Brendon Cechovic thinks the two most important elections in the nation this November are the race for governor of Virginia and the battle for control of the Whatcom County Council.
“I know it sounds crazy, but that’s our assessment,” he said.
Cechovic is executive director of the Washington Conservation Voters, the biggest of three political groups that have helped pump more than $1 million into races for four council seats that pay an annual salary of $21,000 and govern a county of 201,000.
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The money has flowed because the council may someday — in two years, or more — play a role in determining whether to approve an export facility that could ship as much as 48 million tons of Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia.
The proposed terminal, which would be the largest of its kind on the West Coast, has captivated the region and triggered what some call the biggest environmental fight here in recent memory.
Federal and state government officials are reviewing the proposal, but supporters and opponents acknowledge that little Whatcom County could stop it all.
The proposal is believed to be favored by four, and maybe five, of the seven members of the nonpartisan council. So the environmentalists are trying to flip one or two seats, and the coal companies are trying to stop them.
Four incumbents are up for re-election; two are believed to support the proposal, and two are believed to oppose it.
The word “believed” is necessary because of one more quirk in this unusual election: In largely rural Whatcom County, council members have quasi-judicial duties and are supposed to remain impartial about matters that might come before them in the future.
So the candidates have avoided giving specific opinions about the coal terminal, instead offering code words like “proven environmental values” and “committed to creating jobs.”
The political groups have filled in the rest through colorful mailers, billboards, radio pieces and even TV advertising.
The anti-coal forces have so far raised and spent more — some $400,000, including from California billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. The other side has received more than $150,000 from funders like Cloud Peak Energy and Global Coal Sales.
The candidates themselves have also raised much more than usual.
Much of the money has gone through vaguely named groups like “Whatcom Wins,” “Save Whatcom” and “Whatcom First” — transfers that have prompted at least two complaints to the Public Disclosure Commission. Neither is expected to be resolved before the Nov. 5 election.
One thing is sure to happen before the election, with each side still equipped with at least $150,000: a lot more campaign advertising.
“I don’t even know how you could spend that much money here in that amount of time,” said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Bellingham’s Western Washington University. “It’s never been done before.”
The events center at the Silver Reef Casino on Wednesday night hosted the type of campaign forum that would only arise in a small community like Whatcom County, an area politically split between the liberal college town of Bellingham and the conservative lands that surround it.
In an airy room a few slot machines from the poker tables, the County Council candidates sat with other local political aspirants to answer questions from Lummi Nation members over green beans, chicken wings and apple crisps.
Coal trains rarely came up.
Incumbent Ken Mann clutched his 3-year-old son and talked about county-tribe communication. His opponent, Ben Elenbaas, wore a white T-shirt and said the county must protect farmers from overregulation.
Council Chair Kathy Kershner emphasized her work on Lake Whatcom property rights. Her opponent, Barry Buchanan, backed a smaller version of the new county jail.
These are the real issues of the election, Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen said.
“If (the coal proposal) even comes before the council, it’ll be two or three years,” he said. “There are a lot of issues that will be considered before that.”
Nevertheless, it was the proposal that the casino crowd wanted to talk about.
“For me, personally, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” said Charlie Wilson, a 56-year-old commercial fisherman.
“I’m against it,” interrupted his wife, Joni Wilson.
Similar conversations are taking place across the Pacific Northwest, as the proposed expansion of coal exports has prompted thousands of public comments and divided often-allied labor and environmental groups.
The proposed terminal outside Bellingham, at Cherry Point, is one of three proposed facilities in the region. The others would be in Longview and Boardman, Ore.
The proposals have cheered job-hungry blue-collar workers but alarmed environmentalists because of how burning coal affects the climate.
Environmental groups have pledged to fight the proposals at every step, from determining the scope of environmental-impact studies to local permitting decisions.
The latter category led them to the Whatcom County Council elections.
Cechovic’s Washington Conservation Voters coordinated the effort, starting by helping to recruit challengers Buchanan and Rud Browne. The group also endorsed incumbents Mann and Carl Weimer.
It has so far spent $242,000 on behalf of the quartet, with more to come. The money has largely gone to hiring at least a dozen paid canvassers.
The Whatcom Democrats, meanwhile, rented a 2,587-square-foot office to focus on promoting the same four candidates. The special effort, called “Whatcom Wins,” has raised $152,000 and sent dozens of mailers.
The anti-coal forces had expected to face an onslaught of money from the coal companies involved in the proposal.
Instead, they met mostly muted opposition — until last week, when a local group called “Save Whatcom” announced it had gotten about $150,000 from coal companies and individual donors to back incumbents Kershner and Bill Knutzen and challengers Elenbaas and Michelle Luke.
Save Whatcom formed in August in response to the coal-terminal issue. Spokeswoman Kris Halterman said the group plans to spend the money on mailers, robocalls and radio advertisements.
The message, Halterman said, is that voters should “support the candidates that will support jobs and business growth in the private sector for Whatcom County.”
Neither side has mentioned coal much in the advertising, although the Democrats put an insert in the Western Washington University student newspaper with a photo of a long train and a simple message: “You have the power …”
The student vote could be crucial to the outcome, both sides said.
But nobody interviewed for this story wanted to predict what that outcome would be. After all, four years ago, the four incumbents won by a combined 6,445 votes — with one winning by 307.
“I think we’ve got some close races again,” said Charlie Crabtree, chairman of the Whatcom County Republican Party. “I think it’s going to be a late Tuesday night.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal