, that Tuesday’s voting is the end of Gateway Pacific. At least two years of environmental studies will precede permit decisions, and SSA Marine could alter its proposal or agree to mitigate damages from construction and operation of the project. The Lummi Nation strenuously opposes the project, which it says impinges on lands sacred to their ancestors.

In a separate vote Tuesday, the Lummis re-elected tribal leaders who have been active in opposition to the terminal. Lummi talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, another key permitting agency, are vital to the project.

In the view of several observers, Weimer’s decision to seek a third term on the council may have been critical to the final outcome. A solid progressive who was executive director of ReSources for 13 years, Weimer told supporters in 2012 that he had no interest in continuing to serve as a minority vote with a 4-3 and sometimes 5-2 conservative majority. He pondered the decision until about March, Weimer told Crosscut, finally announcing in April.

Weimer’s decision was “huge,” says Cechovic, because of his solid record both as a progressive and as a proven vote-getter. Mann and Browne were already on board for campaigns, and WCV helped recruit Buchanan to fill the slate. Over the ensuing months, the four developed a synergism unusual in political campaigns. Their opponents ran independent campaigns but shared the same endorsements, including the Republican label during a bad time for the GOP.

Like most counties split between a liberal central city and conservative hinterland, Whatcom is difficult to predict, particularly in small-turnout, off-year voting. The decision by progressives to “talk to our base” was borne out with late polls showing a narrow margin for the entire four-man slate. WCV rushed in an additional dozen paid canvassers, and it was not unusual for them to overlap in precincts running along Bellingham Bay and the railroad tracks that would lead to Cherry Point.

A preliminary look at voting patterns in the closest of the four contests, Browne vs. Knutzen, shows Browne with margins up to 6-to-1 in precincts near the rail lines in South Bellingham and Fairhaven, and around Western Washington University, where students organized a major campaign. Knutzen, by contrast, was winning margins of 3-to-1 or better in Lynden and surrounding rural areas in the northern part of the county.

Observers generally agree that the energy level of the progressives was higher, and this was helped by a healthy financial edge, not the norm for Democratic candidates in the county. The winning slate raised $631,034, including independent cash from WCV; the losing slate raised $358,376, including financing from coal, rail and terminal corporations. Whatcom County’s first million-dollar election saw 43 percent of the winners’ money coming from WCV; 55 percent of the losing slate’s money came from corporations or individuals associated with coal or the terminal.

The county may run the same drill in 2015; it is unlikely that the permit decisions will be made before campaigns are cranked up for the three remaining council seats. Back in 2011, Washington Conservation Voters spent $23,250 against Councilman Sam Crawford, leader of the council’s conservative bloc. Crawford, who maintained neutrality on the coal port, won by only 468 votes against political newcomer Christina Maginnis. Pete Kremen, longtime county executive who switched to the council in 2011 with WCV support, is considered “soft” on the export terminal by some progressives, but has sided with them on several environmental votes. Barbara Brenner, a council member since 1992, is unpredictable but generally sides with conservatives. She won handily in 2011.

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