Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris, the folksy three-term incumbent known as much for his people and political skills as his ties to the construction industry, appeared headed to defeat Tuesday – as were many other Republicans running for county offices.
It was part of the strongest showing by Democrats in more than a decade in county elections.
Even Judy Personett, the leader of the state nursing commission who admitted she knew little about state tax law, was winning a tight race against incumbent Republican Assessor Ralph Baker.
“The national trend is showing up in the local election,” said Harris, who noted he was first elected in the GOP tide that swept the party to power in 1994. “I think it’s the mood of the people.”
Democrats also held onto the treasurer’s and auditor’s offices.
“The mood of the entire county has shifted in the past year,” said Auditor Vicky Dalton, who easily beat her GOP opponent, Mike Volz. Skip Chilberg, who won the county treasurer’s seat after almost a decade’s absence from elected office, said local organization may have played an even bigger role in county races.
“The Democrats fielded a strong slate of candidates,” Chilberg said.
The GOP, however, wasn’t without something to celebrate. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich romped to victory over James Flavel and Prosecutor Steve Tucker retained his office against Bob Caruso. Still, Flavel and Caruso weren’t even backed by the county Democratic Party.
At his campaign party at the Red Lion River Inn, Harris showed little emotion as results giving neighborhood activist Bonnie Mager a strong lead flashed over the big-screen TV.
Harris said he doubted the results would turn around, but he would wait to concede.
“I’ve been honored by the people to serve 12 years,” said Harris, who would have been the second-longest serving commissioner in history had he served a fourth term. “It don’t get much better than that.”
Harris said some voters probably wanted a more diverse commission. The three-member body is made up of three Republican men.
The commissioner also criticized radio ads run by Mager in the last week of the campaign that pointed to Harris’ three sons who have gotten jobs at the county since Harris was first elected in 1994. Democrats frequently charged Harris with nepotism during the campaign season.
“It appears that disingenuous mudslinging is starting to work in this county,” Harris said.
Mager, who held a 5,000 vote lead over Harris, said voters were seeking balance and open government. Mager said the employment of Harris’ sons likely affected some voters’ decisions.
“The campaign has always been not about me, it’s been about bringing everyone into the process as a community,” said Mager, who said she will wait to declare victory.Mager was the first Democrat of three to announce her intent to run for the seat and quickly built a campaign around support she gained as director of the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County. In that role, she had been a vocal critic of what she described as rampant sprawl. Never holding public office before, she cruised to victory in the primary against two former state legislators.
Personett, who was holding to the slimmest margins among the Democrats (50.6 percent to 49.4 percent), wasn’t holding back as she spoke at the Democratic bash.
“I’m going to declare victory, and I’m going to count on the momentum to carry me through,” Personett said.
She said her lead is at least partly the result of missteps Baker made in the final weeks of the campaign.Tuesday night also fostered in the return of Chilberg, who won three terms as the county treasurer starting in 1983. He raised no money and received no major endorsements in his campaign against current deputy treasurer Bob Wrigley.
Knezovich had the easiest election night of any Republican in Spokane County, piling up a win of nearly 3-to-1 over Democrat Flavel, a relatively unknown businessman whose law enforcement experience was nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Close behind Knezovich among the easy victors Tuesday night was County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, who collected 62 percent of the vote against Democratic newcomer Bob Caruso, a private attorney.
Reporters Jim Camden and Mike Prager contributed to this report.