Big money influences two regional races as candidates debate fossil fuels, land use | KNKX

Big money influences two regional races as candidates debate fossil fuels, land use

Nov 1, 2019

Weeks after thousands of young people stormed the streets to demand more action on climate change, the issue is shaping campaigns across the nation.

That wave is rippling through two races in Western Washington — and big money is flowing in, both for and against candidates who are outspoken about the need to rein in use of fossil fuels.

Among them are two open seats on Tacoma’s Port Commission. Together, the candidates in these races have attracted more campaign contributions for the four candidates running this year than at any time in the past decade – more than $260,000.  

And according the Public Disclosure Commission, independent expenditures from political action committees in these races totals more than $100,000 — about five times as much as just two years ago.  

The race that provides the clearest contrast here is the one for Position 5. The seat is being vacated by longtime commissioner Clare Petrich, who is retiring after six terms. The two candidates vying for her open seat are Kristin Ang and Dave Bryant.

CLASHING OVER LNG 

Ang is a 40-year-old bi-lingual Filipino-American lawyer specializing in international business, who narrowly lost her first port commission bid in 2017. Her campaign attracted a rare endorsement from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which has land in the port and fiercely opposes the controversial development of a plant to make and store liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

Ang is the only one of the four candidates running for port commissioner who has been outspoken in her opposition to it, despite, she says, getting a lot of advice to the contrary. The LNG facility is almost finished, but still lacks a final permit, and is the subject of much litigation. Ang says she was told talking about it would be “political suicide.”

“I think that’s wrong,” she told KNKX, following a recent candidate forum with Tacoma’s Sunrise Rotary. “I think as a commissioner you should be having these discussions out in public. And in terms of LNG, it is not better for our climate. That is why I have taken that stance. And also, it has further fractured relationships with the tribe and our community.”

Kristin Ang (L) and Dave Bryant (R) at the Sunrise Rotary port candidates' forum in Tacoma on October 23, 2019.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX

Her opponent disagrees. Dave Bryant, 69, is a veteran who touts his experience as a former fighter pilot and Navy commander, which he says is relevant to the port. He now works in technology for Boeing.

Bryant — who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in last year’s primary — says LNG in Tacoma will represent a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, because the gas to be liquefied there is sourced from Canada. It echoes the argument made by Puget Sound Energy and Tote Maritime, the companies behind the project.

Bryant also says opposing LNG this late in the game is bad for business.

“When you start backing away from commitments to support the investment that shipper have put into their ships, that is going to have the shippers the ship owners start looking with a jaundiced eye – you know – should we be investing in Tacoma? Should we be counting on Tacoma if they’re going to treat ship owners like that,” he said.

Bryant says Ang is a threat to jobs. He says he’ll put his ports and technology experience to work as shipping companies transition away from fossil fuels.

Ang says she’s the pro-business candidate who will bring a fresh perspective and a focus on outreach to spur innovation. Her campaign attracted the single largest PAC contribution in the port of Tacoma contests— $44,000 from the Environmental Leadership Council.  

BIG OIL IN WHATCOM COUNTY

Another race centered on climate politics is Whatcom County executive, a seat being vacated by incumbent Jack Louws, who is retiring after two terms.  

The county seat is in Bellingham, and its jurisdiction extends north to the Canadian border and east past North Cascades National Park. The county is a mix of urban progressive and rural conservative, and is home to two of the state’s five oil refineries.

Louws, a conservative, has generated a lot of election spending amid his retirement. Whatcom County has a strong executive system. Currently, progressives hold the council majority. But while they have been setting a lot of policy, they're having trouble implementing those policies — they  need executive support.

REFINERY REGULATION

This election pits one of the current progressives on the council, Satpal Sidhu, against Tony Larson, a conservative who is endorsed by the incumbent.

The candidates for Whatcom County Executive during a debate put on by the Bellingham City Club in September 2019.

At the heart of their differences is the issue of how much to regulate oil refineries. At a recent candidate forum held by the Bellingham City Club, the moderator’s first question addressed the future of the Cherry Point Industrial Area, north of Bellingham.

Oil refineries provide some of the county’s best jobs. Sidhu is part of the majority on the current council that passed a series of emergency moratoriums on new fossil fuel developments. He is pressing for more oversight. Larson says that’s bad policy that quashes new opportunities, such as biofuels.

Big oil has big money for politics — even in a small race like this one. According to the PDC website, the candidates in this race are almost evenly matched with cash contributions of almost $160,000 each.

But there's also an independent political action committee called Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington that is spending heavily in this race against Sidhu. It has raised more than $120,000 dollars — $70,000 of which came in last Friday. The source? Phillips 66, one of the refinery owners in the county.

To hear more about these local elections in which climate politics are on full display, listen to the conversation above.