Northwest Spokane residents who don’t like to talk politics, or talk with politicians, might want to be careful answering their doors for the next month.
Chances are pretty good it could be one of the seven people who want to be their next City Council member, most of whom are going doorstep to doorstep in a search for votes in the Sept. 20 primary.
With popular two-term incumbent Cherie Rodgers forced into retirement by the City Charter’s term limits rule, the race for a seat in District Three has turned into a free-for-all featuring candidates with a wide range of experiences, philosophies and opinions.
What there isn’t, however, is a wide range of options for this septet of council hopefuls to get their names and messages out to voters in this district, a third of the city’s population. The district generally stretches west from Division Street and north from downtown.
“I think it’s real challenging,” said Judith Gilmore, one of the first candidates into the race, and a veteran of a five-way primary in 1999. “For one thing, it’s always challenging to do races when a good many of your voters don’t start paying attention until after Labor Day or school starts.”
Steve Corker, a former councilman looking for another stint, agreed: “I think the challenge is just stirring public interest in the race.”
Campaign ads on television, radio or in the daily newspaper aren’t too cost-effective, because at least 80 percent of the people who would see or hear those ads live outside the district, said Corker, a longtime advertising and public relations specialist in Spokane. In this low-budget race, those campaign options are likely to be considered a waste of money.
To gain name recognition, some candidates have bought billboard ads along the district’s arterials, and most have plans to put up at least some yard signs.
If all seven get into a yard-sign war, however, Northwest Spokane’s main thoroughfares may resemble the description of a busy race coined by state Senate legend Sam Guess: “A sign on every dandelion.”
Because of the logistical problems of gathering all seven candidates, forums featuring the field are few. And when one does occur, as with the session held last Tuesday evening by the League of Women Voters of Spokane, the candidates can find it difficult to tackle tough issues and differentiate themselves.
All proclaimed themselves against the city selling Joe Albi Stadium to developers, with the separation mainly in degrees between “No,” and “Hell, no.” Voters already approved a plan to build a youth sports complex there, as Barbara Lampert noted.
But voters may need good notes or strong memories to remember which candidate offered what possible solution to the northwest Spokane facility’s ongoing problems of debt service and maintenance.
Set up a “Friends of Joe Albi” group to generate some outside income, suggested Nancy McLaughlin.
Get more events into the stadium and surrounding property, like snowmobile races in the winter, suggested Daniel Day.
Have the Chamber of Commerce find ways to attract more businesses to Albi, suggested Keith Springer.
Do something unique with the property, said Joyce McNamee.
Turn to someone like Brett Sports, owners of local minor league baseball and hockey teams, to make Albi and Spokane a center for youth sports, said Gilmore.
“We all seem to be on the same page here,” concluded McLaughlin after each candidate had his or her say on the topic.
A group session works against any of them delivering complex answers for such things as the city’s budget crisis, where projections currently show about $6 million more in planned spending than expected revenues. Describe your solution in 60 seconds, candidates were told at the league forum, and be ready for a 30-second rebuttal or addendum when the television camera comes back around.
But to allow more time for answers and rebuttals could stretch an evening forum into the next morning, so candidates often must pare down their ideas to simple answers to a complex problem.
All are opposed to a proposal being floated by Mayor Jim West to raise the state-mandated limit on property taxes.
“No government has ever taxed itself into prosperity,” said Day, who wants the city to do a better job of attracting small business.
Be more business-friendly, agreed McLaughlin, and annex some nearby urban areas.
Invest in economic development, said Gilmore, who contends cutting more police and firefighters is “not an option.”
Cut “top-heavy administration,” said Lampert.
Look for savings through technological innovation, said Springer.
Rather than a general tax increase, the city might be better off asking voters for a special levy for police and fire, McNamee said.
A special levy for public safety might be an option, Corker agreed, but the city really needs a major overhaul of its tax system. The budget is complicated and “I’ve dealt with that problem before,” he adds.
That’s his segue into resume, something most candidates are likely to stress over issues in their joint appearances as well as their individual campaign brochures. As the only former councilmember in the race, Corker plays up his tenure as an asset for a council that will have no one with more than four years experience after the first of the year.
He knows it could have a downside, because his term coincided with some of the most rancorous debates over River Park Square and a suggestion that the council was dysfunctional. But the upside is that he can point to votes he has taken on a variety of issues.
Most other candidates are pushing the need for fresh faces and fresh ideas, combined with work in the neighborhoods, such as McLaughlin and Gilmore cite, or with nonprofits and foundations, such as McNamee.
In the end, the key to finishing first or second in the primary, and thus moving on to the Nov. 8 primary, is likely to be name recognition.
Gilmore already has some from her prior council runs and activity in Democratic politics. Lampert, who has run for some elective office every year since 1996, may also be slowly working her name into the voters’ consciousness.
Others are scrambling to get name recognition, whether it’s with large rallies like the one McLaughlin held last week, or with signs affixed to the back of pickups, which Springer is driving around town.
But getting voters to know your name is only the first half of the process of obtaining a vote. Closing the sale takes some further connection, through a brochure, a handshake, an answer to a question. For that, most candidates say they are tying on their walking shoes, and hitting the doorsteps.
Some stop at every occupied home, others at every home with a voter, others at homes where voters have voted in most or all of the four last elections.
They haven’t bumped into each other on a street corner yet. But Springer did encounter McLaughlin early in the campaign. On his doorstep.
“We talked for 10 or 15 minutes,” he said.
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