There is an old axiom, as reflected in a popular blog at columbian.com, that all politics is local. Yet while the blog remains entertaining and informative as it focuses on the inner workings of Clark County and its many cities, the notion that all politics is local seems rather anachronistic.These days, all politics can be national, with arguments placed before voters frequently receiving attention from across the country. Oh, it’s not the attention that is worrisome, it’s the money that accompanies such attention as special-interest groups attempt to impact even the seemingly smallest of races.
Take the seats up for grabs this election cycle on the Whatcom County Council. Four of the seven seats on the council are being contested, and that has influence-peddlers digging deep into their cavernous pockets.
A proposed $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal outside Bellingham would export as much as 48 million tons of coal a year from Montana and Wyoming to Asia, meaning that Whatcom County voters are viewing this election as a referendum on coal exports. A similar proposal would build Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview, bringing trains through Vancouver, but the fluid nature of the Whatcom County Council is what has drawn big money to a small county of about 200,000 people.
According to the Associated Press, an environmental political action committee, financed in large part by a California billionaire, has given $224,000 to support candidates it perceives as being opposed to the coal terminal; coal interests, meanwhile, have donated more than $100,000 to a conservative Whatcom County group. “It’s just really unheard of,” Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, told AP about the amount of money being spent on the races.
Not that Whatcom County is alone in attracting a lot of attention. Consider the race for a vacated seat in the state Senate to represent the 26th Legislative District, which is on the Kitsap Peninsula. In an effort to sway the makeup of the Senate, more than $2.5 million has flowed into that contest, including out-of-state contributions. This year’s Senate was ruled by a majority caucus made up of 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats, but next year at least half the seats will be up for election, and that guarantees an even more expensive free-for-all in a quest for control of the legislative body.
While candidates can attract copious amounts of money from would-be kingmakers, they can’t compare with ballot measures in terms of financing. Opponents of Initiative 522, which would require labeling for foods containing genetically modified organisms, have contributed more than $17 million in an effort to defeat the initiative; supporters have raised more than $7 million. If I-522 passes, Washington will become the first state in the nation to require such labeling, and that has activists from across the nation on both sides of the issue contributing to the effort. The vote will be seen as a harbinger of what is coming in other states.
In the end, there’s no such thing as local politics these days. Any race of consequence, be it for elected office or a ballot measure, is likely to draw national attention, and that calls for voters to be better informed than ever before. We urge citizens to be armed with knowledge about where candidates and advocates are receiving their financing from, and such information can be found on the Internet (www.pdc.wa.gov). All too often in politics, the race goes not to the swift or the wise, but to the well-heeled, and an informed electorate is the best defense against that.