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Outcome of Prop 4 debate reflects setting

Anyone laboring under the misconception that political debates take place on neutral turf would have been disabused of such foolishness Friday at a Proposition 4 debate.

Three members of Envision Spokane, the group trying to persuade Spokane to pass what they call the Community Bill of Rights, played what sports fans would call an away game, debating before a Greater Spokane Inc. breakfast crowd of about 150.

How unbalanced the crowd was would be hard to quantify with mathematical certainty, so let’s try anecdotally: Everyone passed rows of blue and yellow “Vote No on Prop 4” yard signs as they walked in the door. Employees of GSI handed out cards urging “Vote No on Prop 4.” All questions to panelists from the floor were queries critical of Prop 4, which meant supporters answered first and opponents got the last word through rebuttal.

In the Arena’s Champions Room, which was the debate venue, feelings toward Prop 4 might have been slightly better than the attitude toward the Oregon Ducks in a men’s room at WSU’s Martin Stadium. (For those who’ve never been there, let’s just say there are interesting places one finds rubber duckies.)

And if the panelists from Envision Spokane expected anything less, they were foolish. GSI has been dissing the Community Bill of Rights since it became a blip on the City Council’s radar screen.

So give them points for bravery, but – forgive the sports metaphor – in a setup like this, you gotta bring your A game. Envision Spokane sent three members of the organizational infrastructure – campaign coordinator Chad Nicholson, campaign manager Kai Huschke and legal adviser Tom Linzey – to lock horns with former county commissioner/political operative/ business operator Kate McCaslin, lawyer and former deputy city attorney Milt Rowland and fourth-generation business owner Laura Lawton.

Huschke tried a bit of humor in his opening statement, saying well, yes, opponents were right about the massive debts, lawsuits and job losses Prop 4 would cause, and the city actually would cease to exist if it passed, so “we’re left with no other choice but to throw in the towel, admit our mistake and move on. … Of course, I’m being sarcastic.”

That was met with stone cold silence, and the rest of the debate was a struggle. They’d make a point but leave themselves open to a major counterpunch, such as when Linzey defended the additional environmental protections in Prop 4 by saying existing laws aren’t doing enough. “By almost every environmental statistic, things are worse today than they were 40 years ago.”

Well, no, not every stat. Lead exposure is down, as are asbestos, mercury and cadmium exposure. Air quality in Spokane is better most days thanks to less grass field burning. Fewer folks in the Valley are flushing toilets into septic tanks over the aquifer.

Flame retardants were recently found in high levels in the Spokane River, as Linzey noted, but no one’s sure where they came from or how long they’ve been there. When Prop 4 panelists suggested the Spokane River was cleaner 40 years ago, many of the graying heads in the audience who could remember back that far were shaking “no way.”

They may have gotten some sympathy points when the antis took every opportunity to pat them on the head and say what well-meaning and idealistic (read: young and clueless) people they were. McCaslin’s “let me tell you about running a business” line was a predictable zinger they didn’t have a quick response for.

A few audience members, when asked after the debate who had won, gave the you-must-be-joking look and started their response with “In this crowd?” and indicated they thought GSI may have been guilty of running up the score.

But it did remind me of advice heard years ago: When walking into the lion’s den, one should go extremely well armed. Daniel walked in and out with nothing but his sandals and a robe. But he was on the side of the angels.