September 12, 1997 in Nation/World

Sommers Touts His Low-Key Leadership

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Despite a govern ment career that spans more than three decades, Duane Sommers considers himself the outsider in the Spokane mayor’s race.

“I’m the fresh face,” says Sommers, noting he’s running against a current mayor, a former mayor and a past mayoral candidate.

“Maybe that’s an advantage for me.”

The silver-haired state representative from the upscale 6th District will face four other candidates in the Sept. 16 primary. The top two vote-getters graduate to the general election.

Of the three major challengers for Mayor Jack Geraghty’s job, Sommers’ platform is the least dramatic.

He’s not pushing for the city attorney or department heads to resign. He’s not accusing city leaders of being beholden to special interest groups.

Sommers isn’t ready to propose sweeping changes to City Hall, he says. “I’m not sure I have the background. I’m hesitant right now to make promises I’m not sure I can keep.”

What he does promise is strong leadership, something he sees lacking in the current city government.

“The role of the mayor is to be out front on issues, to tell citizens what is happening, what should happen, to articulate a direction for the city,” says the former chairman of the Spokane County Republican Party.

“If elected, I will do that,” he says, adding that his priorities are fixing the streets and making sure city staff members don’t call all the shots.

Sommers’ talk of tough leadership doesn’t ring true for Spokane political activist Jan Polek.

“He’s not a leader at all,” says Polek, a Democrat. “He’s introduced almost no legislation … I’ve certainly watched his performance, and he does not get an ‘A.”’

But Brad Benson, also a Republican representative from the 6th District, says if Sommers seems like he’s in the background, it’s because he’s there doing his homework.

“He’s probably not as vocal as I am, but he looks hard to find out what people of his district want … And he’s probably the wiser of the two of us,” Benson says.

Sommers admits he hasn’t written a lot of bills during his eight years in the Legislature. “It’s probably my personality,” he says. “I didn’t want to change the world.”

But Sommers speaks proudly of bills he did push, such as naming the Division Street Bridge after former state Sen. Sam Guess and removing the toll on the Maple Street Bridge.

He wrote a bill that led to tighter notification laws for sex offenders. Last session, he persuaded legislators to give Cheney Cowles Museum an extra $700,000 from the capital budget.

Snaring more state money for Spokane is something Sommers plans to push if he’s mayor - even though that hasn’t been a priority for him as a legislator. He says he’s been “reluctant to go to bat for the city. I wanted to keep the budget down.”

In his two years on the House Capital Budget Committee, Sommers has watched hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned off to the state’s West Side, with only a trickle of money to the east.

Spokane is too self-reliant, he says. “We have this mindset, we don’t want federal money, we don’t want state money. I really believe Spokane should get its share … We’re afraid to let anyone help us.”

Despite his newfound desire to bring more money home, Sommers thinks it’s doubtful anyone can persuade legislators next year to increase the state gas tax to pay for road repairs. “It’s an election year,” he cautions.

Dollars to fix Spokane’s streets must be found in the city’s spending plan, he says.

Sommers isn’t ready to say where he’d cut the budget. But having worked for state and county government for 25 years, he’s certain spending can be cut by at least 5 percent.

“Bureaucrats ask for more than they need,” says the former public health administrator.

Councilman Jeff Colliton says it’s not that easy. He’s spent nearly two years looking for places to trim the budget. “Do we cut public safety? Do we cut parks? Everyone has all these grandiose budget-cut ideas,” he says.

Besides his desire for a leaner budget, Sommers says he wants to change the way the council does business.

He thinks city staff should present the council with alternatives, not just a single recommendation. Citizens should get a chance to testify on a variety of proposals - and then council members could choose the best one.

“Right now, the council is really just saying yes or no,” he says. “They really should have an opportunity to look at all options.”

County Commissioner Phil Harris says it’s characteristic of Sommers to sit back and give everyone a say before taking a stand. “When other guys are taking their shoes off and beating on the table, Duane is calm and plugging along, listening to people,” Harris says.

Former state Sen. John Moyer says there’s no doubt Sommers is devoted to his constituents. “He answers his phone calls, and there’s a real temptation in the Legislature not to.”

But constituents may not always like how Sommers responds to their concerns.

Ken Withey, a candidate for City Council, sent Sommers a 12-page letter earlier this year complaining that state and local governments weren’t doing enough to keep families together.

In his three-page response, Sommers chastised Withey for expecting government to solve his problems. He quoted two Bible passages and suggested Withey read “some books on developing a positive mental attitude.”

On reflection, Sommers calls his letter a mistake. “I shouldn’t be preaching to anybody,” he says.

Sommers was roundly criticized on talk radio for the letter, he says, adding that years of public service have given him a tough skin.

In fact, critics frequently ask Sommers if he’s “always been on the public dole,” he says.

“Everybody has to have a career in something,” he says, punctuating the statement with his trademark staccato laughter. “Government careers are admirable careers.”

When he retired from the state in 1982, he worked five years as a private health-care consultant before getting into politics.

He’s run for office 11 times, losing only twice - to U.S. Rep. Tom Foley in 1992, and to Spokane County Treasurer Linda Wolverton in 1993.

Even in his spare time, Sommers is a self-described government junkie who watches CNN and C-SPAN. The wall of his office is covered with photographs of Sommers with Republican leaders such as George Bush, Pat Robertson and Newt Gingrich.

When Sommers talks about Gingrich, a Charlton Heston-like smile brightens his face and the dimple in his chin deepens. “I’ve never met a guy with such vision,” he says.

Sommers’ vision for Spokane includes persuading the community to adopt a different attitude. Too often, he says, residents get caught up in negativity, voting down proposals such as the Pacific Science Center and pushing to stop the Lincoln Street bridge.

“We need to change our attitude and be more progressive,” Sommers says. “This two steps forward, one step back, I don’t think is healthy for the city.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: For candidate profile, see headline: Duane Sommers

This sidebar appeared with the story:

SOMMERS ON ISSUES

Proposed Lincoln Street bridge project: Strong supporter. “Someday we’re going to have to build another bridge. Right now, it makes sense.”

Public-private partnerships: Generally supports them, “provided the private (sector) does their share.” He’s not fond of the River Park Square public-private partnership. “I really think there’s too much of the public.”

Street maintenance: Dollars for streets should be a priority in city spending. “The money should be in each year’s budget.”

State Growth Management Act: Opposed the law while he was in the Legislature, but not in favor of having it rescinded. Would like to see regional hearings board lose some power, and would also like the law to be more flexible.

Replacing retiring Police Chief Terry Mangan: New chief should be recognized leader of large police force, and should get along well with people.

Biggest change needed at City Hall: City staff members should give the council options during the decision-making process - not just one alternative.

Top issue: Paying for road repair and other infrastructure improvements.

For candidate profile, see headline: Duane Sommers

This sidebar appeared with the story: SOMMERS ON ISSUES Proposed Lincoln Street bridge project: Strong supporter. “Someday we’re going to have to build another bridge. Right now, it makes sense.” Public-private partnerships: Generally supports them, “provided the private (sector) does their share.” He’s not fond of the River Park Square public-private partnership. “I really think there’s too much of the public.” Street maintenance: Dollars for streets should be a priority in city spending. “The money should be in each year’s budget.” State Growth Management Act: Opposed the law while he was in the Legislature, but not in favor of having it rescinded. Would like to see regional hearings board lose some power, and would also like the law to be more flexible. Replacing retiring Police Chief Terry Mangan: New chief should be recognized leader of large police force, and should get along well with people. Biggest change needed at City Hall: City staff members should give the council options during the decision-making process - not just one alternative. Top issue: Paying for road repair and other infrastructure improvements.


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