GOP Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale faces Pinky Vargas, a Bellingham city councilwoman and Democrat, in the Whatcom County's 42nd Legislative District.

Share story

It’s been a decade since Whatcom County’s 42nd Legislative District sent a Democrat to the Washington Legislature — and four years since Democrats mounted an all-out effort to unseat GOP Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale.

Ericksen, an early supporter of Donald Trump’s political ambitions, is campaigning this year on his work to protect the district’s farms, oil refineries and an aluminum smelter. In an interview, he cited bills and budget items over the years to keep the smelter viable, including provisions he secured for worker training.

Ericksen pointed to a Philips 66 statement announcing a new renewable diesel facility adjacent its refinery, saying, “I have eight years in the Senate of incredible success.”

But like many other places on the American map, the 42nd District — home to picturesque mountains and back roads, swaths of farmland, and part of the city of Bellingham — has become a flashpoint in the Nov. 6 general elections.

Democratic voters turned out in force for the August primaries. The results left Ericksen and both GOP state House members — Luanne Van Werven and Vincent Buys — trailing their challengers.

Democrats have cheered those results, particularly Ericksen’s. Over the years, they’ve criticized his skepticism of climate change, his efforts to roll back protections for transgender people and his temporary service in the Trump administration for the Environmental Protection Agency, during which he split his time between Olympia and Washington, D.C.

Most recently, Ericksen, along with Buys, drew scrutiny for their trip to Cambodia this summer to observe elections that were widely condemned as a sham.

Like the effort to dislodge Ericksen that fizzled in 2014, climate change again has taken a prominent role in the campaign. This year, voters will decide on Initiative 1631, a proposed statewide carbon fee aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions linked to climate change.

Phillips 66 and BP — the district’s other refinery — are the top two donors in the record-breaking campaign to stop I-1631. Ericksen has been a vocal critic of efforts to implement carbon pricing. Van Werven and Buys also oppose the initiative.

Pinky Vargas, the Bellingham city council woman challenging Ericksen, and both Democratic House challengers support the initiative.

While Vargas wants to help the refineries along the way, “I believe we absolutely need to transition away from fossil fuels, and the only way we can do that is begin to invest in more renewable energy,” she said.

A senior account manager at Puget Sound Energy, Vargas wants to focus on expanding early childhood education and making Washington’s tax system more progressive. The state’s dependence on property taxes and sales taxes, she said, is “a big monster that we need to tackle.”

Sharon Shewmake, a Western Washington University professor running against Buys, has criticized the representative for his dismissal of the effects of climate change.

“I think he’s really bad at science,” said Shewmake, whose campaign is also focused on expanding early childhood education.

Buys didn’t respond to inquiries this week about his campaign.

First elected in 2014, Van Werven touts her work on the House Higher Education Committee, including a successful bill to increase the transparency of costs for community and technical college course materials.

If re-elected, Van Werven said she wants to reduce property taxes, lower health-care insurance costs and protect free speech on college campuses. She faces a first-time candidate, Justin Boneau, whom Van Werven describes as “a very nice young man, but he does not have the experience or qualifications to serve at this level.”

A supervisor for a state Department of Ecology litter-cleanup crew, Boneau has framed his campaign around boosting the working class by expanding affordable housing and preschool. Though he supports I-1631, Boneau acknowledged that the refineries offer good-paying jobs, and he wants to keep them viable as long as possible.

“There’s going to be a day that we’re going to pull that last barrel of oil out of the earth,” he said. “And I want that last barrel to be refined in Whatcom County.”

Ericksen this week defended his visit to Cambodia this summer to observe elections, saying he didn’t accept an offer of reimbursement to cover his travel costs.

He cheered the recent announcement by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow the resumption of U.S. military-led missions to seek out the remains of Americans who went missing in action during the Vietnam War.

Hun Sen announced the initiative in a letter to Ericksen and Buys, following an appeal from the two lawmakers.

“You get that reactivated, I think it’s a big step in the right direction,” said Ericksen.