If you judge this year’s Port of Vancouver commissioner election by the previous two, it’s a real snoozer.
Eric LaBrant’s victory over Lisa Ross in 2015, and Don Orange’s win over Kris Greene in 2017 were dominated by the since-rejected plan to build the nation’s largest rail-to-marine oil terminal at the port.
In comparison, this year’s District 3 matchup between Dan Barnes and Jack Burkman is so tame that both candidates wonder if voters are paying much attention.
“Many of the people don’t know what the port is,” Barnes said, recounting his experience ringing doorbells.
“It’s a down-ballot race,” Burkman said. “I’m on page 122 of the voters’ pamphlet.”
Burkman is the more politically seasoned of the two candidates after two stints totaling 12 years on the Vancouver City Council, plus service on a number of boards and commissions, including 10 years on Clark College’s Board of Trustees.
Barnes, who described himself as a “political newbie” in the voters’ pamphlet, is portraying himself as an outsider who will ask a lot of questions and shake up a “very passive” port commission.
Barnes, when asked if that approach resonates with voters, replied: “The people who don’t like downtown, who don’t like the city council, they are all for it.”
Burkman countered that experience does matter — both his work in local government and as a retired research and development manager for Hewlett-Packard Co. Experience is part of why he has more than 200 endorsements, he said.
“I think that is indicative of broad based support that should translate into votes,” Burkman said. “Having said that, politics is an unpredictable game.”
The winner of the Nov. 5 election will succeed Jerry Oliver who, after 12 years in office, opted not to run for re-election. Port commissioners are elected to six-year terms as nonpartisan decision-makers. They earn a $9,600 annual salary.
The amount of money spent by the two candidates barely exceeds $24,000, a stark contrast to the more than $1 million that poured into the Orange-Greene race two years ago. The amount was so staggering that the Washington Legislature passed a law making all port districts subject to contribution limits that previously applied only to those with more than 200,000 registered voters.
Both candidates are looking beyond the oil terminal battle. Both support the port’s plans to redevelop Terminal 1, 10 acres of waterfront property west of the Interstate 5 Bridge where the port plans to build a hotel, offices, a public marketplace and other amenities.
Burkman said the port has a huge economic effect on the region and needs to be an advocate for solving freight challenges.
“When I talk with businesses, the biggest concern they have is what’s happening with the transportation system, and do they have access to good employees who want to live here,” he said.
Barnes agreed the port must remain a strong economic player, but he rapped Burkman for wanting to bring more high tech and biotech jobs, instead of heavy industry, to port sites.
“I think a port should be a port,” Barnes said. “A million dollars of (computer) chips fits into a suitcase. A million dollars of wheat should be on a ship.”
Burkman said job growth at the port has been primarily with its industrial tenants.
“I am looking to the future,” he said. “Trying to invest in old technologies is a way to lower wages.”
The two candidates also differ over property taxes.
Four years ago, the port agreed to donate 541 acres to Columbia Land Trust and provide the trust with $7.5 million so the port could move forward with industrial and marine development on 450 acres at its Columbia Gateway site.
Barnes said the final $1.5 million payment will be made in May 2020. He said he has talked with port officials and isn’t aware of any deferred maintenance or other outstanding needs, so he advocates reducing property taxes by $1.5 million.
Burkman said the port has long-term needs, including adding fill to the Columbia Gateway property and paying for redevelopment at Terminal 1.
“I believe we have a philosophical difference,” Burkman said. “He looks to the present, and I look to the future.”
Two port commissioners, LaBrant and Orange, have endorsed Burkman. Oliver, the third commissioner, said he has not publicly endorsed Barnes, but he is supporting his candidacy.
Barnes said voters should be concerned about “group think.”
“You get on a board and very quickly you begin to identify with the organization rather than the people who put you on the board,” he said. “You get coopered. You get seduced by the organization.”
Barnes said it was “improper” for the two commissioners to endorse a candidate who could join them on the port commission. Oliver’s support is different, he said, because he is stepping down from the commission.
“It puzzles me (LaBrant and Orange) didn’t see that as improper because now Jack owes them something,” he said.
Burkman scoffed at that suggestion.
“I don’t owe them anything,” he said. “I don’t owe over 200 people who endorsed me.”
“There is a theme here that really troubles me,” he said. “(Barnes) seems to believe politics is a game of being bought and paid. I don’t see it that way.”
Despite campaign-related friction, both men say their differences are not personal. Burkman said the two live only three blocks apart.
“There’s no bad blood there,” he said. “My family and his family go to the same church and have for a very long time. That’s how our kids know each other.”