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Bellingham mayor: Fleetwood faced major challenges in first term

Incumbent envisions a climate-friendly, culturally diverse future for city

A profile photo of Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood wearing a dark blue pair of glasses.
Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood defends his sweep of the homeless camp outside City Hall in January 2021, saying his administration's actions resulted in two new tiny home villages. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

To say Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood had a difficult first term would be putting it mildly.

The mayor’s tenure has been controversial, at least for some observers. He ordered the sweep of unhoused people from in front of City Hall in January 2021. Later that year, he fired police officers who refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Both decisions provoked strong criticism, from progressives on one hand and conservatives on the other.

But his biggest regret from his first four years in office had nothing to do with these moments. Rather, like a lot of people, Fleetwood said he was particularly troubled by the isolating effects of the pandemic. 

“I wanted to be a mayor who was out in the public and got to know everybody, walked around, walked down the streets and said ‘hello’ to people,” Fleetwood said. “And then I get stuck with shelter in place and remote work.

“I very much wanted to be an accessible, engaged mayor,” he added. “I’d just kind of like to be able to do that more in my second term.”

In pursuit of that goal, Fleetwood will be on Bellingham ballots in the Nov. 7 election. His opponent is Kim Lund, a political newcomer who, like Fleetwood, grew up in Bellingham.

A Bellingham upbringing

Fleetwood, 60, graduated from Sehome High School and went to Western Washington University for two years before finishing his political science degree at the University of Washington. He then earned a law degree from Willamette University.

Fleetwood kept a law office in Fairhaven’s Terminal Building for 25 years until he shuttered it after becoming mayor in 2020.

Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood waves to the crowd during a Memorial Day parade in May.
Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood waves to the crowd while sitting in the back of the truck with the flag waving behind him. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

His political career started with two terms on the Whatcom County Council, from 2002 to 2009. He ran for an open Bellingham mayor’s seat in 2007 but finished fourth in the primary. 


He found success on the ballot again in 2009 and 2011, winning consecutive two-year terms on the Bellingham City Council. 

After stepping away from the council at the end of 2013, Fleetwood launched an ill-fated campaign for state Senate against prominent Ferndale Republican Doug Ericksen in 2014. Fleetwood lost big to Ericksen but returned to public office as Bellingham’s mayor after winning the 2019 race against then-city council member April Barker.

“I love this work,” Fleetwood said. “The things that give me the most satisfaction in my life have been in the public realm rather than the private realm. That’s been the case pretty much my entire adulthood.”

Camp 210 sweep

Fleetwood’s first year in office offered one challenge after another: first COVID-19, then racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. That fall, dozens of homeless people camped around City Hall in another act of protest, demanding housing for all.

Some voters haven’t forgotten the early 2021 sweep of Camp 210, as the protest was called. 

“All of us remember those armored cars,” said Tina McKim, a food justice activist who was supporting houseless people during their time in Camp 210, which was named after City Hall’s address: 210 Lottie St. “We remember the snipers on the roof and the blown-out, over-the-top response that Fleetwood initiated.” 

Fleetwood defended his decision to clear the lawn around City Hall, more than two months after the protest started, amid public outcry by some residents to remove the camp. And he distanced himself from the rooftop SWAT team and the Border Patrol presence, saying they were the result of decisions made by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

On the positive side, Fleetwood said, Camp 210 prompted the city to establish two new tiny home villages — one near Civic Field and another called Gardenview, at Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street.

When protesters rejected a proposal for a third new tiny home village, the mayor decided to clear Camp 210.

From the perspective of some city council members, the homeless protest was tainted by troublemakers who were less interested in helping homeless people and more interested in starting a fight.

“It was very clear to me we were being attacked by people who were engaged in the politics of confrontation rather than the politics of solution-seeking,” council member Michael Lilliquist said.

Skip Williams wasn’t elected to the city council until late 2021 but observed how the mayor had handled Camp 210.

“He was bound and determined not to give them what they wanted, which was a conflict with the city,” Williams said. 

“He found a way to … set up the tiny home villages,” he added. “That is a strong response, in my mind.”

Williams and Lilliquist both endorsed Fleetwood’s reelection bid.

Climate change

Fleetwood has a long history of environmental work, with People for Puget Sound and on the county council, where he advocated for land-use decisions that protected natural resources. 

He shifted his focus from local issues to global climate change after attending a 2013 Bellingham City Club presentation by Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish. Dewey spoke of the threat to aquatic life from increasing ocean acidification brought on by carbon emissions.

“That was the moment I realized it’s not just about regional environmental protections anymore,” Fleetwood said. “That’s when the climate, for me, became the overarching environmental issue.”

Seth Fleetwood talks as he gestures with one hand to two interviewers.
Interview with Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood on Sept. 6 in Bellingham (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)

To spur Bellingham’s transition to greener energy sources and lower carbon outputs, the mayor in 2022 proposed a property tax that would have supported a Climate Action Fund. He pulled the plug on his proposed ballot measure, however, after realizing it didn’t have enough support.

Even so, the mayor made strides on climate, winning city council approval for a new Climate Action Office.

“I recognize the argument is always made that we’re just a small fraction (of global carbon emissions),” Fleetwood said. “The point is, we all commit to doing that, and Bellingham is going to live its values.”

If re-elected, the mayor also said he would look forward to working on updates to the city and Whatcom County’s comprehensive plans, which project population and job growth over the next 20 years. The new plans are due in mid-2025 and work has already begun, with the city seeking public input online.

Comprehensive planning is a sometimes tedious process, but Fleetwood sees it as significant.

“The next comprehensive plan is going to be a profoundly important opportunity for creating a newly inspired vision for the future of Bellingham,” Fleetwood said.

More specifically, Fleetwood said he wanted to address the city’s housing affordability crisis by ensuring more homes are built. New state laws that encourage denser development in single-family neighborhoods should help, Fleetwood said.

Another priority for a second term would be to help direct the spending on the next Greenways levy, which also appears on this fall’s ballot. The city has raised more than $100 million so far through the levy, which has been used to purchase and maintain green spaces in the city.

Greenways and affordable housing are part of the mayor’s broader vision for a more sustainable, more equitable Bellingham.

“I know words like ‘equity’ and ‘sustainability’ are thrown around, but that is fundamentally the object,” Fleetwood said.

“We’re a glorious place, and I want to see us just continue to do the best we can with it so that it doesn’t get overrun like some places do, where great places become bad places,” he added. “I want this good place to get even better.”

INFOBOX

Seth Fleetwood

Age: 60

Home: Bellingham’s South Hill neighborhood

Education: Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Washington, law degree from Willamette University

Employment: Current Bellingham mayor

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