County Council Election Results Show No Love For Coal

Nov 7, 2013

It was called "the obscure county election that could change the planet". The Whatcom County Council election has been in the spotlight this fall because the council will eventually decide whether to approve or deny some key permits for the largest coal export terminal on the West coast.

There were 4 open seats on the 7-member Whatcom county council. Candidates weren’t supposed to say whether they would vote for or against the Gateway Pacific Terminal because they’ll eventually serve as nonpartisan decision-makers in the permitting process. But the four candidates who were backed by democrats and environmentalists – and who are believed to be opposed to coal exports - took all four of the open seats. Coal was a central issue in this election, says Todd Donovan. He’s a political science professor at Western Washington University.

Donovan: “I don’t think 4 out of 4 would have won without coal as that crystalizing issue. 8:34 Those four candidates rode that coal issue very effectively in mobilizing their supporters and in raising money.”

And raise money they did.

Donovan: “It is pretty stunning to see the environmental side of elections here out spend the pro development side 2-1.”

A PAC known as SaveWhatcom was formed later on in the election season with a majority of it’s funding from coal and terminal companies. Kris Halterman is the leader of the PAC. She says this election wasn’t about coal, but her opponents used that issue to their fiscal advantage.

Halterman: “The money bought the election and painted a picture of the candidates that we supported as being that they would vote for coal when what they would do was they would stand up and fight for the residents and community and the property owners of Whatcom County.”

The environmentalists and democrats out spent the pro-development and republican groups in this election. Some of that money went to fund a massive ground campaign. The Whatcom Democratic party called more than 45,000 voters and knocked on 26,000 doors in the county. More than 3,000 students at Western Washington University registered to vote for this election. Those grassroots efforts were mainly galvanized by the prospect of the coal terminal, says Brendon Cechovic. He’s the executive director of Washington Conservation Voters. The group spent more than 330,000 on the county council election, with backing from California billionaire Tom Steyer. And Cechovic says the results send a clear message.

Cechovic: “Look, we have four candidates who just lost their jobs because they supported coal exports in the Northwest so if I was an elected official anywhere in the state I would pick my head up and notice that.”

The county council won’t vote on the permits for the dock at Cherry Point for at least another two years. In the mean time they’ll be weighing in on things like slaughterhouse zoning regulations, growth management and the local jail.

Copyright 2013 KUOW