A disheartened Spokane Mayor Jim West, reflecting Wednesday on his historic ouster from City Hall, said no one on the current City Council – including Council President Dennis Hession – is qualified to fill his shoes.
“I think there are people in this community that could do a better job than anyone on the City Council,” West told news reporters just hours after being recalled by 65 percent of voters who cast ballots.
Hession quickly fired back at an afternoon press conference of his own. Not only is West wrong about his qualifications, Hession said, but he and his council colleagues have been left to mend wounds caused by seven months of scandal and a nasty recall fight.
“We obviously have a credibility issue, a trust issue that’s been created by this situation,” said Hession, who becomes acting mayor under the City Charter on Dec. 16 and is widely expected to win a subsequent council appointment to the remainder of West’s term.
“It’s up to the council and the new mayor to restore that credibility. It takes time to build back your credibility. The council knows, we know, we have some work to do,” said Hession, a veteran business attorney who won the council presidency in 2003, the same year that West claimed the mayor’s office.
Initially, West and Hession worked well together, until a Spokesman-Review investigation revealed last May that West had abused his position as mayor to solicit dates with young men, including teens, over a gay Internet chat line. Hession, forced to distance himself from the mayor, led a council vote calling on West to resign.
When West refused to step down, Hession arranged an independent investigation that confirmed that West had misused his city computer and had offered city positions to prospective dates.
Animosity between the two continued on Wednesday in a pair of press conferences.
West said the council should consider appointing someone from outside City Hall as mayor.
Hession said the city needs strong leadership with experience in elected office to fill the void. He promised some changes, including a more aggressive approach to annexations, new support for consolidated city-county services and improved guidelines for growth along the city’s boundaries.
“I’m ready for the challenge,” Hession said.
He announced formation of a transition committee to guide him as he assumes the title of acting mayor on the same day the county auditor certifies recall results.
Hession’s transition committee does not include anyone who worked on the recall campaign.
Rita Amunrud, a key organizer of the recall drive, complained that city leaders deserted citizens in their campaign to oust West. Amunrud said one or more of the recall campaigners should be seated on the transition committee.
“I think they better listen because the people have spoken. They are empowered now,” she said Tuesday during an election night gathering.
For his part, West on Tuesday had sequestered himself in a private home with his father and a few political supporters. Only a single documentary crew working for public broadcasting’s “Frontline” program was allowed to cover the gathering at the home of former Democratic state Sen. Lois Stratton, who contributed $200 to West’s anti-recall campaign.
West said he wasn’t surprised when results were announced. Although others around him broke into tears, including his father, West said he remained dry-eyed Tuesday night. His father quietly left Stratton’s house without saying goodbye to his defeated son.
The recalled mayor told reporters he remains “embarrassed by it,” meaning the scandal, and has “regrets in my personal life.”
In 1986, during his long career as a Republican state lawmaker, West had backed failed legislation that would have banned gays from working in schools, day-care centers and some state agencies. His political views caused comedian Al Franken to label him Spokane’s “anti-gay gay mayor” during an appearance in the Lilac City earlier this fall.
On Tuesday, West refused to talk about his private life, telling a New York Times reporter at one point it is “none of your damn business.”
Even so, he said he regrets having signed on to the 1986 bill that would have barred gays from certain jobs.
Dean Lynch, Spokane’s first openly gay politician and a former City Council member, said he wasn’t surprised by the recall outcome. “It’s a symptom of what happens when one is living with secrets,” Lynch said.
“I think the recall passing by such a significant margin makes it a definitive statement. It’s so decisive that it will help us put this behind us,” Lynch added. “I’m sure it’s very painful for him, but the community needs to move on.”
Others in Spokane’s gay community said they weren’t surprised by the 30 percent margin favoring West’s recall.
“There’s no surprise,” said Mike Schultz, publisher and executive editor of Stonewall News, a monthly newspaper which covers the gay community. The newspaper in December came out in favor of the recall.
“The polls showed this was going to happen, and the outcome is very consistent with the polls,” Schultz said.
The decisive recall, Schultz said, was triggered by an “overall, general sense of hypocrisy on his part. It undermines his credibility and his leadership.”
“The gay community was pretty unified in supporting the recall,” he said. “When we’re talking about Jim West, we’re talking about a lot of things. But when you add up those little pieces, the consensus was it’s time for him to go.”
Gay activist Bonnie Aspen, a member of OutSpokane and a director of the Rainbow Center, also said she expected the recall result.
“I have a tremendous amount of compassion for the man, and I am very grateful for what he did for this city for years, but I voted to recall him,” Aspen said.
She supported the recall, Aspen said, because she works with youth and thinks it was inappropriate for a person of West’s age to approach young adults for sexual relations. “For a 54-year-old person to be involved with someone who’s barely legal, I really question that judgment,” Aspen said.
“I am so happy that the citizens of Spokane did not make this a gay issue,” she said. “This is an abuse-of-power issue and almost everyone in Spokane seems to get that.”
Aspen said she believes the recall “has humbled him (West) somewhat and opened some windows to him about his past behavior.”
“I know our gay community is really looking forward to a time when all of us can be open and honest about who we are without repercussions,” she said.
West still faces a battle with cancer that started in his colon and spread to his liver. West has been undergoing chemotherapy in recent months. “My health is good as far as I know. I feel strong,” he said Wednesday.
He declined to speculate about a possible return to elective politics. “I’m certainly not going to make a statement like (former President) Richard Nixon that you won’t have Jim West to kick around anymore.”
He said he has spent more than $100,000 on legal costs.
“I’ll be looking for work. Do you have any jobs?” he joked.
West also said he plans to sue The Spokesman-Review, but wouldn’t provide details.
“My lawyers are quite confident and will be taking it on a contingency basis, and I will leave it at that,” he said.
“If nothing else, this proves the recall process works,” West said, in part because it prevents elected officials from being removed on a “whim” in any political vendetta by City Council members.
He said he is glad he did not resign, despite calls from the council and business groups last spring that he step down to end the scandal.
“To resign would have been to admit to the guilt as alleged,” he said.