January 3, 2010 in City

Decade’s local politics had highs and lows, thrills and chills

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Local politics for the Double Zeroes, or whatever one calls the last decade, started with a promise of a new millenium and a broken campaign promise. It ended with lots of zeroes behind red-hued numbers – the difference between what our governments expect to take in and what they are scheduled to pay out.

In between, governments were restructured, ballots recounted, politicians recalled or forced to resign.

Here’s Spin Control’s quick look at the late, and probably not so lamented, decade in local politics:

2000: George Nethercutt breaks term limits pledge, wins re-election anyway. Elected in 1994 after pledging to serve no more than three terms and dismissing his opponent’s seniority and clout as House speaker, Nethercutt announced seniority was important and ran for a fourth term. He was labeled “the weasel king” in Doonesbury, was stalked by costumed activists, faced a firestorm from term-limit supporters – but had plenty of GOP support and swamped Democrat Tom Keefe. It may have hurt him, though, when he ran against Sen. Patty Murray in 2004 and lost.

2001: Spokane gets a new political structure. City voters scrapped the old city manager form of government in 1999 and elected their first “strong” mayor and council president in 2000. But that didn’t ease political tensions at City Hall, as Mayor John Powers clashed with the council over River Park Square, rooftop gardens, a poverty summit and other issues.

2002: Spokane Valley incorporates. They said Valley incorporation couldn’t be done. And for several decades “they” were right. But a perceived land-grab of the Yardley area by the city of Spokane and campaign promises of better representation at no greater cost convinced Valley voters that forming their own city was better than being slowly annexed into the much-despised municipality to the west. A small but vocal minority has been trying to disincorporate ever since.

2003: Jim West wins mayor job, loses it two years later. After a succession of “outsiders” in the mayor’s office, city voters went with one of Spokane’s true “insiders,” a longtime state senator. Initially regarded as one of the most effective politicians to hold the post, West was recalled by voters in December 2005 after The Spokesman-Review reported allegations of his misuse of office, including using his city computer to visit gay chat rooms.

2004: Chris Gregoire edges Dino Rossi. In a year chock-full of good political races – George W. Bush v. John Kerry, Murray v. Nethercutt, Cathy McMorris v. Don Barbieri – a race that wasn’t expected to be close was closer than any in state history. Rossi was ahead by 261 votes after the first count and by 42 votes after a machine recount, but Gregoire won by 129 votes after a hand recount. She was certified governor and Republicans lost the trial over the legal challenge the following May. The 2008 rematch? Nowhere near as close.

2005: City settles River Park Square lawsuits. For nearly 10 years, the renovated downtown mall and its high-priced but low-performing garage were at the center of political campaigns and legal disputes. Critics of the deal between the city and development interests of the Cowles Co., which also owns this newspaper, had hoped a securities fraud lawsuit would expose alleged misdeeds, but a series of settlements whittled down the case until a federal judge ruled the city had received all the money it was entitled to. The lawsuits slowly ended; the controversy survives, enhanced in 2006 when a Pullman woman died after her car broke through a wall in the parking garage and plunged to the ramp below.

2006: Otto Zehm’s fatal encounter. For the mentally impaired janitor, it was an evening Zip Trip stop for a snack; for Spokane police, it was a call about a possible robbery at a nearby ATM. Zehm was beaten, shocked with a Taser, cuffed and hogtied, and later died. Police claimed he “lunged” at an officer, but videos show no such thing. County officials wouldn’t prosecute, but a federal grand jury and the U.S. attorney believe police violated Zehm’s civil rights. A trial is set for 2010.

2007: Bad year for “family values” types. U.S. Sen. Larry Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after being caught in a “sting” in a Minneapolis men’s room. When the Idaho Republican said he wasn’t guilty and tried to take his plea back, the courts wouldn’t let him. He said he’d resign but changed his mind on that, too, and served out his term. But for state Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center, the trajectory was far different. Just days after he told Spokane police he had dressed in drag and invited a male porn model up to his hotel room – only to be blackmailed for his stolen wallet – Curtis resigned.

2008: Walt Minnick wins Idaho congressional seat. Barack Obama won Democratic caucuses in Idaho, and Ron Paul outmaneuvered the establishment in Washington’s GOP caucuses, but the real shocker was probably in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. In one of the nation’s most reliably Republican states, voters bounced one-term Rep. Bill Sali for Democrat Minnick, a conservative, pro-gun business executive. Minnick now appears on almost everyone’s list of the most vulnerable incumbents of 2010.

2009: The budget blues. Or should that be reds? Cities and counties have them. So do Idaho and Washington state governments. After several years of increased tax revenues and expansions, government leaders face major cutbacks. Public employees face layoffs, furloughs, wage cuts or all of the above. Economists say the recession is over, but the recovery is so slow that this may wind up on the list of top political stories of the “Teens.”

Spin Control is a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, who can be reached at jimc@spokesman.com and (509) 879-7461.

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