LYNDEN, Washington -- Last week, I stopped into Extremes Sports Grill & Pizzeria to talk to the man who very well may end up running my own little corner of the Evergreen State. Every Tuesday leading up to the election, state senator Doug Ericksen has held court there. I wanted to get his take on how the race for Whatcom County executive was progressing.
The 42-year-old Ericksen was optimistic, though guardedly so. He is a Republican, but the race for county exec is nonpartisan and Washington's system of choosing candidates is, if anything, a disrespecter of parties. We vote for whomever we like in the primaries. The top two vote-getters from the primaries then dust it up in the general election.
In Ericksen's race, this runoff system has created a problem for him, because the top-two vote getters are effectively Republicans. Worse, opponent Jack Louws is a former mayor of Lynden, my small town snug up against the Canadian border, which forms the natural backbone of the local Republican Party. It's harder to build from the base when the base has divided loyalties.
Over pizza and beer, Ericksen told me that having Louws as his opponent meant a radically different kind of race than if he had faced off against the Democrat-favored David Stalheim. That race, he said, would have featured months of "attacks from the left" followed by a "60-point landslide." Instead, the Louws-Ericksen race will be much closer and hinge on turnout.
He showed me three pieces of mail that had just gone out to people who haven't yet turned in their ballots. (Washington has abolished polling places in favor of ballots that can be put in a series of drop-boxes over a rolling period.) One piece featured endorsements by prominent Republicans. Another was targeted at soft voters, though Ericksen insisted it had hard edges -- including a defense of second amendment rights to go hunting.
The third piece of mail, aimed at Tea Party voters, highlighted Louws's statement that he would entertain raising taxes as soon as the economy rights itself. This may simply be a diplomatic way to avoid raising taxes while appealing to Democratic voters, but Ericksen finds it baffling. He said he had given Louws numerous attempts to back out of it. Louws had doubled down instead, so it was only fair to warn voters.
Surrounded by political aides and a rotating cast of friends and supporters, Ericksen talked informally about taxes, less restrictive land use rules, and local personalities and controversies for about an hour before he excused himself to go to his daughter's soccer game. He didn't rule out a Louws victory but Ericksen argued that his more uncompromising appeal ("I'm not backing down") and his political organization -- created during his 12 years as a state representative and one not-yet-completed term in the state senate -- would give him the edge.
Ericksen pointed out that in Bellingham, Whatcom's most populous city where Louws will have to clean up to balance out the more conservative north county vote, yard signs are pretty scarce on the ground. That's anecdote and so is this, but it's still impressive: My house has received hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of political robocalls over the years. Ericksen's is the first recorded message from a candidate that left me his cellphone number in case I had any concerns.
He also argued one reason that Louws may have a hard time winning the county executive seat is that he's too conservative to appeal to snobbish Bellingham liberals. "Jack is still Jack," Ericksen said. "He's still pro-life. He's still the former mayor of Lynden," and that may prove a bridge too far for many of the voters Louws needs to drive him to victory.
Ericksen is not a Tea Party candidate, per se. He was deeply involved in local Republican politics well before Rick Santelli's now-famous "rant" launched a movement. But he shares many of the movement's aims, including a culture that cares more about advancing principles and less about partisanship. He received the endorsement of the Republican Party, sure, but he also asked the Dems for their endorsement this June.
According to the Bellingham Herald, one incredulous Democrat in a room of about 300 shouted, "He's a Republican! What's he doing here?" Ericksen quipped. "I have to admit I haven't been to a Democratic meeting in a while," and then made the case for common ground. He didn't get the endorsement but he did get "polite applause and a couple of hisses," and grudging respect.
And Ericksen admitted something to me before he took off for his daughter's game that must have given his consultants heartburn. He would like to win the race, he said, but he's not sweating it overmuch. He'll do his best and hope for the best and, ultimately, "the greater good" of the people of Whatcom country will be much better served with either him or Louws as the next county exec.