Testing a political alliance

Too many moving parts obscure the battle over a coal-export facility in the Pacific Northwest. Environmental opponents at the scoping hearings for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal are subsumed by a flurry of ads produced by the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a lobby underwritten by coal and supported by organized labor. Mayors from Seattle to Marysville fear transportation snarls and an attendant slump in real estate values. A slew of lawmakers, resigned to the prerogative of the railroad and interstate commerce, keep mum.

The process begs for an agenda-less read that transcends NIMBY-ism and yeah-jobs applause lines. Gateway will spur construction labor and perhaps 200 permanent jobs, although employment will be concentrated. No jobs will be created in Snohomish, Skagit or King counties. All the while, increased rail capacity telegraphs a vibrant economy, coal or no coal.

A critical takeaway is how this debate throws light on a soon-to-be-tested political alliance. Beginning in the 1970s, a Blue-Green coalition of labor and environmentalists emerged and has dominated the Northwest political landscape ever since. The alliance is more a double helix, curling around, then uniting. Greens support occupational health and safety while Blues embrace Puget Sound clean-up. The narrative is the interdependence of living-wage jobs and a clean environment. It’s a solid marriage. Mostly.

The two movements separated briefly during the spotted owl fallout, but reconciled and began focusing on electing Blue-Green friendlies to the Legislature and the governorship. From Gov. Booth Gardner to Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, the alliance has achieved a formidable record. Greens and Blues sustain extensive grassroots networks, and both understand the cynical reality of the late Jesse Unruh’s observation, that money is the mother’s milk of politics.

In his 2012 campaign, Gov-elect Inslee received equal financial and organizational backing from labor and the environmental community, each instrumental to his election. As governor, Inslee will need to review coal-export facilities through a public-interest lens, unshadowed by political IOUs. Ideally, the same will be true of federal and state lawmakers.

In Snohomish County, a majority of the legislative delegation qualify as Blue-Green. The push-pull some feel is compounded by the number of public relations and Democratic political consultants who have contracted with the pro-export campaign. As the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place and Nick Abraham write (terminal opponents, mind you) the coal forces have signed with Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm. Democratic totems including Nyhus Communications, Strategies 360 and ECONorthwest have all accepted coal money.

The public-interest lens is through a glass, darkly. We need to ask state and federal lawmakers where they stand on coal exports, and why.