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5 vie for Bellingham City Council at-large seat

Candidates prioritizing housing challenges, homelessness

By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

With current at-large Bellingham City Council member Kristina Michele Martens vacating the seat at the end of her term, several first-time candidates from across Bellingham have lined up to replace her in the 2023 election cycle. 

The five candidates competing for the seat in August’s primary have similar priorities for the city, focusing on housing, homelessness and public safety. And all five of the candidates — who include the founder of the Kulshan Community Land Trust, a current and former member of the Bellingham Planning Commission and a community activist — bring different perspectives to the table. 

Of the five, the greenest candidate is Jace Cotton, a 24-year-old Western Washington University graduate who moved to Bellingham about six years ago. Cotton, who had raised about $7,866 for his campaign as of Sunday, July 9, is a community organizer, advocating for initiatives like those from Community First Whatcom, which would raise the minimum wage and protect renters in Bellingham.  


His goal, he said, is to represent communities not typically at the political table: low-income individuals and families, retirees, workers and Bellingham’s younger population.

“Our local democracy is not representative of the people who live here,” Cotton said. “As a young person in Bellingham, it’s really hard to feel hopeful about the future. Every day as an organizer, I talk to young parents who are taking on second and third jobs just to afford child care, and low-wage workers and retirees whose rent and costs are climbing.” 

Cotton said there are several sources of funding and policy tools at the state and federal levels “left on the table” in Bellingham, and he hopes to implement those tools to alleviate rent burdens and reduce substance abuse. 

Candidate Maya Morales is another community organizer, and was instrumental in fighting for initiatives from People First Bellingham — the group that later became Community First Whatcom — after she moved here in 2018.


A lifelong activist, Morales describes herself as an organizer, a feminist and an intersectional leader. That intersectional lens, she said, is vital for working toward solutions to homelessness, substance abuse and the rising cost of living, where the problems and the solutions often overlap.

“We need an intersectional organizing perspective,” she said. “We need to deal with housing. We need to deal with wages and labor. We need to deal with helping people get their needs met, and there’s so much more to do there.” 


Morales, who founded WA People’s Privacy, has spent several years advocating for local, state and federal legislation, and says her experience as an advocate and as a biracial lesbian-queer person sets her apart from other candidates, as well as sitting members of the council. 

Morales, 45, had raised about $6,515 as of July 9. 

Candidate Russ Whidbee — a Bellingham resident since he moved to attend Western Washington University in the 1980s — has spent his life teaching and volunteering in the community, serving as a financial adviser and accounting professor at Bellingham Technical College and Whatcom Community College. 

Russ_Whidbee smiles for the camera.

Whidbee, 60, highlights his experience volunteering with numerous nonprofit organizations and boards, including the Kulshan Community Land Trust, the Whatcom Volunteer Center and the Bellingham Planning Commission, where he is a current commissioner. 


This is Whidbee’s second run for the at-large seat. He initially ran two years ago, and said the city council seat was a calling for him after years of volunteer work and supporting the community. 

“Bellingham needs consistency and commitment to solve our problems,” Whidbee said in an email “We need to implement EFFECTIVE COMPASSION. This means meeting problems head on and using the resources we have to make the changes that our community wants and deserves.“

Whidbee highlighted several issues in the community, including homelessness, drug addiction, increasingly expensive housing and ongoing environmental issues, as problems that can be solved with compassion and redistribution of city funds. 

“Temporary Band-Aids” won’t work to solve these complex issues, he wrote on his website. “The problem is daunting, but Bellingham is an amazing community. Working together, we will move forward.” 

Whidbee had raised $4,484 as of July 9. 

Like Whidbee, candidate Garrett O’Brien, 43, spent time on the city’s planning commission, but stepped away from the seat just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 


O’Brien, a fourth-generation Whatcom resident, owns and operates Volonta Corporation, a residential construction company he launched in 2005. With his experience, he says he’s ready to tackle some of the problems slowing down home construction like strict zoning requirements. His plan, he says, will help regenerate a thriving central business corridor with an emphasis on public safety, affordable homeownership opportunities and a “healthy” downtown. 

“I think it’s really important for a city to have a thriving and vibrant downtown economic center,” he said. “We can’t ignore [it], and we have to help the downtown community, which includes residents, business owners, restaurant owners, and help them as a city.” 

O’Brien’s vision for Bellingham includes more homeownership opportunities at lower costs, and said the city needs more condominium construction. The tools and incentives for builders to do this already exist, he said, but the city needs to use them. 

As a council member, O’Brien said he would look forward to working on the city’s comprehensive plan — a major city planning document that outlines growth over the next several decades — with an eye for environmental stewardship and legislative changes. 

O’Brien had not reported any campaign donations or expenditures as of July 9. 

The fifth candidate, Paul Schissler, 67, has lived in Bellingham for decades and made affordable, accessible housing part of his life’s mission. As the co-founder and first executive director of the Kulshan Community Land Trust in 1999 and the co-founder of the Bellingham Home Fund in 2011, he’s had a hand in affordable housing in Bellingham for more than two decades. 


“Homes — affordable homes people can afford — it’s one of the central issues of our time,” he said. “I’m running because I know a lot about that, and how important it is for community health, individual health, family health — to have a place safe, decent and affordable. It’s as basic as the air we breathe.” 

Schissler, too, emphasized tools at the state and federal level, tax credits and alternative ways to bring more housing to the community. 

“We could be doing a lot more,” he said. “Why are we not turning over every stone?” 

Schissler said many of the issues facing Bellingham voters, including the rising cost of living, require creative ideas and solutions like vertical agriculture, urban greenhouses and mobile home park cooperatives. 

Schissler had raised $3,573 as of July 9. 


Ballots will be mailed Wednesday, July 12 for the Tuesday, Aug. 1 primary election. Washington residents may register to vote online or by mail until July 24 for the primary election. Voter registration is available in person until 8 p.m. Aug. 1 The general election is Nov. 7.

A previous version of this story misstated the name of Maya Morales’ organization. It is WA People’s Privacy. This story was updated to reflect this change July 10, 2023 at 9:50 p.m. Cascadia Daily News regrets the error. 

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