Whatcom Libertarians no longer want to be the party of "no."
Under new leadership, the group plans to play a larger role in the community, helping people in ways government no longer can - or shouldn't in the first place.
"It just seemed everything we were doing was focusing on the negative," said Jason Del Wraa, who became chairman of the county party late last year.
Before that, Del Wraa was part of the group Ron Paul People, later named Campaign for Liberty. The organization gathered signatures for petitions to legalize marijuana, and to stop Bellingham's red-light camera program.
The transition from Paul activist to leader of the Libertarian Party was natural, given Paul's political philosophy. Other officers of the county Libertarians also came from the Paul group, Del Wraa said.
But Paul is done campaigning, and some Libertarians, including Del Wraa, aren't jumping on the bandwagon of Paul's son Rand, a more traditional conservative Republican.
"Mainly why I came over to the Libertarian Party is because it seemed like the Republican Party was not much of a vehicle for our policies and ideas with Ron Paul leaving it," Del Wraa said.
Del Wraa took over leadership of the Whatcom Libertarians from Larry Nicholas, who still chairs the state party. Del Wraa decided the county party should shift some of its effort away from politics.
"By only pointing out the problems and protesting, we are seen by many in the community as naysayers. We as a group have many skills and talents we could use to benefit the community and introduce people to the idea of self-reliance, personal liberties and libertarian philosophy," Del Wraa wrote Jan. 19 to the Whatcom Libertarians' email group, which has about 60 members.
Del Wraa and others in the Ron Paul group were already doing that in a limited way, helping each other clean up their yards and grow their gardens. This was in line with their emphasis on self-reliance.
"Food freedom is really important," Del Wraa said.
The idea now is to expand this circle of community support.
"Ultimately, it's going to require more than Libertarians and Ron Paul people to come together," he said.
In 2000, Libertarians fielded about 200 candidates across the state, said Nicholas, who lives in Bellingham.
The party has suffered, he said, under the state's top-two primary system, which went into effect after a 2004 voter initiative passed. The top-two vote getters in the primary now advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. The top-two system has survived multiple court challenges, including from the two major parties and the Libertarians.
"Our focus is shifting to candidates in local elections, and issues," Nicholas said.
This year, Del Wraa said, the party hopes to support candidates running for city or county councils, or school boards. These positions are nonpartisan, but Del Wraa said people have approached him with interest in running Libertarian-based campaigns.
Nicholas said he will ask the state party's executive director to recruit local candidates.
Libertarians don't endorse candidates from other parties. That might change, as this rule in the party's state bylaws will be up for discussion at the state party convention, to be held April 20 in Bellingham.
Nicholas is on board with the county party's shift toward community work. It was his idea to volunteer to maintain forest roads for the U.S. Forest Service's Mount Baker Ranger District - an idea Del Wraa said he is going to pursue. Forest Service officials concede the funding they need to maintain the roads is dwindling. Last year, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest had enough money to maintain less than 30 percent of its road system, forest spokeswoman Renee Bodine said.
Nicholas and his business, Accurate Lock & Security, Inc., have donated work to help the Chabad Jewish Center in Bellingham. Del Wraa said the Libertarian Party will expand that effort, volunteering at the spiritual and educational center to help with a renovation.
Del Wraa went to City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 24, to arrange a meeting with Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to ask about planting community gardens on unused city property.
Del Wraa's wife, Barb, a Republican precinct committee officer and a teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, is reaching out to Americorps volunteers to ask if they would tutor students.
The Libertarians already work closely with Section 31 Tech, an IT co-op that says it puts skills training over profit. Doug Gustafson, who works out of Bellingham for the co-op, said he will take on just about anybody interested in learning about computer and website maintenance, pay them a nominal wage and pass on his skills.
Gustafson's vision, like that of the Libertarians, is broader community self-sufficiency.
"I would really like to have people of all technical skills working together to accomplish goals," he said. "I think more community involvement is necessary."
Gustafson is on the county party's tech committee, but he doesn't identify as a Libertarian. He's just sympathetic.
"I don't agree with everything the Libertarians say," he said. "I actually think government's OK if it's efficient and it works. But I agree with its individual and community ideas. ... We're all part of a community, and if we combine forces we can accomplish great things."
Some Libertarians also think government is OK. There is a spectrum of anti-government sentiment, as there is a range of political views in the party. Some current members come from the Ron Paul group. One at least is a progressive who opposes the proposed coal port at Cherry Point, Del Wraa said.
The county party chairman has not made up his mind about some major local issues. The board hasn't taken a position on the Gateway Pacific Terminal. "I'm leaning towards supporting it," Del Wraa said.
While he was active against Bellingham's red-light cameras, he was ambivalent about the city's plastic bag ban, which was opposed by conservatives as an example of government overreach.
Del Wraa would have preferred that voters and not the City Council had decided whether to enact a bag ban.
"When you get down to the local level, democracy is really what it's all about," he said.
The county party also hasn't taken a position on the proposed metropolitan park district in south Bellingham that would raise taxes to repay part of the city's loan to purchase Chuckanut Ridge. The park district is up for a vote next month.
"We're watching it," Del Wraa said.
As for gun control, a national issue revived after a school shooting last month in Connecticut, Del Wraa was unequivocal. The problem of mentally ill people with guns will persist, he said, but in any case that's not the main point.
"Firearms are about keeping tyranny in check," Del Wraa said, "but self-defense is also important."
DEL WRAA'S GOALS
By his own account, Del Wraa's new role as chairman of a party might not be the best fit for him. He's inspired by the Houston Free Thinkers, a group striving to create a self-contained community that would be ready if the political structure collapses. The group has begun to barter to avoid using the dollar, and it stores seeds that could someday become currency.
"Ultimately, that's where we would like to go," Del Wraa said, but not on any particular timetable.
For now, Del Wraa would be happy to find a community of like-minded people under no partisan banner. He likes the name "Free Thinkers" but might prefer to use "Be the Change," borrowing from Mahatma Gandhi. He would like to break the current political pattern of conservatives and liberals arguing and claiming no common ground.
"We're hoping that this can open the door to that kind of discussion," Del Wraa said of the Whatcom Libertarians and their new volunteerism. "We should stop focusing on where we disagree and focus on where we do agree."
whatcomlp.org (site under construction).