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SeaTac, WA
SeaTac, WA

If you pride yourself on following politics closely, you probably know there's a lot going on in next week's election beyond the usual New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, neither of which looks very dramatic at this point. There are important state legislative races in the Virginia House and the Washington Senate, two chambers that the Democrats would like to flip (and races in which Daily Kos has gotten involved). There are big-city mayoral races, ranging from New York City to Tulsa, and, in states that allow them, ballot measures aplenty, among which the highest-profile include casino gambling in New York, genetically modified food labeling in Washington, and reverse mortgages in Texas.

What's that, you say? You know about all those races, and you want to get even further down in the weeds? Well, here are two races you probably haven't heard about but should, in two Washington state jurisdictions so small you probably haven't heard of them either (Whatcom County has 201,000 people, while the city of SeaTac has only 27,000 residents). And yet, these are races with true national implications: One is a push to implement a first-in-the-nation $15 minimum wage, while the other is a flashpoint in the fight against climate change.

SeaTac, Washington, has a funny-sounding name, but that's because it shares a name with its biggest employer: the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. If you factor in the many surrounding hotels, eateries, car rental lots and similar businesses, it's one of the metropolitan area's major employment hubs, and many of those jobs are non-union, service-industry jobs that don't pay very well. Even the well-paying jobs that are inside the airport aren't that secure or lucrative: for instance, in 2005 Alaska Airlines (whose hub is in Seattle) replaced 472 unionized baggage handlers with contract workers.

The proposed ballot measure in SeaTac—a blue-collar suburb that's one of Washington's most diverse communities, where one in six residents lives in poverty—would give a boost to many of those employees. Although it exempts many small employers, airport and hotel employees would be subject to a minimum wage of $15 per hour. The same measure would also give paid sick days to those same employees. You can probably figure out the implications: this kind of change isn't going to happen through gridlocked Congress and probably not even through state legislatures, but it can be done at the local level—and if these changes can be implemented here without, as some fear, significantly raising costs or unemployment, then it can be an object lesson for larger jurisdictions that it works.

There's more over the fold ...

The state of Washington already has the nation's highest minimum wage, at $9.19 per hour, in contrast to the national rate of $7.25. (Lest you think that the Seattle area is ground zero for minimum-wage-based job-killing, bear in mind that the Seattle metropolitan area's unemployment rate fell as low as 4.7 percent in the summer of 2013.) Like most major cities, though, the cost of living in the Seattle area is high (with an average rent of $1,190), so that $9.19 doesn't go terribly far.

Seattle itself may hit the $15 minimum wage mark at some point as well: It's been a particular focus for the fast food strikes that have popped up around the country, and both of the city's mayoral candidates in this year's election have said they're on board with a $15 wage as a goal, with the major question being how slowly to step up to it. But the city of SeaTac, with its relatively small electorate that can be reached primarily through the ground game, is being used as something of a testing ground for further fights in bigger cities.

Service employee unions like the SEIU and UNITE HERE were the main force behind the signature-gathering effort to get the referendum on the ballot, and also providing much of the on-the-ground manpower. Naturally, there's well-funded opposition from business interests, starting with $50,000 from the National Restaurant Association. Salon also reports donations passing from the Koch brothers-linked Donors Trust to other local conservative organizations, like the Freedom Foundation, that are fighting the initiative.

Interestingly, conservative approach to fighting the measure appears to be to play to local residents' fears of other, better-qualified persons from elsewhere in the metropolitan area swooping in and taking the jobs if they pay better:

“SeaTac workers – especially young people – will have a harder time finding local employment as more experienced, qualified outsiders converge on our city to compete for these jobs.”
You'd think that employers might be glad, instead, to get those higher-skilled workers that they're always complaining they can't find, and who stay longer and generate less turnover ... but apparently not.

No polls concerning the ballot measure have been shared, so it's hard to gauge how likely it is to pass (and considering how small the pool of likely voters is, polls may not even have been taken). But, as with any election where there aren't a lot of participants and it'll be determined by the most enthused voters, turnout is key:

“I think it’s anybody’s guess at this point.” Rolf said the result will turn on turnout: “We’ll win this election if 7,000 people turn out to vote. If 3,500 people turn out to vote, we’re gonna lose.”
Coal train
Coal train

Whatcom County is the county in the nation's very northwest corner, just below Vancouver, Canada; it has a lot of undeveloped frontage on Puget Sound, and, factoring in the curvature of the earth, it's the closest point in the Lower 48 states to east Asia. With that in mind, it's the site of a proposed $600 million port, the Gateway Pacific Terminal. In the past, in the Northwest's shipping terminals, you'll see piles of raw logs or elevators full of wheat waiting to get loaded on Asia-bound ships, but this new port has a wrinkle: It's oriented toward shipping coal.

The coal isn't mined in the Northwest—it would be shipping over from Wyoming by train—but it's part of a broader trend: the transition of America to a net energy exporter, and the rapid growth in China leading to vast new demands for energy. The coal shipped through the terminal will amount to 48 million tons per year, enough to run 15 to 20 coal-fired plants in China per year. Even as the United States uses less coal and moves more toward renewable energy sources, it doesn't really matter, so long as the coal is still being sent to China and burned there. It's all part of the same atmosphere (and even has direct effects on the Northwest, as windborne particulate matter from Asia increasingly ends up here).

The Gateway Pacific Terminal isn't a done deal, though, and there's where the Whatcom County Council comes in. They'll be voting on the siting permits in upcoming years, and rejecting the permits could halt the project, maybe permanently. There aren't a lot of other ocean-going ports in the Northwest where there's enough buildable space for a terminal this large, so this may be the last best hope for coal exporters. Four of the seven seats on the council are up for election in November, and, as you can imagine, the coal terminal is the main issue in the race.

Complicating matters is that the Council is a "semi-judicial" body, meaning that the candidates themselves can't disclose how they would rule on issues that come before them. That leaves them to try and convey their stances on the terminal through buzzwords and platitudes. Nevertheless, outside groups are playing heavily in the election; it's a top priority for environmental groups, particularly the League of Conservation Voters, and on the other side, the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, funded by energy companies and groups like the National Association of Manufacturers.

And it's not hard to see which candidates are pro- and anti- the terminal, based on where their campaign money is coming from. The LCV is backing two incumbents (Ken Mann and Carl Weimer) and two challengers (Barry Buchanan and Rud Browne), while the local GOP is backing two incumbents (Kathy Kershner and Bill Knutsen) and two challengers (Ben Elenbaas and Michelle Luke).

There haven't been any polls of the races made available, but one positive indicator is that it looks like the LCV-backed candidates lead significantly in terms of both independent expenditures and their own fundraising. A big boost is coming from environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, who has turned himself into a major political player in the last year (with large contributions in the Massachusetts Senate special election primary and the Washington SD-26 special) and whose NextGen PAC has put nearly $275,000 into the races.

Whatcom County as a whole is fairly Dem-leaning, giving Barack Obama 55 percent of the vote in 2012. However, it's also very polarized, kind of a microcosm of the state in general, with half of its population in the crunchy college town of Bellingham and the other half in right-leaning rural areas, especially the predominantly Dutch-American town of Lynden, perhaps the most conservative place in the state. The Council has 2 members in each of 3 districts, and one at-large member, so given the county's polarization the whole shooting match may come down to what happens in the at-large seat (the race between GOP incumbent Knutzen and Browne).

So, we've got livable wages and global warming at stake, and probably fewer than a hundred thousand voters casting the votes that will make big statements on the issues with national, even global, implications. "Think globally act locally" may seem like a bumper-sticker cliché, but these two local elections—especially in view of the increasing governmental paralysis at the national and even state levels—make clear that there's some wisdom to the slogan.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Sun Oct 27, 2013 at 12:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Koscadia, PacNW Kossacks, and Daily Kos.

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