So we had an election: a few comments - Salish Current
November 15, 2023
So we had an election: a few comments
Dan Raas

… and vote they did in Whatcom County, with the state’s highest turnout in this year’s general election. With the results in, a seasoned local political analyst looks at what the results suggest about campaign styles and voting trends. (Salish Current photo)

November 15, 2023
So we had an election: a few comments
Dan Raas

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Disclaimer: This analysis is my own and I’ve not consulted, nor am I speaking for, any of the persons or groups with whom I may be identified. The only input is from the editorial staff of the Salish Current.

What can we learn from county executive’s, the sheriff’s, the Bellingham mayoral, the county council at-large races and the jail initiative?

About half (50.6%) our voters have spoken. This turnout was number one in the state as of Nov. 13, edging out voting giants Garfield (48.91%, Nov. 9) and Columbia (48.93%, Nov. 7) counties. 

County Executive Satpal Sidhu (58%) was challenged by businessperson Dan Purdy (42%). Mayor Seth Fleetwood (46%) faced tech and nonprofit executive Kim Lund (53%). Why did Satpal prevail and Seth lose? 

Satpal ran on the theme “I’m a collaborator … I’ve successfully worked with the county council, seven mayors and their councils, two tribes, the port and the PUD. I’ve had this balance over my years in business, academia and government.”

Dan’s major talking point was a tired conservative trope: “Government is broken and paralyzed by too many chefs in the kitchen. I will use my management skills as CEO to solve all of our problems, in particular housing and crime.” 

Hasn’t worked since Herbert Hoover. Satpal had a pretty good record and few enemies. You can’t throw out an incumbent without challenging their performance. Dan didn’t and he didn’t explain how his program, if he had one, would be better than Satpal’s.

The at-large county council race provides another data point: Jon Scanlon (57%) v. Hannah Ordos (43%). While each is a first-time candidate, Jon has a history working for elected officials in policy positions and spending time in the electoral trenches. Hannah had no similar experience and it showed. Furthermore, Jon had well-researched ideas about where the county should go and Hannah didn’t. At the Bellingham City Club forum, Jon presented as well-prepared to lead and Hannah appeared as a North County native who wanted to help run the county. Being raised here used to be a requirement for election. Not any more,

Donnell “Tank” Tanksley (52%) bested Doug Chadwick (48%) for sheriff. Tank ran as Blaine Chief of Police and on his life as a law enforcement leader. Tank characterized the race as running against Doug and Bill Elfo, the retiring sheriff. Doug embraced that characterization, emphasizing his 29 years of service as a Whatcom County deputy. But Doug misjudged the visceral dislike of Bill Elfo among younger and Bellingham voters. This was a “change election” and most voters wanted someone who was neither Doug nor Bill. 

Campaigning also makes a difference. Satpal, Jon and Tank were out meeting the people at every chance, especially in Bellingham. The county as a whole has a Democratic lean these days, especially greater Bellingham. Satpal, Jon and Tank correctly realized that their tribal and Democratic endorsements were important. 

Dan, Hannah and Doug correctly judged the city as unlikely to have a large number of friendly or at least persuadable voters and didn’t engage. You can’t win if you don’t campaign. 

Seth had a record that Kim highlighted. Seth is every progressive’s dream legislator: he knows the issues and ably articulates good solutions. But a winning percentage of the voters said he wasn’t a competent executive. In particular, advocates for the homeless panned his perceived dithering regarding the encampment in front of City Hall and that soured his relationship with more left-leaning voters. Kim contrasted her corporate and nonprofit experience. The voters were willing to take a chance on Kim. 

So what happened with the jail (63%-37%)? 

In 2015 and 2017 a tax for a similar jail was rejected. Not this time. The pro-Proposition 4 forces ran a great campaign, starting well before the county council put Prop. 4 on the ballot. In addition to various studies conducted, they ran a campaign focusing almost exclusively on the message “We really need a new jail.” Satpal and a few other supporters emphasized the behavioral health facilities and services that would also be part of the jail package, but the argument always got back to “We really need a new jail.” And they had enough money to blanket the county with literature. 

Reasons to oppose Prop. 4 were many but not needing a new jail was not among them. A good “NO” campaign with a theme of “We need a new jail, but not this new jail,” might have been successful. But the money to reach the voters came very late, and many of the opponents, rather than emphasizing the shortcomings of Prop. 4, instead litigated why the present incarceration system needed to be overhauled. This was not the question before the voters.

Going forward, conservative candidates need to get better at campaigning and get new messages if they want to win. The tide is against their old sloganeering. Whatcom County overall has turned light blue and the trend is in that direction. 

— Contributed by Dan Raas

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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