The number of contenders to replace state Sen. Bob McCaslin is growing but efforts to get the seat filled quickly were derailed Thursday.
Saturday’s meeting to nominate possible replacements was postponed after a group supporting a leading contender, Rep. Matt Shea, called for a major demonstration outside the gathering to make sure County Commissioners heed the will of the people.
A group called Spokane Patriots Minutemen sent out an e-mail to members calling for a “flash mob for liberty” to gather outside the New Life Assembly Church Saturday morning, where 4th Legislative District precinct committee officers had been scheduled to nominate three possible replacements for McCaslin, who resigned Jan. 4 for health reasons after 30 years in the Senate.
Members of the group were encouraged in the e-mail to form a large, vocal crowd holding signs with a common theme: “Commissioners, listen to the people! Defy us and you WILL be voted out of office!”
County GOP Chairman Matthew Pederson said e-mail may have been misunderstood. “A flash mob is nothing to be concerned about,” he said, noting that such impromptu gatherings often feature singing and dancing. But church elders, who he said may have been concerned about the word mob, withdrew permission to use the facility.
When he finds a new place, precinct officers will get 10-day notice for the new meeting.
Meg Doherty, a spokeswoman for the group, also insisted the term was used to denote a light-hearted gathering but added, “in hindsight, I can see how it could have been misinterpreted.”
Steve Williams, pastor of the New Life church, said the meeting went from “a small gathering of about 100 to something much larger,” and the church decided to let it go elsewhere. Douherty allayed his fears about what the flash mob would entail, but the church realizes there some “high emotions” over the appointment. People have every right to express them, but in a better venue, he added.
“Nobody’s upset, nobody’s offended,” said Williams, who is a Republican precinct officer.
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said he was concerned about a “somewhat threatening tone” of the e-mail that commissioners must appoint the top choice of the party officials or face problems in the next election. Patriot groups claim to follow the constitution, but that’s not what the constitution orders commissioners to do when filling a vacancy, he said.
“The constitution says the appointees will come from the same political party. Our role is to choose the most qualified one,” Mielke said.
Commissioners have appointed people who weren’t the precinct officers’ first choice. In 2006, they chose Ozzie Knezovich over Cal Walker to fill the sheriff’s job; Knezovich beat Walker that year in the primary, and last year ran unopposed for the seat. In that case, Mielke said, precinct officers got a brief speech from candidates before they voted; commissioners compiled large files, conducted separate 90-minute interviews and held a public hearing before selecting.
If commissioners don’t pick the precinct officers’ first choice, Doherty said, it tells the public the appointment process was part of “an elite structure” that ignores the public.
“The little guys, the regular people, are pretty sick and tired of feeling like they’re not listened to,” she said.
The group’s e-mail also warns that the appointment is being “manipulated by people from across the state,” but Doherty would only say the group has heard anecdotes and rumors about that maneuvering. “I’d rather not talk about things we’ve heard, but they’re wide and varied.”
At least seven people have notified county GOP officials they will seek the appointment. Shea, the district’s junior House member, received the party Executive Board’s endorsement on Jan. 4 before most of the other candidates had entered the race.
Rep. Larry Crouse, the district’s senior House member, is not actively seeking the seat. Mike Padden, who served in the House 14 years and was a County District Court judge for 11, has applied for the job. He has the support of McCaslin and former state Rep. Lynn Schindler, Shea’s predecessor in the House.
Former Valley Mayor Diana Wilhite, a long-time party activist, also is seeking the appointment. She questions the decision by the GOP executive board to endorse on Jan. 4, before interviewing the prospective candidates. “They didn’t even know who was going to apply,” Wilhite said.
Since board’s endorsement, Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman, and district leaders Jeff Baxter and Leonard Christian, an unsuccessful candidate for county auditor last year, also said they will seek the post.
Should Shea be appointed, his House seat would become open and the replacement process would be repeated and some of the other candidates said they will seek that job. But Republicans can’t send a second list to the commissioners of possible replacements for Shea at the same time, because they can’t nominate someone until the seat is open.