Editor’s note: This is the first of several profiles of candidates for top offices ahead of the November general election. Coming tomorrow: a profile of Lynden Republican Dan Purdy.
Faced with a tough question about the prospect of running a county where a tax measure to replace a decrepit jail facility failed, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu takes a creative dodge. He’s so confident in the plan, he said, that he simply rejects the premise.
“I do not even accept that it [the levy] will not pass,” Sidhu said during a recent interview with the Cascadia Daily News editorial board. “A lot of thought went into this. A lot of people have worked really hard.”
Sidhu is finishing up his first term in the county executive’s office, and his 2019 election made him one of a short list of highly placed Sikhs in elected roles in the United States. It’s an accomplishment in an overwhelmingly white county — just one century after the Sikh expulsion and riots in Whatcom.
The confident 73-year-old speaks of regular meditation. When asked about his heroes and influences, he talks about American freedom and democracy, before clarifying that his biggest role model is not a single person but concepts — cultural values of fairness, friendship and community.
Sidhu said that throughout his first term, he strived for nonpartisanship and cooperation across political lines.
The candidate saw significant financial support throughout the 2023 primary election, and reported almost $90,000 in contributions, according to data from the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Those contributions have come in from a spectrum of donors across Washington state including unions, current county council members, farmers, local businesses and even Puget Sound Energy.
That nearly $90,000 towers over reported contributions to other candidates throughout the primary, with primary challenger Alicia Rule, a seated Democratic legislator, reporting the second-largest contribution total at $20,264.
His opponent in November’s general election, Lynden Republican and first-time candidate Dan Purdy, reported $17,448 in contributions as of Sept. 5.
Sidhu, a Democrat running for a nonpartisan position, made the move from India to British Columbia before landing in Bellingham more than three decades ago, and has worked as an engineer on multimillion-dollar projects with companies such as BP.
Later, he served as dean at Bellingham Technical College. He got involved in politics after his retirement, winning a seat on the Whatcom County Council before moving on to county executive in 2019.
He and his wife, Mundir, have lived in Lynden for decades and raised three sons.
Existing jail is big challenge
One of the biggest challenges facing the next executive: Whatcom’s existing jail. The current facility is deteriorating, with county employees and inmates in increasingly poor conditions. But allowing perfect to be the enemy of good, Sidhu said, could result in an even longer delay in new facility construction.
The proposal would add a 0.2% sales tax countywide, generating an estimated $14.4 million in 2025 alone to fund a new jail and behavioral health diversion services. At this point, the county has no conclusive answer as to how those funds will be spent, but Sidhu is confident voters will support it.
And, he says, county planners are ready to dive in to create a comprehensive facility, equipped with a brand-new, 50-unit apartment complex for tenants who can’t find housing elsewhere due to their criminal record.
“No landlord could say, ‘You have a jail record, you can’t rent this place,’” Sidhu said. “That’s reentry. The land is free. The utilities would be free … The concept is great.”
That proposed apartment complex is just one aspect of Sidhu’s creative approach to solving the dual housing and homelessness crises in Whatcom County, which reported the highest homeless population in recorded history this year.
A moderate approach
As a self-described middle-of-the-road man, he says he’s willing to consider voices and opinions from across the political spectrum to solve problems, including the high cost of housing, a potentially contentious impending water rights adjudication and the crumbling county jail.
His approach was historically attractive to voters in Whatcom County, where Bellingham’s liberal population and the rest of the county’s conservative majority often disagree.
“He’s very collaborative,” County Council member Todd Donovan said of his time working with Sidhu. “Him being elected, first on council and then as county executive, it just tells you something about his ability to engage communities that aren’t necessarily that included: particularly his own.”
It helped him bring often-clashing factions to the table to address immediate challenges during his first term, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the catastrophic floods in 2021.
He hopes that a bipartisan approach will continue to work in a second term, when he said he plans to bring together farmers, local tribes and community leaders to work out the impending water rights adjudication, slated to begin early next year. The adjudication process can be arduous and took more than 30 years to solve in Yakima.
“In 2019, when I was running, I said, ‘I’ll deal with water,’” he said. “In 50 years, no politician, state or local, wanted to touch this. They say it’s a fail-fail situation, and don’t touch the water [issue]. I said no, I want to touch water.”
Sidhu’s tenure faced significant challenges between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 floods that displaced hundreds of families in Nooksack, Everson and Sumas, and resulted in the death of one person.
Recovery efforts from those floods are ongoing, with some residents still living in recreational vehicles and facing homelessness while mayors and the executive weigh preparation and mitigation before the next big flood event.
Challenges of a growing county
His incumbency has not been without controversy: Whatcom County Council members challenged Sidhu over last year’s Prop 5 children’s initiative levy. The levy, which passed by a mere 20 votes out of 108,560 cast, was meant to raise 19 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value to pay for additional child care and services for children. Sidhu recommended the council lower that rate to just 16 cents per $1,000.
“He was trying to fiddle with the levy rate after Prop 5 barely passed,” Whatcom County Council member Barry Buchanan said in June this year. “That’s not what the people voted for, and there was no upside to doing that other than maybe to please the conservatives. I think it was maybe a political move, but it didn’t work.”
Buchanan ran against Sidhu in the August primary and earned 13.95% of the vote. The council voted to keep the established levy rate.
Sidhu is pitching a creative approach, which he says is encouraged in other nations, to solving the lack of housing countywide: possibly building new cities.
New cities on the horizon?
Though buildable lands may seem sparse in the region due to increased environmental protections, flood zones and agricultural use, Sidhu wants to create new cities in Whatcom, equipped with homes, businesses and utilities. And he already knows where to do it.
“Custer is a place you could easily put 25,000, 30,000 people,” he said during his endorsement interview. “That land is not good for agriculture. That land is not flood area. That land is rolling hills and nothing else.”
He said basic infrastructure upgrades and apartment construction in places like Bellingham, where the buildings and utilities are aging, won’t be enough to craft a 21st-century city safe from environmental hazards.
Addressing the joint housing-homeless crisis is in Sidhu’s top priorities this election, although he said the county is limited in what it can do. Local governments didn’t create the crisis, and the state and federal governments need to step up to solve it, he told CDN’s editorial board in August.
“We cannot solve the homelessness problem by 10 people at a time, or 50 people at a time,” Sidhu said. “I think the county, not just me as one person, the county government has paid a lot of attention to this issue, and they’ve done a good job. But we can do better. We can do more. ”