Ron Judd

The Ferndale smelter restart: our political Kabuki theater

The opposite of public process
March 23, 2022 at 5:40 a.m.

By RON JUDD
Executive Editor

One of the few redeeming values of (anti-) social media has been its ability to reestablish ties to people with whom we’ve long lost touch. In recent years, one of these in my case was an old friend and colleague from my early newspaper career days. 

In my years working news beats in Bremerton, the late Julie McCormick was a tough-cookie fellow reporter, at least one generation and several levels of expertise beyond me. Her savvy, gravelly-voiced insider’s take on local politics drew me into many an after-work tavern philosophy session. I learned a lot there — and from simply watching her and other vets around me do their thing.

A few years ago, we reconnected on Facebook. She was long retired, in Port Townsend, and without the bounds of journalistic detachment, ever-more opinionated and all too happy to engage. 

On occasion, we spent probably too many hours debating how the entire country had so quickly gone to hell. Inevitably, my quest for logical meaning from political actions would lead to the same conclusion.

“Kabuki,” she’d inevitably label the latest inexplicable actions of the Mitch McConnells or Susan Collins’s of the world. “It’s all Kabuki, Judd.” 

She was referring less to Kabuki theater, the Japanese high art form emphasizing elaborate costumes and pageantry, than to the modern, pop-culture meaning: the low art of engaging in something more for the point of showmanship than meaning. Soundbite over context, posturing over substance: the near-universal political and sadly, media currency of our day.

A local flashback to an old sentiment

That savvy voice of my friend, now deceased, keeps coming to mind with news swirling about the proposed restart of the Ferndale Intalco aluminum smelter. 

Most of us know the details: The plant closed in 2020, taking with it 700 good-paying jobs, a victim of shifting markets both for the price of aluminum and the massive volumes of electricity used to produce it. In spite of a series of engineered pacts to keep it in the black, the plant finally failed to pencil out.

For many, it was just another nail in the coffin of a blue-collar American dream that for many never existed, and now seems a quaint memory. We've all watched a nation’s sense of common good swept away by decades of corporate raiding of the public till, leaving the populace fighting over what amounts to economic scraps. 

Up here in the Land of Dank and Dark, the resulting thirst for manufacturing jobs provides the perfect cover for elected officials, labor leaders and others to cheerlead the potential reopening of closed doors.

For some, the rusted ones on the Intalco smelter are irresistible: With a newly boosted price of aluminum, proponents say, why not give it another go? Especially when a private suitor, a private-equity firm, Blue Wolf Capital Partners LLC, comes calling with a proposal to re-throw that restart lever.

Public process, or willful charade?

What has followed, sadly, has careened to and fro between wishful thinking and willful charade: Economic-development wonks point out the job and econ benefits. Mayors and councils pledge earnest support. Labor leaders harmonize about transformational opportunities. State and federal leaders toss out lunch-money startup grants and promises of “green” aluminum, whatever that is.

It all looks good, ripe, ready and rarin’ — even by the end of next month (!) said Larry Brown, the head of the Washington State Labor Council, to this publication last week.

All assuming that one ignores the true high-voltage elephant in the room: a cut-rate power deal to make the plan pencil out. Roughly 60% of the cost of producing aluminum is a smelter's electric bill. Any way you do the math, reopening ours is likely to add up to a massive public subsidy, in the term of below-market rates, to operate in the black.

The not-so-small facts mitigating facts — federal laws preventing the agency in question, the Bonneville Power Administration, from bending over that far backward, just for starters — have been ignored for weeks as the political drumbeat to reopen Intalco has built, here and afar.

Kabuki. All Kabuki. 

It’s the sort of spin that makes one cough and wonder why experienced, engaged politicians — like Rep. Rick Larsen, who once again declined to comment on the record — parade around in the big costumes without acknowledging the sheer unlikelihood of what would likely be a substantial handout to a private investor to make the Intalco deal viable. 

Let's not pretend

Reality check: Let’s not pretend this form of corporate welfare via public subsidy doesn’t happen every day; it’s become standard fare, in fact, in the U.S. fighting-for-crumbs wars. Washington state, a historic beneficiary of massive military contracts (looking at you, Boeing), and Cold War bases of questionable merit (howdy, Everett) has been leading the way since the days of Scoop and Maggie.

Is the proposed Intalco relaunch any different, any better, any worse, than those extravagantly costumed corporate welfare programs? Not really, which is neither praise nor condemnation.

In the economic/political cage we’ve erected for ourselves, such subsidies may simply be the cost of clinging to the wreckage of the sunken middle class. But in a more perfect union, a public process to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to underwrite precious jobs might find more creative, healthy industries in which to invest.

Our politics don't work that way. The elevation of private profit-taking over public process leaves us careening between bursts of a news-release laugh track — political points made for the sheer pleasure of cheap applause.

The smelter deal looks iffy, and if it’s to happen, it will follow many months of posturing, prevarication and permitting. Not next month, not anytime soon. To be clear: those jobs would be welcome. But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the process providing them — willfully leaving the most-relevant facts off the table — needs its own retooling.

Kabuki. All Kabuki.


Ron Judd's column appears on Wednesdays. Email: ronjudd@cascadiadaily.com; Twitter: @roncjudd.

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