County executive race awash in money

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An unprecedented amount of money is being spent on this year’s race for Whatcom County executive, including television ads taking candidate Satpal Sidhu to task for comments he made suggesting support of a much higher market price for oil.

The ads are being financed by the Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington, an independent PAC not affiliated with either Sidhu or his opponent Tony Larson. The major donor to the PAC is Phillips 66, an energy company whose refinery at Cherry Point could be affected by proposed rules under consideration by Whatcom County Council.

In the television ads, a woman with a red shirt and long black hair stands in a kitchen with a laptop computer. “I get sick of political ads that twist people’s words around and lie,” she says. “I’m sure you do too. So I thought I’d just play for you in his own words what county executive candidate Satpal Sidhu said during a public meeting.”

A short clip from a July 26, 2016 Whatcom County Council meeting then follows, in which Sidhu says: “I believe petroleum should be $500 a barrel. This product will thrive economically at this price.” The ad ends with the woman saying: “That puts gas at $18.54 per gallon. My family can’t afford that. My family can’t afford Satpal Sidhu.”

The ad concludes with the message: “No candidate authorized this ad. It is paid for by the Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington, 4430 Pacific Highway, Bellingham, WA. Top 5 contributors: Phillips 66, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Assoc. General Contractors of WA Build PAC, Brooks Manufacturing Co., Mills Electric Co. Top 3 donors to PAC contributors: Associated General Contractors of WA, Osborne Construction, Korsmo Construction.”

The ads were seen on the Fox News Channel last week. Randy Pepple, a Woodinville-based consultant for the Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington, said that the group placed the ads “across the cable system” through Comcast, with an initial expenditure of $15,000.

Pepple said that the ads could possibly remain on the air until election day. “I suspect we’ll be watching the returns to see what kind of impact this is having,” he said.

“Local business leaders came up with the idea,” Pepple said about the origins of the Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington PAC, which formed in August. “They decided that they wanted to engage in the election system and they looked at the candidates and decided that Mr. Larson would be the better candidate. They went around to other folks in the county and raised money to move forward.”

Larson confirmed that he played no role in the television ads, which he said he hadn’t seen. “Campaigns can’t have any connection with PACs,” said Larson. “If it seems like I’m ignorant, it’s because we can’t connect with them in any way, shape or form. And we haven’t.”

According to Washington state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), the Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington’s top contributor is the Phillips 66 Company, which contributed $70,000; all the other contributors donated $5,000 or less. Phillips 66 has a refinery in the Cherry Point Industrial Zone. The future growth and development of Cherry Point is currently being debated by Whatcom County Council.

As of October 28, PDC’s website showed that the Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington had received contributions of $120,533 while Sidhu’s campaign had received $158,162 and Larson’s had received $157,101, including $2,000 from Phillips 66.

On July 26, 2016, Sidhu delivered a seven-minute statement about his views on energy during a county council meeting as councilmembers were debating proposed amendments to the Cherry Point section of Chapter 2 – Land Use of Whatcom County’s Comprehensive Plan. Resolution 2016-027 passed 5-1, with Barbara Brenner opposed and Todd Donovan excused.

At one point during his statement, Sidhu said, “I’m not against petroleum. I’m against irresponsible use of a valuable, God-given resource by burning it away like there is no tomorrow. I believe petroleum should be $500 a barrel. This product will thrive economically at this price by using it sparingly to make things which we cannot otherwise make, and we will extend the life of this resource.”

When asked whether he still believes that oil should be $500 a barrel, Sidhu responded, “No, and I never thought that the price of oil should shoot up to $500 per barrel tomorrow. We cannot increase the cost of transportation for the working class. My full remarks from two years ago reflect that I was talking about the big picture and my belief that the best use of oil is not burning it. We are already moving away from that, but this transition will take time.”

He added, “[the county executive] can do many things that impact our local communities but influencing the oil market is not one of them.”

The Coalition for a Better Northwest Washington has also financed a website, satpalsaidwhat.com, as well as radio ads and mailers. The website includes a calculator that lets viewers “find out just how much it will cost [viewers] in gas each month if Satpal Sidhu had his way.” The website includes a claim that Sidhu “wants to ban all motorboats in Whatcom County lakes.”

“I am being attacked because I am for corporate responsibility and community oversight,” said Sidhu. “Phillips 66, the main sponsor of these ads, would be perfectly happy if oil hit $500 a barrel, but what worries them is a county executive that asks tough questions.” Sidhu also addressed the motorboat issue, saying his past comments “were not based on water quality data and I should have refrained from making broad assumptions about motorized boats. I am not against recreation and I am not against motorized boats.”

Pepple said the advertising against Sidhu is not unique. “There are campaigns on both sides,” he said, describing a similar effort by the Seattle-based group Washington Conservation Voters, which he said has purchased digital advertising in support of Sidhu.

Larson said that his campaign has been a positive one. “We’ve taken no shots whatsoever at our opponent,” he said. “We haven’t pushed out any negative content or supported any negative content. We condemn anyone who uses fear and negative content to influence voters.”

Larson attributed his support from Phillips 66 to his vision for Cherry Point, which he believes can help Whatcom County become a leader in renewable energy in the future. Phillips 66 did not respond to a request for comment.

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