Democrat, Republican in north Whatcom race not far apart on issues

Lynden business owner Satpal Sidhu said businesses should be part of the discussion about how we educate our children, both in public schools and colleges. Sidhu, 64, also said state regulators can “frustrate people” with sometimes overzealous enforcement of the rules on how farmers use their land.

When the candidate, who is running against Luanne Van Werven for a House seat in the state’s 42nd Legislative District, speaks of education reform or the expansion of government regulation, he mentions “bloat and fat in the system.” Businesses are much more motivated than governments to change the way they do things, Sidhu said, because their financial survival is at stake.

“The government people think, ‘We can never be wiped out because we’re government.’ That’s where the problem is,” he said.

And Sidhu is the Democrat running for the north Whatcom County seat being vacated by Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden. Sidhu and Van Werven, a Republican, advanced in the August primary to face off in the Nov. 4 general election. Ballots will be mailed on Wednesday, Oct. 15.

At a forum on Thursday, Oct. 9, in Birch Bay, the candidates were asked what sets them apart.

“I definitely have the legislative experience,” said Van Werven, 57, who has been active in the Republican Party for most of her adult life. “I have been building relationships with legislators for the last 25 years.”

“I am an independent thinker,” Sidhu said when it was his turn to answer the question. “I don’t read party memos to decide what I should do.”

Perhaps the biggest issue legislators will face in the next session is the mandate by the state Supreme Court, in McCleary v. State, to provide more funding to K-12 education. Budget analysts project the Legislature will need to come up with billions of dollars in new funding by 2019 to comply with the decision.

Both candidates say reform is needed if that money is to be spent wisely. Sidhu said the push for statewide and federal standards is wrongheaded.

“Let the local (school) boards come up with local criteria,” he said.

Van Werven also said the schools should get away from standardization.

“I would like to see a lot more customization of our education system,” she said. “Children learn differently from each other, so let’s focus on their strengths and how they learn best.”

While she doesn’t see a need to reduce the student-teacher ratio at public schools, Van Werven does support getting more money to teachers.

“I don’t think anybody has a problem with paying good teachers more money,” she said.

On the topic of rules for farmers, Van Werven said no one disputes “reasonable regulations” to protect the environment. But she says she hears stories about state agencies prejudging farmers as the bad guys.

“That can be insulting because I actually consider that farmers were the first environmentalists,” Van Werven said. “Rather than assume that a farmer is breaking the law, let’s have a meeting of the minds where we ... work for solutions.”

Sidhu had a similar position: Agencies should sit down with dairy farmers or pesticide applicators and teach them the rules, he said.

“It’s not the regulation that is bad. It’s the implementation of the regulation that’s bad,” he said.

Nor are Van Werven and Sidhu far apart on perhaps the hottest-button issue in the county, the coal export terminal proposed for Cherry Point. The most striking difference is on their campaign ledgers: Project applicant Pacific International Terminals donated the maximum $950 to Van Werven’s general-election campaign, and nothing to Sidhu.

“I understand the impact on the communities of Blaine and Birch Bay would be extraordinary,” Van Werven said to the attendees of the Birch Bay forum. She singled out increased train traffic as a potential impact. “I am certain that a thorough review will take place, and if that happens ... I am hoping there can be a mitigation to answer the question of rail.”

Sidhu cautioned that people were basing their statements about the coal terminal on emotions, not facts.

“Once the facts are out, we can make a decision,” he said.