Political divisiveness frustrates Whatcom County Council member Satpal Sidhu, and he’s making it a key issue of his campaign for county executive.
“We all know that we are better than the politics of today. We have more in common than what divides us,” Sidhu said in an interview at his office off Guide Meridian in the Laurel area of Whatcom County.
He said the county’s top issues — housing, water, a new jail — have pitted residents against one another for too long.
As county executive, Sidhu said he would seek to guide the County Council toward solutions that offer genuine compromises.
“We are better than our current politics,” he said. “We cannot say that liberals are for solar energy and conservatives are for petroleum energy. My M.O. will be to bring people together. If the floor is weak, everything is going to shake. We can differ from each other but we can still be civil and talk.”
Sidhu is running against businessman Tony Larson in the Nov. 5 general election after they were the finalists in the August primary, where the top two candidates advance. Larson, who served one year on the Whatcom County Council in 2010, edged Sidhu 37% to 34% in a four-way race.
Candidates Karen Burke and Jim Boyle, who drew a combined 29% of the countywide vote in August, both endorsed Sidhu.
He’s also endorsed by the Riveters Collective, the Whatcom Democrats, the 42nd District Democrats, Washington Conservation Voters, Sierra Club and Teamsters local 231, in addition to several local elected officials and community leaders.
According to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, Sidhu raised $150,045 through Oct. 18, including $115,000 from individual contributions, $23,375 from businesses, and $7,632 from political-action committees. He’s spent $82,364.
‘Brings people together’
“Satpal brings people together like he did with the Arch of Healing and Reconciliation,” a downtown monument to honor immigrants, said Carol Frazey, one of Sidhu’s colleagues on the Whatcom County Council.
“He is a strong leader and sees the big picture,” Frazey said in an email. “I have been lucky to share an office with him for the past 11 months.”
Whatcom County executive is a non-partisan, full-time administrative post, responsible for the county’s day-to-day operations and managing various county departments with about 850 total employees and a 2020 budget of $214 million. It’s a four-year term with a 2020 annual salary of $186,000.
Ballots were mailed to registered voters Oct. 16 and must be postmarked or in ballot drop boxes by 8 p.m. Nov. 5.
Immigrant from India
Sidhu, 69, has an MBA and bachelor of science degrees in physics and math and in engineering and is a Fulbright scholar who speaks four languages.
He left his native India at age 26 for Calgary, Alberta, and immigrated to the U.S. 10 years later. He’s been a berry farmer, managed projects for engineering firms, and was dean of engineering at Bellingham Technical College before he was elected to the County Council in 2015. He and his wife own the Spice Hut and he is president of Sunlogics Inc., a solar energy company.
”It was my dream,” he said. “In my country, every kid dreamed of that. You become an engineer and move to America.”
He’s served on several community boards and commissions, including the Northwest Clean Air Agency and the Whatcom Community College Foundation, and was active in Meridian Schools when his children attended them.
On the County Council, he serves on the Finance and Administrative Services Committee and on the Natural Resources Committee.
“When I graduated from college, one of my professors said, ‘If you want to live in a better community, you have to make it better.’ He said to spend two hours every week doing something for your community,” even something as simple as collecting litter.
“People say that I am the voice of reason and thoughtfulness on the council,” he said at a voter forum hosted by the League of Women Voters in September.
He’s also one of the few people of color running for elected office in Whatcom County, and apparently he has been targeted because of it.
In July, he reported that several of his large campaign signs had vanished or had been damaged and in September, a sign was vandalized with bullet holes and a racist slur. That most recent incident is being investigated by the FBI and Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department as a hate crime.
In several interviews about the incidents, Sidhu remained optimistic.
“I got elected in this county,” he told the League of Women Voters. “This county is not racist. But there is a racist element.”
That was partly what drove him to organize the project to build the Arch of Healing and Reconciliation in 2018. Originally, it was intended to mark the 1907 mob violence against East Indians, but was expanded to include the expulsion of Chinese and the imprisonment of U.S. citizens with Japanese ancestry during World War II.
Arch of Healing
Sidhu thought the project would have greater impact if it took a broad scope to recognize injustices directed at other immigrant communities.
“I had a group of five or six people who saw my vision and stuck with me,” Sidhu said. “I didn’t want it to be just Sikh. A lot of people saw that vision.”
Sidhu maintains strong ties to Whatcom County’s Sikh community, and often helps to solve troubles related to immigration or cultural adjustments, said Amerjit Brar, a Lynden berry farmer and a distant relation.
“Yes, he’s a relative, but we are friends and I call him brother,” Brar said. “He’s so helpful to everyone, issues large or small. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter how busy I am — just call me.’”
Key issues facing region
If elected executive, Sidhu said he’d use his experience as a mediator to address issues such as housing and population growth, increasing demands on water, and a new jail.
“We should have a vision of what Whatcom County will look like in 2050 and work toward that,” Sidhu said.
He proposes bringing landowners, environmental advocates, housing specialists and farmers to address development and housing “without using prime agricultural lands for building homes,” he said.
On water, Sidhu said he favors a Lummi Nation proposal for a recycling pipeline that would equalize stream flows during the critical summer months and provide water for farmers, tribes and salmon.
“The rest of the time, there’s enough water,” he said. “But during the summer months, everybody needs the water. This issue again (requires) that we work together. We can’t dig in our heels on this issue.”
Finally, Sidhu suggests that recent work toward jail alternatives, plus a focus on mental health and substance abuse services, means that a new jail can be downsized and located in Bellingham.
“We have a current building that is failing and we need to have a solution to that,” he said.
Ballot initiatives to fund an expansive new jail in Ferndale failed in 2015 and 2017. As executive, he said he’d ask the council to sell the Ferndale site to fund construction of a smaller jail and address further reforms.
“I’d like to emphasize that incarceration is not the solution for a lot of things,” he said. “Poverty is not a crime. Being homeless is not a crime. Having mental health issues or addiction is not a crime.”
Role of executive
Sidhu said he thinks the transition from council member to executive would be seamless.
Although his background is in business and administration, he said he sees the role of government differently.
“County government is not a business organization. It’s a service organization,” he said.
“I put trust in people,” he said. “I am not a person to manage minutiae. Unless there is something wrong, I really don’t micro-manage. I’ve always worked as a team person. Get good people around you and trust them. Give them responsibility and authority.”