In 2017, the race for an open seat on the Vancouver port commission became one of the most expensive elections in recent state history, with over a million dollars flowing into the contest. But with a stroke of a pen, Gov. Jay Inslee ensured that port races won’t again become so costly.
Just in time for the 2019 election for Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners, Inslee signed House Bill 1375 on Tuesday. The bill is intended to bring greater uniformity to contribution caps on port commission races. Under current law, port races are only subject to contribution limits if they serve more than 200,000 registered voters. Of the state’s 75 ports, only the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are subject to the limitations.
The bill, which goes into effect 90 days after the Legislature’s April 28 adjournment, would impose the same limit at ports of all sizes. The allowable amount of contributions will be calculated depending on the number of registered voters and on who is making the donation.
State political parties will be allowed to contribute $1 per registered voter to a port commission candidate, while local parties will be able to donate up to 50 cents per registered voter. Individuals, unions, businesses and other political committees will be able to contribute up to $2,000 per election to a port commission candidate, according to staff reports.
According to Clark County Elections, there are 182,773 registered voters in the Vancouver port district.
The 2017 Vancouver port race pitted Don Orange, an auto-repair shop owner, against local businessman Kris Greene. The race became largely a referendum on establishing a large crude-by-rail oil terminal at the port.
“The issue was that one industry contributed enormous sums of money to one campaign in the hopes it could turn downtown Vancouver into the largest oil terminal on the West Coast and possibly in the United States,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, a Vancouver Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a press statement. “The community was torn apart, and people were appalled at how much money was spent. This bill is the fix we need to ensure that never happens again.”
During the campaign, Greene indicated he’d let the process play out if elected, and money from Vancouver Energy, the company behind the terminal, poured into his campaign. Orange opposed the terminal and said he’d vote to end the company’s lease. He relied heavily on support from the Washington Conservation Voters to prevail with nearly 65 percent of the vote.
“We just about got swamped,” said Orange of the struggle to get his message out against a better-funded opponent. He said that he supported the bill and traveled to Olympia to speak in favor of it.
“I’d love to see money completely out of politics, but I’m not holding my breath,” he added.
In a statement, Wylie said the bill didn’t make a legislative cutoff last session and that getting it passed this time was a priority because of the upcoming port race. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver; Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver; Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver and Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver.
The bill had the backing of the Washington Public Ports Association, the League of Women Voters, the Public Disclosure Commission and the ACLU of Washington. It passed the House unanimously and in the Senate on a 47-0 vote.