Old City Hall in Bellingham, Washington
Old City Hall in Bellingham, Washington now houses the Whatcom Museum. It was built in 1892 during the Victorian era, and is one of the most distinctive buildings in the city. (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The “Fourth Cor­ner” of the low­er forty-eight states will like­ly keep a 4–3 pro­gres­sive major­i­ty on the What­com Coun­ty Coun­cil, a leg­isla­tive body that recent­ly extend­ed a mora­to­ri­um on new refiner­ies, ship­ping ter­mi­nals and coal-fired pow­er plants at the Cher­ry Point indus­tri­al area north of Bellingham.

The key race, for an at-large seat, has Coun­cil Chair Bar­ry Buchanan with a sev­en per­cent lead over con­ser­v­a­tive-backed chal­lenger Kamal Bhachu, ini­tial Novem­ber 2nd elec­tion returns sug­gest. A notable pro­gres­sive on the Coun­cil, West­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty elec­tions expert Todd Dono­van, ran unopposed.

The Council’s mora­to­ri­um at Cher­ry Point has left this Belling­ham native wide-eyed at what’s hap­pened to a coun­ty once nick­named “Wide Open Whatcom.”

I can remem­ber local offi­cials grov­el­ing in the mid-1960’s when Intal­co Alu­minum was lured to build a giant smelter at Cher­ry Point, whose pol­lu­tants would quick­ly kill off the hol­ly farm owned by the fam­i­ly of a Belling­ham High classmate.

But life in the Fourth Cor­ner has changed in the years since.

When I was grow­ing up, can­di­dates for Blos­som Time Queen would tell the Belling­ham Her­ald that their ambi­tion was to get out of Bellingham.

Nowa­days, how­ev­er, Belling­ham makes mag­a­zines’ top-ten lists of the country’s most liv­able cities. The down­side: High­er hous­ing prices.

The pol­i­tics have changed as well. The 2018 and 2020 elec­tions saw Democ­rats flip two Repub­li­can-held 42nd Dis­trict seats in the state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. State Sen Doug Erick­sen, R‑Ferndale, Cambodia’s lob­by­ist in the Unit­ed states and the fos­sil fuel industry’s man in Olympia, sur­vived in 2018 by a mar­gin of forty-five votes. The Democ­rats are cer­tain to tar­get his seat next year.

What­com Coun­ty has, in the past six­ty years, been site of and near­by wit­ness to sev­er­al of Washington’s sem­i­nal land use battles.

Chica­go Bridge & Iron, in the 1980’s, want­ed to use Cher­ry Point to build oil drilling plat­forms for use in Alaska’s Beau­fort Sea. Its site was direct­ly atop where near­ly half of the state’s her­ring stock spawn, her­ring being a prin­ci­pal food for our endan­gered Chi­nook salmon. Faced with a furi­ous lob­by­ing effort Gov­er­nor John Spell­man, our last Repub­li­can chief exec­u­tive, vetoed CG&I’s plans.

The past decade saw a major strug­gle over the pro­posed Gate­way Pacif­ic coal export ter­mi­nal. Its devel­op­ers mobi­lized sup­port from busi­ness groups and labor, hired a respect­ed civic leader to front for the project, and lined up for­mer Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­gres­sion­al aides as lobbyists.

One prob­lem: Belling­ham didn’t want it, par­tic­u­lar­ly the mile-long coal trains that would pass through the city en route to Cher­ry Point. Hun­dreds lined up to get into a Belling­ham City Club lunch where Gate­way Pacif­ic was debat­ed. Seattle’s then-May­or Mike McGinn was star attrac­tion at protests against coal trains that would pass through Seat­tle, Muk­il­teo, Edmonds, Everett and Marysville.

Ulti­mate­ly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers denied a per­mit for the project, cit­ing its dis­rup­tion of the Lum­mi Nation’s exer­cise of its fish­ing rights. The Lum­mis used to be a picked-on pres­ence in Bellingham.

Now they are a region­al eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal power.

“We’re going to make this place into anoth­er Pitts­burgh,” the direc­tor of the What­com Coun­ty Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Coun­cil once boast­ed to my jour­nal­ist mother.

Not so.

Just as Pitts­burgh is a city trans­formed, so Belling­ham has changed. The pulp mill, which made waters of Belling­ham Bay look like tobac­co spit, is history.

Alcoa, own­er of the old Intal­co smelter, shut it down in the sum­mer of 2020 due to falling alu­minum prices.

The smelter had lost $24 mil­lion in the first quar­ter of the year.

The polit­i­cal fights between pro-devel­op­ment and con­ser­va­tion-mind­ed locals have last­ed for years. Once a bas­tion of crony cap­i­tal­ism, the Belling­ham Port Com­mis­sion has become scene of hot con­tests. In ear­ly results from Tues­day, pro­gres­sive-backed incum­bent Michael Shep­ard led with 55% of the vote for one seat, which con­ser­v­a­tive incum­bent (and Repub­li­can activist) Ken Bell led the pro­gres­sives’ Kel­ly Krieger by 54.6% to 44.3% for the oth­er seat.

The Belling­ham City Coun­cil, mean­while, will wel­come two Black mem­bers for the first time in its his­to­ry. Skip Williams, a retired music teacher and long­time civic activist, was run­ning unop­posed for the Ward 4 seat. Pro­gres­sive-sup­port­ed Kristi­na Michelle Martens and Russ Whid­bee were in a tight race for an at-large seat on the Coun­cil. Both are African American.

Four bal­lot ini­tia­tives were on the Belling­ham bal­lot. The city was reject­ing a bal­lot mea­sure pro­vid­ing $4 an hour haz­ard pay for hourly and gig work­ers dur­ing states of emer­gency, with employ­ers required to give good faith esti­mates of week­ly work­ing hours. A sec­ond mea­sure, requir­ing land­lords to give nine­ty days’ notice on no-cause evic­tions, was also los­ing in ini­tial returns.

Two oth­er mea­sures were run­ning ahead, albeit nar­row­ly. One would ban police from using facial tech­nol­o­gy and pre­dic­tive polic­ing tech­nol­o­gy. The oth­er would block spend­ing of any city mon­ey to block unionization.

“Wide Open What­com” has giv­en way to very wide-open politics.

When I was a kid, city pol­i­tics were dom­i­nat­ed by a group of indus­tri­al­ists and busi­ness folk known as the “Mill Street Mafia.”

Pulp mill brass had a lord­ly presence.

The Puget Sound Pulp & Tim­ber Com­pa­ny wrote the Belling­ham Cham­ber of Com­merce state­ment oppos­ing a Glac­i­er Peak Wilder­ness Area in the Cas­cades. There was even an abortive move to wel­come a move north by the Navy’s infa­mous Port Chica­go ammu­ni­tion dump from its haz­ardous Bay Area home.

The city and coun­ty have acquired a sense and val­ue of place. The Gate­way Pacif­ic lob­by was astound­ed at the City Club turnout, and that both can­di­dates for May­or of Belling­ham were hos­tile to the gigan­tic coal export terminal.

I was very proud of the old home­town that day.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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