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At Ease Whether Biking Or Campaigning, John Talbott Delights In A Tight Race

When they cast politics aside, one hops on a bicycle and hits the Centennial Trail, while the other pulls out his cookbooks and fires up the stove. They may not agree on much that goes on at City Hall, but Jack Geraghty and John Talbott have at least one thing in common: They both live full lives outside the public arena. Here’s a look at the private sides of Spokane’s mayoral candidates.

Pedaling along the Centennial Trail on a mild October afternoon, 64-year-old John Talbott barely breaks a sweat as he matter-of-factly recounts the mileposts of his life.

Born in Bellingham to a 14-year-old Italian girl - her second child … adopted at six months by a woman whose alcoholic husband wanted nothing to do with the baby and left … jailed at 16 for stealing.

Graduated from Gonzaga High School … a four-year stint in the Air Force … met and married the girl of his dreams … re-enlisted and, against formidable odds, rose to full colonel.

Talbott seems completely relaxed aboard his 16-speed Trek road bike, soaking up the autumn sunshine, reflecting on the grace and good fortune that got him where he is today - in a runoff race for Spokane mayor. Could this possibly be the same man who, just two hours earlier, was going for the jugular during a Public Radio debate with incumbent Jack Geraghty?

Discussing the proposed Lincoln Street bridge, Talbott takes the offensive with the subtlety of a drill sergeant.

“Are you going to build the bridge or aren’t you?” Talbott taunts Geraghty.

“As soon as we hear back from the citizens’ committee, we’ll see,” Geraghty responds.

“You’re waffling again!” Talbott counters. “Let’s be decisive.”

“If we’re going to listen to the citizens,” Geraghty reiterates in an even tone, “if we’re going to set up a process here, then I’m willing to abide by …” “Well that will be something that is refreshing,” Talbott interrupts. “For once we’ll see you listening to the citizens and not simply shelving their ideas.”

As Talbott continues baiting Geraghty - “You hear but you don’t listen,” he says dismissively - moderator Doug Nadvornick jumps in to re-establish a tone of civility.

But the damage is done. Talbott’s message - however legitimate - is muddied by his in-your-face delivery.

Back on the Centennial Trail, a much calmer Talbott tries to put public perceptions into perspective. “People who say I’m negative don’t know me,” he explains. “All I’m doing is asking questions.

“I’ve always been a very forceful, right-up-front sort of person,” he says. “If something’s wrong, it’s wrong and I’ll tell you.

“I look at a problem and I see an opportunity. But in Spokane, people want to shoot the guy who points out the problem.”

Not just Spokane.

Claudia Talbott - who says without a hint of regret, “My life began when I married John” 39 years ago - echoes her husband’s assertion that he isn’t the naysayer his opponents have labeled him. “People don’t realize what a tender, gentle, compassionate person he can be.

“But when he goes to a task, he does it wholeheartedly. Because he’s so focused,” she says, “people often see him as rude.”

Claudia recalls times, years ago, during Talbott’s military career, when his forthrightness got him exiled to remote posts such as Labrador, and when neighbors refused to talk to the Talbotts because John had criticized something their child had done.

Politics seemed to bring out his less-diplomatic side, too.

“Sometimes after a City Council meeting,” Claudia recollects, “I’d say, ‘John, you seemed so angry.’ And he’d say, ‘I was angry!’

“‘Well,’ I’d say, ‘you’ve got to be a little more tactful about it.”’

And while she agrees with her husband that he has mellowed, “It was kind of a shock to hear him on KPBX,” Claudia says. “I had not heard him like this for quite some time. I turned the radio off - I couldn’t listen because it really bothered me.”

The Talbotts met when John was 24, Claudia was 19, and she was engaged to another man. Claudia broke off the engagement two weeks before the wedding when she realized she had feelings for John.

“My parents were devastated,” she remembers, sitting in the breakfast room of the couple’s handsome four-bedroom home on the western flank of Five Mile Prairie. “Everyone had counted on my marrying this fine, upstanding guy.”

Then along came Talbott, an Italian Catholic orphan driving a flashy convertible. “My family was Scandinavian and pretty bigoted. I suppose John was all the things parents worried about with their child back then.”

Her parents disowned her at first, Claudia says, and it took years before her family was comfortable with Talbott. (Ironically, two decades later, after her mother’s death, her father remarried - this time choosing an Italian Catholic. “He said, ‘Claudia, you did so good, I thought I should give it a try.”’)

Talbott held a number of jobs - from club bouncer to printer’s devil to office-equipment repairman - but never saw himself as a leader until an Air Force captain suggested he apply to officer candidate school.

His performance at OCS was mediocre, Talbott admits, just like his high school years. “Don’t worry about winning anything, just get through - that was my goal,” he says.

Other factors, too, worked against his career. Talbott was a “mustang” - an enlisted man in the commissioned ranks. He had no college credits, no flying experience and no sponsor. “I was expected to retire as a major, at most,” he says.

His prospects improved, though, in the mid-‘70s, when Talbott was picked for chief of maintenance, the No. 2 job in the communications squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont.

The squadron had a history of administrative chaos, Talbott says. The previous five maintenance chiefs and the previous four commanders all had been fired. “But I just fit with the new commander.”

Shortly after Talbott’s arrival, though, the commander had a heart attack. “Normally they wouldn’t give the command to a mustang. But nobody else wanted the job, so I got it,” Talbott says. And by the time he was ready to move on, “the squadron had won every award in maintenance, management and administration that the Strategic Air Command had to offer.”

Talbott eventually earned an undergraduate degree in social science and a master’s in community development, while Claudia raised the couple’s two sons.

After his retirement from the Air Force in 1982, Talbott says he was invited by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to set up an engineering team like the operation he ran in the Air Force. “I’m not an engineer,” he points out, “but you can do any job if you can surround yourself with the people it takes to do it. The same is true with being mayor.”

Since retiring from JPL and moving to Spokane in 1989, Talbott has been involved in community affairs. “I’d rather be playing racquetball,” he says, “but that’s not what life’s all about. I retired with a lot of experience, and I want to put it to use.”

Talbott says he owes a debt to Spokane for the help he received after his run-in with the law as a teenager. Caught stealing guns from his employer, Talbott spent several days in juvenile detention and six months on probation.

“That was a turning point in my life,” he says. “Men in the neighborhood came around me and didn’t condemn me. They made sure I didn’t do it again.”

Talbott describes himself as a Christian who believes in practicing what he preaches.

“During home Bible study, I’m the guy who says, ‘You talk about all this stuff you believe, but what are you doing about it? Are you, in fact, your neighbor’s keeper? Do you care about the hungry and the poor? Are you involved in your government?’

“Because that’s what it’s all about,” says Talbott. “Being involved. It’s a commitment, a responsibility that we have for each other.”

His first foray into public life came as a member of the city’s Community Development Board. That tour of duty didn’t go smoothly.

“People on the board were not used to somebody asking questions or challenging answers, and I was told certain things were none of my damn business,” Talbott says. “So I resigned from the board, and continued asking questions and challenging answers.”

In 1991, Talbott ran unsuccessfully against City Councilman Bob Dellwo in the primary, then filed as a write-in candidate for Bev Numbers’ council seat in the general election. He lost that race, too, but Orville Barnes, whom Talbott supported, did win a council seat.

Talbott ran for mayor in 1993, finishing fourth.

By early 1995, Talbott had soured on Barnes and the rest of the council, and vowed to stay away from council meetings, calling any effort to change city government “futile.”

But within months he’d changed his mind, and ran against incumbent Councilman Barnes. Talbott lost by 200 votes.

Once again, Talbott seemed headed for a self-imposed exile. But, as he told his wife before filing for mayor at the last moment, “You can only do yard work for so long.”

Talbott surprised some pundits when he finished second in the mayoral primary last month, ahead of former Mayor Sheri Barnard and Republican state Rep. Duane Sommers. Talbott captured 28 percent of the vote to Geraghty’s 33.

Now he may be on the verge of leading an elected body whose members he has repeatedly criticized and even, on occasion, urged to resign.

“The idea of his winning is almost frightening,” says Claudia, “because the attack on him will be so strong. But I’ve never had such peace about an election. We’ve prayed about it a lot, and our friends have prayed about it.”

For his part, Talbott dismisses any potential acrimony between him and council members.

“Next year, my job will be to bring people together, solve problems and move Spokane forward,” he says, relaxing on a Centennial Trail bench as in-line skaters cruise by.

“Whether I like a person or not - whether a person likes me or not - the task is to work together as a team. That’s been the job every place I’ve ever been.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

MEMO: See candidate profile under the headline: John Talbott

See story about Jack Geraghty under the headline: At ease / If you can’t take the heat, get out of Jack Geraghty’s kitchen

See candidate profile under the headline: John Talbott

See story about Jack Geraghty under the headline: At ease / If you can’t take the heat, get out of Jack Geraghty’s kitchen