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Vancouver Port Commissioner Race is All About an Oil Terminal

July 24, 2015

Voters in Vancouver, Wash., will elect a new Port Commissioner next month. The results could affect the future of a proposed oil terminal.

The terminal, called the Vancouver Energy Project, has deeply divided the region. And it has defined the race for the next Port of Vancouver Commissioner.

This year, tens of thousands of dollars have poured into an election that since 2009 has traditionally seen candidates running unopposed.

Lisa Ross Supports Oil Terminal

Port Commissioner candidate Lisa Ross said she supports the oil terminal project, while candidate Eric LaBrant said he opposes it. The two candidates in the race are running for the seat currently held by Nancy Baker, who announced this spring she wouldn't seek re-election.

If built, the terminal would be the largest in the country. Crude oil would be sent by trains from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana through the Columbia River Gorge. It would be offloaded at the Port of Vancouver, transferred onto ships and then sent to refineries along the West Coast.

“I support the oil terminal because we’re a port, ports move freight,” Ross said. 

She said if the oil terminal gets built, the city of Vancouver will get to capitalize on the jobs and economic growth associated with an oil boom.

“If they do not stop at the Port of Vancouver, they will continue their way either up through Clark County or farther down to California and they will get the benefit; they will get the boom and we won’t,” she said.

Backers of the project have said in the past that the terminal will create more than 300 construction jobs in the short term and about 200 additional jobs once it's up and running.

Ross is a CPA by training. She moved to southwest Washington from Montgomery, Ala., with her family in 2003 in search of a cooler climate that might help her multiple sclerosis. It did.

“I have a second chance at life and I’m really trying to make a difference," she said.

In 2013, Ross unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Vancouver school board. And last November, she ran as a Republican candidate for the Washington Legislature, but lost.

“This is the funnest one because it’s all about jobs. You know, there’s all kinds of tricky situations in a lot of races, especially state rep," Ross said. "But the port is all about jobs.”

Campaign finance records show Ross has raised more than $47,000 in cash and in-kind donations. Some of her largest donors include Clark County Councilor David Madore, Vancouver real estate developer Clyde Holland, as well as Tesoro Corporation and Savage Companies – the backers of the oil terminal.

Eric LaBrant Opposes Oil Terminal

Vancouver Port Commissioner candidate Eric LaBrant is against the oil terminal.

“I love Vancouver. Vancouver has a lot to offer and that’s where I’m at," he said. "If the port’s prosperous, that puts Vancouver in a position to be prosperous as well. I don’t think the oil terminal is the way to get there.”

For the last four years, LaBrant has chaired the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association, which represents homeowners just across the street from the Port of Vancouver. He said he's worked with neighbors and light industrial companies that move into the community.

He works as a collections specialist for an international shipping company called UTi in downtown Portland. “So I’m talking to companies that are making international shipments on a daily basis, frankly at ports that are usually quite a bit bigger than the Port of Vancouver," he said.

LaBrant’s raised more than $227,000 toward his campaign so far in cash and in-kind donations. Some of his major donors include the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and James Johnson, who ran the online security software company Tripwire until last month.

“I’m not going into this with the mindset of saying no to everything or even just to say no to an oil terminal," LaBrant said. "I’m going in there with a mindset of: How do we build Vancouver? How do we grow Vancouver?”

Polls Vary on Public Opinion

A poll conducted over the summer by DHM Research on behalf of Tesoro-Savage found that 68 percent of registered voters in Clark County support the oil terminal. But a poll by FM3 on behalf of Washington Conservation Voters found that 51 percent of likely voters in the Vancouver Port District oppose the project.

Ballots in Washington have been mailed out. A debate between Ross and LaBrandt is scheduled for Oct. 26, 2015, at Washington State University in Vancouver.

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Candidates for the Vancouver Port Commissioner sat in the front row during Think Out Loud's community forum and were given a minute each to share their platform and why voters should vote for them.

Christina Belasco