Winning elections is not just about the issues of the day. It’s about name recognition, coalition building, money, advertising, grassroots support and, for incumbents, a solid record to stand on.
Chuck Caldwell had all of that. And, with a solid campaign committee, he did everything right and seven out of 10 voters awarded them his vote on election night giving him a third term on the Board of Commissioners for the Port of Grays Harbor.
Despite claims to the contrary, his challenger Ron Figlar-Barnes mainly focused on one issue — whether the Port should ship crude oil at the Port of Grays Harbor. Figlar-Barnes was solidly against the idea.
Caldwell was in favor of it. He gave short answers as to his feelings in support of the oil export facilities, but he never refused to answer questions. And, eventually, with each answer it became more about his experience with the Port and the fact he’s been part of this community his entire life. That was the strategy.
Forget for a moment the controversial issue involving the oil trains and whether oil export facilities should be at the Port.
Focus on the way he and wife Linda Caldwell ran his campaign and the real coalitions they built for support. A look at Caldwell’s political donations reveals support from Republicans, like Montesano Mayor Ken Estes; and Democrats, like Brian Blake, Vini Samuel and Patrick Wadsworth.
My mentor and former publisher John Hughes suspected this county ran about a third Democrats, a third Republicans and a third Independents. I’ve seen numbers when this county was forced to pick political parties during primary elections which mirror those examples and Auditor Vern Spatz has given a similar spiel before. The Port position is a non-partisan one and Caldwell was able to carve such a wide net of supporters from all walks of political life so who was left to really support Figlar-Barnes? What bi-partisan coalition was he really able to build besides the obvious opponents to the oil trains?
In the end, I don’t believe this election was an up or down vote about the public’s feelings about the oil trains. I know, for a fact, several members of both political parties, who decided to support Caldwell despite their feelings against the oil export facilities. Caldwell, simply, had a solid record. The Port has grown from 12 ships per year to 102. Yes, there have been some growing pains and some decisions that have made me tilt a head with a few questions. But there’s a reason the Port was recently named Port of the Year — because of its team of commissioners and its management team.
Figlar-Barnes never set foot at a Port of Grays Harbor Commission meeting — and yet he had many friends and supporters who have routinely attended and made public comment at the meetings. To my knowledge, he never had an extensive tour of the facilities. He claimed he wanted to come in “fresh.” This was a costly mistake for him.
My experience with local politics is more concentrated with the county. And, over the past decade, I can say that there has never been a county commissioner elected who has avoided going to county commissioner meetings before being elected.
Let this be a lesson to anyone contemplating a run for county commissioner next year or any other county office: If you do not attend a few meetings before Election Day, if you do not talk to county staff to learn the positions, if you do not get a sense for what you’re walking in on, you will lose. The voters are not stupid. They can smell inexperience from miles and miles away despite whatever charm you may have.
And, for the record, this county has supported a candidate that had given similar talking points to Figlar-Barnes before — that we should reduce our dependence on foreign oil, worry about global warming and sea level rising and climate change. That candidate, Jay Inslee, won the governorship and won this county with 50.9 percent. So, that kind of platform is winnable in this county if done right with the proper coalitions.
For instance, Figlar-Barnes talked about wanting to see a “Seaport Village” at the Port with a new convention center. Probably the better idea would have been to embrace the existing Seaport Landing idea of the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport and the Lady Washington and to work with the Aberdeen Planning Commission on improving the waterfront vision. That would have given Figlar-Barnes two big coalitions of potential supporters there.
I do want to thank both Caldwell and Figlar-Barnes for making this seat a competitive race. The voters deserved a choice.
Figlar-Barnes also raised many valuable questions about the crude oil export facilities, especially in the wake of yet another derailment of a train carrying crude oil from this past week. He deserves a lot of credit for raising the level of debate over whether this community should embrace exporting oil. There are a lot of good questions that have been asked. Fingers are crossed that a potential better environmental review of the crude oil export facilities will answer them.
GIVE TRIMBLE A CHANCE
Thank you also to all other candidates who faced competitive seats this year. In Montesano, voters here had no choice for City Council. I’ve made it clear over the past year my great disappointment in this fact. However, I am confident that council candidates Marisa Salzer and Tyler Trimble will do a fine job. I do want to note that the 11th hour online attacks against Trimble and his background pleading guilty to a misdemeanor some years ago was too little, too late. Where were you in May when the filing period happened? Where were you for the many, many months that followed when there was an official write-in period that was allowed? Trimble stepped up, knowing his background would be subject to scrutiny, and filed for public office. He answered questions. He never hid his background. He expected a challenger. No one emerged. To start complaining about Trimble this late in the game when he had absolutely no challenger and many ballots were already at the county was pretty much pointless. Let this be a lesson in paying attention to politics.
Trimble deserves the chance to prove that he can be an effective councilman. He has been on the other side of city investigations and will provide invaluable insight into what that’s like. Give him a chance.
Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. He has spent the past decade covering Grays Harbor County politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.