BELLINGHAM - Renata Kowalczyk was leading Dan Robbins by a slim margin in the race to replace 22-year incumbent Scott Walker in the Port of Bellingham commission's District 1 seat.
It was the closest countywide race in the Nov. 5 general election, with 50.2 percent for Kowalczyk and 49.8 percent for Robbins in the first vote count.
Kowalczyk, who grew up in communist-controlled Poland, said she cast her first vote at age 32 after moving to the United States, and being a candidate and meeting people all across Whatcom County has been exhilarating.
"This was one of the most amazing six months of my life," Kowalczyk said. "No matter the outcome, it's a huge win for me."
Robbins expressed disappointment that he, fellow port candidate Ken Bell and the more conservative County Council candidates seemed to be lagging.
"I guess I'm doing as well as anyone on my side of the aisle," Robbins said. "I thought Bell would win, I thought Robbins would win, I thought (County Council incumbent Kathy) Kershner would win, at least."
Bell, trailing incumbent Mike McAuley 47.5 percent to 52.5 percent in the race for the other port seat on the countywide ballot, wasn't ready to concede.
"We definitely have a chance to pull this out," Bell said. "I feel good about where we are."
Bell also bemoaned the partisan nature of the county races.
"The idea of calling these non-partisan races is kind of a misnomer anymore," Bell said. "People aren't evaluated on their individual merit any more and I think that's a sad commentary."
McAuley said he expected his lead in the first vote count to hold as he seeks a second four-year term on the port commission.
McAuley and Kowalczyk drew significant support from longtime port critics who have been calling for new leadership and new perspectives at the port. While both McAuley and Kowalczyk promised to do their best to stimulate the economy and create jobs, they also advocated for broader priorities that include environmental and social considerations.
Both McAuley and Kowalczyk were endorsed by Whatcom County Democrats and got big contributions from the Whatcom Commercial Fishermans Association.
Bell and Robbins stressed a traditional focus on jobs and economic growth, and drew much of their support from developers. Both were endorsed by Whatcom County Republicans.
Kowalczyk, 48, holds an MBA from Columbia and had a career in banking in New York before she moved to Whatcom County in 2009 to start a business consulting firm.
Robbins, 69, is a lifelong county resident who graduated from Bellingham High School and Western Washington University. He has been involved in running a number of local businesses, including the Children's Company, Cost Cutter, and Interlube. Robbins also ran for Bellingham mayor in 1995 and was the runner-up to Mark Asmundson.
McAuley, 43, was elected to the port commission four years ago, unseating 16-year veteran commissioner Doug Smith. He runs a home-building and remodeling business.
Bell, 55, is owner and founder of Best Recycling. He was the top money-raiser among all port candidates, reporting a $51,000 campaign war chest, including a $5,000 loan from his company. McAuley reported just $20,000 as of Nov. 4.
McAuley said he relied on volunteers and electronic media to get the vote out.