A Politician's Support Can Be Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Political calculations can shift like a sudden wind.

This story appears in the August 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

The groundbreaking and the ribbon-cutting: Are there any two archetypical news photos more beloved by the subjects and loathed by the editors asked to run them?

The appeal to the participants is obvious. The launch or completion of a local construction project and the opening of a business signify good news in the form of jobs, progress and new tax revenue — and what politicians don’t want to be associated with that good news, even if they had nothing to do with it?

There’s something in it for the businesses too. Having the support of local politicos is a useful thing to have in sanding away the rough patches that might occur in government-business relations. Ordering a dozen or two shiny shovels so everyone can mug for the camera becomes a cost, and a relatively modest one at that, of maintaining tranquility.

And so, the press releases accompanying the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies are replete with congratulatory quotes from everyone from Congress down to the mosquito-control district.

Lately, though, businesses have been picking up some ominous signals that the conventional ways are in trouble. Those official endorsements may come with asterisks, conditions, caveats and fine print — maybe even an expiration date.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than with Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of opposition to two large industrial projects in Western Washington that he’d previously been in support of — Northwest Innovation Works’ proposal to build a plant in Kalama (near Longview) to convert natural gas to liquid methanol as a feedstock for plastics production in China; and Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural-gas storage tank on the Tacoma Tideflats — to be used for local supply and as a marine fuel.

Politicians are neither under obligation to back every development project in their jurisdiction. Nor are they forbidden from changing their minds.

Still, a cynical public may be permitted a cynical suspicion or two that political considerations may enter into politicians’ decisions to reverse field and oppose a project they once endorsed, especially if that consideration happens to involve loud and visible public opposition.

When NW Innovation Works first proposed a liquid-methanol plant for Tacoma, it too had considerable local public-official support, until community groups went after it with a catalog of objections. With politicians scurrying away to avoid association with an increasingly unpopular project, the sponsors pulled the plug.

The Kalama project has been opposed locally too, although politicians in Cowlitz County have persisted in their support. They’ll do so without the governor’s assistance, even though he was at one time an enthusiastic backer. “As the global transition to a clean energy economy accelerates, so does our state’s ability to attract new, family wage jobs throughout Washington State,” the governor said in a 2014 press release. “I have instructed my Department of Commerce to continue working with the Port of Kalama and the company on this opportunity.”

Inslee likely won’t get into much trouble for his switcheroo. He gives every indication of being a true believer in his crusade against fossil fuels. As for political considerations, his presidential bid is more an audition for head of the Environmental Protection Agency or secretary of energy in the next Democratic administration. 

But that still leaves a huge population of politicians facing some tricky calculations about association with potentially controversial projects — the silicon smelter in the northeast corner of the state, the next Boeing plane, Amazon — each with unique constituencies, opponents, controversies, risks and rewards. Businesses, too, must assess how much they value and can count on support as durable as a snowball in August.

That will lead to some interesting conversations ahead of the next photo opportunity. “This isn’t going to get anyone mad at me, is it?” “You’re not going to cut and run at the first sign of trouble, are you?

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