Bellingham councilor straddles line between public, private politics

Posted by Ralph Schwartz on December 20, 2013 

Bellingham City Councilwoman Cathy Lehman and Democratic Party activist Lisa McShane teamed up in September to start Lehman McShane Strategies, "a political and strategic communications firm headquartered in Bellingham."

McShane was front-and-center this year as an organizer for the successful Whatcom Wins campaign by the Whatcom Democrats to elect four progressive County Council candidates. She and Lehman have long civic resumes. Before she was elected to the City Council in 2011, Lehman was Whatcom chapter director of Futurewise, and she has experience at Sustainable Connections, the Whatcom Volunteer Center, the Opportunity Council and Whatcom Conservation Voters.

Just yesterday, Lehman announced that LMS has brought on a third person, Karlee Deatherage, who ran the day-to-day operations of the Whatcom Wins campaign. She coordinated the four campaigns, nine staff members and 359 volunteers, the Thursday, Dec. 19 announcement said.

Someone with Deatherage's experience wasn't going to be looking for work for long, Lehman said, and she and McShane were glad to be able to bring her on board.

Her skills at grassroots organizing will come into play in 2014, Lehman said.

"We'll probably have a client we're going to do some of that work with," Lehman said.

The client list at LMS or details of the projects the firm will be working on are not for public consumption. This casts something of a veil over the work conducted by one of Bellingham's publicly elected officials -- at least some of the work she does outside City Hall.

Lehman said LMS has a regional scope, and she does not expect her clients to come into City Hall to solicit the council for a cause that Lehman herself would have consulted them on.

"I thought about this a lot of course, before we even started the company," Lehman said, and she consulted city attorneys.

"I don't imagine there would be any city-specific issues I would work on professionally (at LMS)," she said. "I don't imagine this would be much of an issue at all."

If LMS was advising a client on an issue before the City Council, Lehman said, then she would recuse herself from the vote.

Despite Lehman and McShane's progressive political histories, Lehman doesn't want to peg LMS as a progressive consulting firm.

"We're just looking to build a business," she said.

While LMS has "a number of projects solidifying for 2014," Lehman said, it won't necessarily be apparent what the councilor is working on in that capacity. Political consulting firms don't make a point of declaring their role in community efforts.

That said, Lehman said she will bear in mind the extra obligations of a public figure.

"I like to err on the side of overly informing people," she said. Her private company is in the politics business, after all.

"It warrants being as up-front about that as possible."


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