Here’s who’s running for key positions in Bellingham and Whatcom County

Here’s what you need to know about Whatcom’s 2019 primary election

With 136 public offices on the ballot this August, you’ll want to pay attention to these changes as Election Day approaches.
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With 136 public offices on the ballot this August, you’ll want to pay attention to these changes as Election Day approaches.

UPDATE: Rud Browne and Michael Petrish withdrew from the 40th District state Senate race May 20, 2019.


Four candidates applied to run for Whatcom County executive, the county’s highest elected office, during the official filing period last week.

Jim Boyle, Karen Burke, Tony Larson and Satpal Sidhu will square off in the “top two” primary to replace Jack Louws, who is stepping down after two four-year terms as county executive.

It’s a nonpartisan race, but Burke and Sidhu are running as Democrats. Larson, who described himself as a fiscal conservative, told The Bellingham Herald that he would seek the endorsement of both major parties.

According to the county Auditor’s Office website, a total of 199 candidates filed for 121 public offices, from Bellingham mayor to state senator, along with various city council members and board members of governing agencies that supervise cemeteries and fire-protection districts.

When there are multiple candidates for office, their order on the ballot is drawn by lot at the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office.

Online registration deadline is July 28, and ballots are mailed to voters July 17.

Some 143,265 Whatcom County residents were registered in the November 2018 general election, and turnout was 77%.

This primary will be the first election where in-person registration will be allowed until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Voters don’t need to declare party affiliation, and the two candidates with the highest number of primary votes advance to the Nov. 5 general election.

All voting is by mail, and postage is free.

Ballots must be postmarked by 8 p.m. Aug. 6, so voters are advised to mail well before the deadline or use a drop box.

Ballot drop boxes throughout Whatcom County will be open until 8 p.m. Aug. 6, and in-person voting will be at the county Auditor’s Office.

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Whatcom County executive

Jim Boyle of Bellingham is vice president of the nonprofit Organization for Tropical Studies, focused on the environment and ecology of the tropics. He has a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University’s School of Forestry. His campaign website will be jimboyleforwhatcom.com.

He said the two main issues facing Whatcom County are the environment and people.

“Economic opportunity, housing, criminal justice — none of those systems are separate. They all impact each other,” he said. “ I love Whatcom County. I realize that there are those who don’t have the same benefits as I do.”

Karen Burke is executive director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services and former director of the Lummi Nation Tribal Court, where she worked on restorative justice and jail diversion programs. Burke, who lives off the Mount Baker Highway, would be the second woman to hold the executive’s post after Shirley Van Zanten, who served from 1984-1996. Burke has a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University and attended the leadership institute at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

In an interview, Burke said she is focused on expanding mental health and substance-abuse programs and targeting the ways those issues affect homeless and the jail population; diversifying the economy by providing affordable housing for workers; and ensuring that there’s enough water for crops and salmon.

“I have a long history of getting people together to get things done,” she said. “People are really tired of the musical chairs of politics. The reality is that we’re all neighbors.”

Businessman Tony Larson is president of the Whatcom Business Alliance, an organization that advocates for local business through its Business Pulse magazine and WBA Policy Center. Larson, a former County Council member, said he hopes that his business background can help foster dialogue as the county grapples with issues, such as affordable housing and local economic growth, and social issues, such as homelessness.

Larson, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance from Western Washington University, was raised by a single mother and grew up poor. He said he’s particularly focused on providing opportunities for youth and young workers. His campaign website, will be votetonylarson.com.

“Bringing the business community into the conversation is extremely valuable,” Larson said in an interview. “I definitely want to build that bridge. Business success is the single-largest driver of economic prosperity.”

County Councilmember Satpal Sidhu of Lynden was elected in 2015. Sidhu, who was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. from Canada, would be the first naturalized American to hold the job. He is former Dean of Engineering at Bellingham Technical College. With his wife, he operates the Spice Hut in Bellingham.

In an interview, Sidhu said he’s seeking the county executive post to advocate for issues such as water availability, criminal justice and jail alternatives, homelessness and housing affordability.

“I’ll take a proactive role to influence the council members on what I believe in,” Sidhu said, “and attempt to broker compromise on divisive issues.”

“What bothers me is that we have a rural and urban divorce,” Sidhu said. “Because we differ on certain issues, we cloud the issues that we agree on. How is the environment a liberal issue and a small family farm a conservative issue? I would like to close that gap.”

Bellingham mayor

Four people are challenging for the office of Bellingham mayor now held by Kelli Linville, who decided not to seek re-election after two four-year terms.

April Barker is in her first term on the Bellingham City Council, where she represents the 1st Ward on the city’s west side. She’s a substitute teacher for Bellingham Public Schools and manages rental properties she co-owns with her husband.

Barker said she would focus as mayor on solutions to the key issues of homeless, housing affordability and growth — with an eye toward the “missing middle” to create housing opportunities across incomes and professions while maintaining neighborhood character and open space.

“I like to lead through inspiration,” Barker said in an interview. “It’s really hard for people to have hope when there’s not that next step (of affordable housing). It’s going to look different here, and we all have to be part of the solution.”

Seth Fleetwood is a Bellingham lawyer in private practice and a former member of both the Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council. He sponsored the city’s 2012 ordinance to ban plastic shopping bags — a measure that started as a grassroots community effort. He said the key issues facing the city are interconnected — housing, homelessness, economic development and the environment. He said the new mayor must take a collaborative approach and suggested that he would form a countywide task force to find solutions to the housing crisis.

“I have the longest record of community involvement and service. They give insight into how I would perform as mayor,” he said in an interview. “As someone who has worked on housing affordability issues for years, I know there are community-driven solutions that we need to implement. This is not a sound-bite issue.”

Garrett O’Brien, who runs the Bellingham constriction company Volonta, has been an appointed member of the Planning Commission since 2012. O’Brien said he wants his hometown to remain a vibrant community with opportunities for residents of all ages and incomes. In an interview, he discussed youth outreach, expansion of mental health programs and community policing, along with innovation in housing options and public-private partnerships to solve the housing and homelessness crisis.

“We can’t build our way out — we need incentive for multifamily affordable housing,” O’Brien said. “The biggest problem that we have in our community is that people aren’t talking and listening to one another. We can’t just leave groups of people behind. We have to bring them with us.”

Pinky Vargas is in her second term on the Bellingham City Council, where she represents the 4th Ward on the city’s east side. She is an account manager for Puget Sound Energy, and lost the November 2018 state Senate race to Sen. Doug Ericksen by 46 votes. Vargas thinks the statewide connections she made in that campaign will help her work toward what she sees are the key local and regional issues of economic development, housing, homelessness and the environment.

“We have to recognize that we’re a major resource for almost the entire county,” Vargas said in an interview. “We’re not doing this alone. We’re doing this in partnership. That will make the city and county stronger.”

Norman Pendergraft of the Samish neighborhood filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission in April to fundraise for Bellingham mayor, but didn’t file to run by the 4:30 p.m. Friday deadline.

40th District state Senate

State Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, will be defending her legislative seat against four challengers in a confirmation vote that’s required because she was appointed to the post in February, replacing Kevin Ranker who resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.

Michael Petrish, an Anacortes Republican, lost the 2018 race for 40th District state House of Representatives to Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-La Conner.

Daniel Miller, a Friday Harbor Republican.

Greta Aitken, a Burlington Democrat.

Carrie Blackwood, a Bellingham Democrat.

Whatcom County Councilmember Rud Browne of Bellingham, a Democrat who had been among the candidates seeking appointment to the seat Lovelett won.

Other races

Those who head major Whatcom County departments are elected nonpartisan positions.

Joy Gilfilen, who lives in rural Whatcom County south of Ferndale, is challenging Sheriff Bill Elfo, who is running for his fifth four-year term as sheriff.

Treasurer Steven Oliver is unopposed for re-election.

Chief Deputy Auditor Diana Bradick is unopposed in her first race for auditor, replacing Debbie Adelstein, who is not seeking a third four-year term.

Chief Deputy Assessor John Romaker of Bellingham and Rebecca Xczar, a real-estate appraiser and member of the Ferndale City Council, are seeking the post being vacated by Assessor Keith Willnauer.

Karen Burke’s educational qualifications were corrected May 21, 2019. The date primary ballots will be mailed was corrected May 22, 2019.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.