The City of Spokane’s three largest unions are mounting a campaign against incumbent Mayor Dennis Hession, buying newspaper ads this week to urge voters to back his opponents just as ballots are about to hit the mail.
Unions that represent police officers, firefighters and city employees are taking out ads in The Spokesman-Review and the Pacific Northwest Inlander to highlight their support of the two main challengers for the city’s top position.
Greg Borg, president of the Spokane firefighters union Local 29, said the strategy could be described as an “anybody but Hession” effort, and was unprecedented in his memory.
The firefighters have endorsed City Councilman Al French in the Aug. 21 primary, giving his campaign $5,000 and spending about another $1,000 on yard signs backing his election. They’ve also been campaigning door-to-door for him and are getting help from union firefighters who live in Spokane and work for a neighboring district to help with the campaign.
If French does not make it through the primary, however, the firefighters would support Councilwoman Mary Verner in the general election, Borg said.
The ads will note the firefighters’ endorsement, as well as the dual endorsements of the city’s largest union, Local 270 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for French and Verner.
They will also say that the Police Guild has not endorsed any candidate, but has taken a vote of “no confidence” in Hession
The mayor said Tuesday the unions’ ads were a natural outgrowth of difficult labor negotiations.
“I’m very proud of my relationships with our individual employees,” Hession said after attending a candidates forum sponsored by Odyssey Youth Group. “When I negotiate contracts with our unions, I have to take stances contrary to their wishes, and sometimes that puts me at odds with the union management.”
The campaign to find a replacement for the incumbent is not quite an acknowledgement that Hession – who has raised more money than Verner and French combined – is a shoo-in to get through the primary, Borg said. But it is a statement that one of those two challengers is likely to square off against Hession and “if our favorite doesn’t get there, we can support the other,” he said.
French said the campaign will “provide clarity” for voters about leadership at City Hall.
Verner said that while she appreciates the unions’ support, she views it as a risky strategy that could help with some voters and hurt with others.
Pro-union voters could be swayed by learning that the city’s largest bargaining units are opposing Hession and backing her and French, she said.
“But there is a perception in some quarters of city unions being too strong,” Verner added, and those voters might react negatively. For them, it will be important to emphasize her belief that the unions have been a major part of suggesting solutions to the city’s financial problems.
French said that neither he nor Verner had to promise anything to the unions to gain their endorsements. “It’s about their ability to work with us, not necessarily to agree with us,” he said.
The mayoral primary includes two other challengers who don’t serve on the council. Michael Noder, a demolition contractor who serves on the Solid Waste Advisory Committee, said he wasn’t sure how the unions’ strategy will affect the race, but understands their frustration with poor communication in City Hall. He promised to have an open dialog and build consensus with the unions.
A fifth candidate, retiree Robert Kroboth, who is accepting no contributions or endorsements, declines media interviews and doesn’t attend forums or debates.