Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Barbara Brenner Interview

The amount of money raised for local elections in Bellingham and Whatcom County (pop ~200,00) as of November 3, 2011 looks like this:

Contributions Expenditures Debt Ind Sup Ind Opp
Whatcom $452,569.07 $381,527.07 $42,351.11 $22,721.31 $16,328.23
Bellingham $214,980.95 $198,116.36 $21,445.44 $5,815.76 $0.00
Totals $667,550.02 $579,643.43 $63,796.55 $28,537.07 $16,328.23

All told, well over three quarters of a million dollars will probably be spent before next Tuesday (from contributions,debt,indedependent support and oppostion)  in some of the most dramatic, well-debated, well-funded and (clearly) well-advised local races seen here in some time. Clearly the consequences of such levels of spending will not be trivial for the politics of Bellingham and Whatcom County. Not now, nor in the future.

Although I will not recommend any candidates for this election, I decided to interview Barbara Brenner after listening to a number of the debates. I was fascinated with a number of facets of Barbara Brenner: her self-imposed financial restrictions, her enthusiasm, her call to personal responsibility, and her apparent intelligence and charisma. After emailing her a request for an interview, she called me immediately and left a number. I found Ms. Brenner exceptionally approachable in our phone conversation. I was very interested in talking with her because among all this year's local candidates, Barbara Brenner stands out for her dogged refusal to accept political donations of any type. "I just sent a $50 and a $250 donation back last week. I told them I couldn't accept it."

Renowned for her ability to represent the community, she likes to stay focused on digging through the details of most legislation and proposals for their impact on the community. "Part of the reason I run as an independent is centered around my belief that if we lose the local level to big money, we've lost local politics." The candidate to date has spent less than $4000 of her money on her campaign despite receiving only a $20,000 salary as a council member. "Donations", Ms. Brenner believes, "make it a lot harder to remain independent as a local resource." "It is really important to me that I don't get labeled as beholden to anyone." Recently, Ms. Brenner designed her own campaign flyers and had them printed at a local business. Her husband built her website which they rent for $15/month.

Such fiscal conservatism is part of the Brenner campaign rhetoric with regards to perks, salaries and administrative expenditures in the County Council budget. However, she believes
strongly in supporting social services like the Food Bank and WIC. "Not only have I always supported the Food Bank, I have always pushed for more dollars for them... I did not accept any donations to my campaign and told people to please send that money to the food bank."  Ms. Brenner makes the point that "she understands how hard it can be for most citizens in need to access government and get services: "It's about the local level. Who can those in need in Whatcom County depend upon if it is not politicians at the local level? That's who we should be here for."

Since the state and local budgetary cutbacks, Council member Brenner has been somewhat disappointed by a lack of cooperation at the state and federal level. This she attributes to declining budgets: "When the economy was stronger, we saw a greater flow of income from the state. It's easier for state and local officials to work together when there is more funding for local services." Ms. Brenner intuits that her reputation as an independent may have lost her some support from the Democratic party. "I like all the local officials, but sometimes because of my frankness I am not sure they are able to appreciate me." She rejects as hypocritical some of the personal attacks against her person in the recent election:

"I'm a person who cares and I won't turn on anyone. People have to be able to trust politicians at the local level. Trust is really important...Whether I am re-elected or not, all you have to do is ask because I don't ever turn my back on those about whom I care about. I don't even turn my back on those I don't."

As a personal note, Councilmember Brenner has been accused of having 'outbursts'. To vet such accusations, I watched a small number of hours (2 sessions) of County Council on DVD from the Bellingham Public Library which you can do by loading a media viewer like VLC Media player on your PC. I didn't see anything that looked like 'outbursts' in the August and September 2011 meetings. What I saw instead was an extraordinarily intelligent council person attempting to get public officials to answer important questions. I thought Ms. Brenner looked like the brightest tool in the shed in these meetings. Her ability to dig through documentation and create meaningful comment about the issues was impressive. So was her patient but persistent method in querying public officials.

This election may see Bellingham and Whatcom County candidates spending over $750,000 in campaign expenditures. Has politics in Whatcom County really become so well-monied that we can no longer appreciate the honesty, gifts, and integrity of a long term community stalwart like Barbara Brenner?

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