Local Election

Tony Larson sees business experience as an asset in Whatcom County executive race

Whatcom County executive candidate Tony Larson grew up in Bellingham, worked on a farm as a teen, started a business in college, and learned the importance of integrity and character from his post-college mentor.

Friends and colleagues say that helped shape Larson’s career in business, but that he’s always had a strong work and family ethic.

“If I was on the East Coast and I had trouble, I know that he would drop everything and come help,” said Port of Bellingham Commissioner Ken Bell, who met Larson two decades ago at church.

“He makes friends instantly,” Bell said in an interview. “I’m a baseball nut and we bonded over baseball.”

Larson is publisher of Business Pulse magazine and president of the Whatcom Business Alliance. He has volunteered with United Way, Junior Achievement, the NW Private Industry Council, Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, WWU Alumni Association, NW Economic Council, and the Opportunity Council, among many others.

He’s also the former owner of the Bellingham Bells college-league baseball team.

“That league was dying on the vine” in the late 1990s, Bell said. “He revitalized that league. But overall, what I’ve seen him do is run things. He has an incredible ability to bring people along.”

Whatcom county executive candidate Tony Larson in the backyard of the Whatcom Business Alliance building in Bellingham Sept. 24. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Placed first in primary

Larson is running against County Council member Satpal Sidhu in the Nov. 5 general election after they were the finalists in the August primary, where the top two candidates advance. Larson, who served a one-year appointment on the Whatcom County Council in 2010, edged Sidhu 37% to 34% in a four-way primary race.

Candidates Karen Burke and Jim Boyle, who drew a combined 29% of the countywide vote in August, both endorsed Sidhu.

Larson is endorsed by current County Executive Jack Louws, who is leaving office after eight years, the Whatcom Republicans, Whatcom County Farm Bureau, Whatcom County Association of Realtors, the mayors of Blaine, Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas.

According to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, Larson raised $155,901 through Oct. 18, including $80,000 from individual contributions and $74,000 from businesses. He’s spent $100,485.

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.

Raised in Bellingham

In an interview with The Bellingham Herald, Larson — who is married with two grown children — said he was raised by a single mother and was one of the first students to attend the new Roosevelt Elementary School.

For a while, he lived with an aunt and uncle on a farm and attended Ferndale High. It was a time that he said helped him learn the meaning of the word community.

“Everybody would come over and help get the hay in. Then there would be a big community feast,” Larson said. “It was neighbors coming together, working together.”

He finished school in Southern California — where he learned to surf — but returned to Bellingham to attend Western Washington University, paying his way through college to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance.

It was at WWU that he learned he had skills as an entrepreneur, starting a used-book business and later serving as business manager of the student newspaper Western Front and WWU’s Klipsun magazine.

Had an “old school’ mentor

After college, Larson worked for the late Sid Baron, a well-known Lynden businessman.

“He was one of those old-school folks,” Larson said. “He was probably the most extraordinary connection I’ve made in my life.”

But as much as he admired Baron, Larson yearned to work for himself.

“I wanted to create things, to be responsible for things,” he said.

It’s one reason that he’s running for county executive.

“That’s where I think I’m really gifted,” Larson said. “That’s how I would approach the leadership role — bringing big ideas forward, sharing them with the community and building a consensus on them.”

Friends and business associates think that it’s one of his strengths.

Advocate for business

“He’s an outside-the-box thinker,” said Jane Carten, president of Saturna Capital, who’s known Larson for a decade. “He’s someone who can accomplish things in our community that other people would say is not even possible.”

Carten said Larsen is an advocate for business, and praised his “solution-oriented” approach.

“A good government is a balanced government. Tony brings a balanced perspective. Tony’s not afraid of big ideas,” she said in an interview.

“He cares about Whatcom County in every way — living wage, environment, health care —but he’s also a fiscal conservative.”

Top issues facing the county

Larson said housing, climate change, and the business climate are what concerns Whatcom County residents the most.

“The housing supply is a major problem,” Larson said. “But it’s a solvable problem — how do we get more supply across a spectrum of prices?”

He said the region needs to add 3,500 to 4,000 new housing units per year, just to satisfy current demand.

“That’s a conversation that has to be coordinated with all the mayors (of cities countywide) and discuss an overall Whatcom County plan for solving this problem.”

He called for a “culture shift” in county planning.

“For success, we have to deal with the housing issue. It’s a crisis,” he said.

Whatcom County Executive candidate Tony Larson interacts with friends at on the deck of his home in the Geneva neighborhood on primary election night Aug. 6. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Cutting costs

Another issue Larson would address is benefits for county workers, and he proposed a kind of self-insurance program to fund medical expenses, one modeled after a health care plan at Bellingham Cold Storage.

“An alarming trend is that the wages and benefits of employees is increasing at a faster rate than the budget itself,” he said. “It would save $3 million on county health-care benefits. It’s not something that I’m inventing, it’s something that’s already in play.”

Building a new jail

Whatcom County’s jail remains a key issue, Larson said, two years after voters for the second time rejected a sales tax to build a new facility in Ferndale. Since that 2017 measure failed, the county has focused on alternatives to incarceration and on treatment for mental health and substance abuse.

But Larson said that a new jail is needed, and he called it an “inhumane” place.

“It’s a huge potential liability,” Larson said of the current jail. “But it’s a political problem. I’m not going to dive into the political pieces. I’m going to bring people together to decide what kind of jail we want and how we’re going to fund it. When we get to that point, I’ll assert myself and we’ll get it done.”

Leadership strength

Larson said the key issues facing Whatcom County require firm leadership.

“My strengths are my ability to see projects and put people together to get things done,” Larson said, citing his business experience and volunteer work with charitable organizations.

“ I take a leadership position — it’s where my skills are. I tend to take on a lot and what that requires is a system where you identify your priorities and you have to delegate and be able to motivate people. The results are always better than if you are forcing people to do something.”

“(County executive) is not a policy position,” he said. “It’s a leadership position.”

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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.