SEATTLE - Washington State voters received their mail ballots last week, their chance to vote on I-522, a statewide ballot measure that would require labeling of all genetically engineered food. It is only one of many sharp, critical battles in this off-year election.
"No Monsanto! Yes I-522!" was the theme of a march by thousands of protesters through downtown Seattle Oct. 12, a day of worldwide protests against the agribusiness giant. Polls have shown strong majority support for I-522 but agribusiness has poured millions of dollars into TV attack ads to defeat it, modeled on their narrow defeat of a similar ballot measure in California.
The Washington State Secretary of State released a list Friday of the corporations that have contributed a combined $7.2 million to defeat I-522. Pepsico, the largest donor, gave $1.6 million followed by Nestle ($1.05 million), Coca Cola ($1.04 million), Hormel, Bunge, and Clorox. Donating through other channels were DuPont ($3.2 million), Dow ($562,000) and BASF ($500,000).
Supporters of I-522 have fought back with TV ads of their own debunking agribusiness fear mongering.
Another crucial election battle is here in Seattle where incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn is in a hard-fought race with Democratic State Sen. Ed Murray, for the mayoralty of the Emerald City. The city of SeaTac, named for the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, has placed on its municipal ballot Proposition #1 to raise the minimum wage for hospitality and airport workers to $15 an hour. Washington State already has the highest minimum wage at $9.19 per hour. Asked about this fight, McGinn replied, "If it's more than $15, I'd support that." Not to be outdone, Murray told a news conference he favors a $15 minimum wage for all Seattle workers.
Both are considered moderately progressive. Murray, the first openly gay member of the Washington State legislature pushed the marriage equality law through the legislature and mobilized to defend the measure when enemies put it on the ballot in 2012.
A major issue in the race is coal. Coal companies want to ship by rail as many as 10 coal trains daily, each more than a mile and a half long, through Seattle to the yet-to-be-built Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham. The coal would be loaded into coal ships and delivered to China and other Asian ports.
McGinn, a former leader of the Sierra Club, has been an organizer of mass rallies at the waterfront in Seattle protesting this scheme on grounds that it will contribute to global warming and further degrade the Pacific Ocean and the ecosystem of the West Coast.
Murray, by contrast, has received contributions from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad. The company stands to reap millions in profits from the coal shipments. Murray was also the beneficiary of a posh fundraiser sponsored by Roger Nyhus whose Seattle public relations firm is promoting the coal export scheme.
Yet opposition is so strong that Murray recently announced that he agrees with McGinn that the coal trains and the coal terminal would be bad for the environment. Sierra Club political action director, Adam Nance, said, "We're glad Sen. Murray has decided to join the conversation about coal. Mayor McGinn has been a powerful leader on this issue since the beginning which is one of the reasons the Sierra Club endorsed him early."
The issue is so hot that the Sierra Club is mobilizing to elect three candidates to the Whatcom County Council (the county which includes Cherry Point) who oppose the coal export scheme or at least favor a full study of its environmental impact. Labor has been split on the issue but recently Jobs with Justice joined in a "Blue-Green" alliance to oppose the plan.
Another critical battle is Democratic Sen. Nathan Schlicher's campaign to win election to the Washington State Senate. Schlicher was appointed to fill the state Senate seat left vacant by Derek Kilmer when he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2012. The Service Employees International Union, Planned Parenthood and other progressive groups are doorbelling in Bremerton, Port Orchard and Tacoma to help Schlicher, an emergency room physician who has fought for health care benefits for the uninsured. He treats them. His opponent is tea party Republican Jan Angel, who voted in the lower house to criminalize abortions even in the case of rape and incest.
Schlicher's victory will help end de facto Republican control of the Washington State Senate since two renegade Democratic Senators, Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, defected and started voting with the Republicans. "If Nathan wins, the Democrats will need a pickup of only one seat in the 2014 election to regain majority control," an aide to Schlicher told this reporter. That would mean the ouster of Tom, Sheldon, or both. They are despised by the labor movement -- and by the majority Democrats -- in their districts.
Photo: Rallying against coal export from Washington State. Sierra Club Cascade Chapter Facebook page.