You’d think the enormous balloon dragon would have been the biggest attention-getter at Ryan Oelrich’s First Night display.
But, to his dismay, he heard a passer-by pipe up when he noticed Oelrich’s name on a placard: “Isn’t that the guy who slept with the mayor?”
Oelrich is not, in fact, the guy who slept with the mayor, though it seems former Mayor Jim West gave it his best shot - giving the then-23-year-old a position on the city’s human rights panel in 2004, followed by a full-court press of sexual harassment. Oelrich later became a prominent public voice in the case, and he’s learned - as misunderstandings and mistakes persist - that the public’s factual memory can be short.
As this albatross hung around his neck, affecting his job prospects and public image, his feelings about West intensified.
Feelings of compassion, that is.
“He made some mistakes and he was out of line with me,” Oelrich said. But “I can really relate more now to the situation he was in and can definitely feel even more sympathy. I look back, and I feel for him.”
Oelrich’s story will be part of a new HBO documentary airing on Valentine’s Day, “When Strangers Click.” The film, by “Food Inc.” director Robert Kenner, examines five stories of human connection in the online age. Oelrich says it’s four love stories, plus his.
“Mine is the cautionary tale,” he said.
The story of Jim West, his secrets, this newspaper and the community is large, complicated and ultimately tragic. In 2005, the S-R hired someone to pose as a high school boy in an online chat room - whom the mayor then pursued repeatedly. The paper published well-founded concerns about the mayor spending an inordinate amount of time pursuing relationships with young men and in some cases offering internships and jobs to them in the seeming hope of a quid pro quo. The paper also published decades-old allegations of sex abuse - accusations that were much more serious and much harder to run to ground.
West wound up on the “Today” show, answering Matt Lauer’s questions, and then was voted out of office. “Frontline” did a post-mortem on the case that was largely sympathetic to West and left the newspaper bleeding from a couple of self-inflicted wounds. West died in 2006 after a three-year battle with cancer.
Amid all that, Oelrich’s story and others like it raised legitimate and important questions about the mayor’s behavior. Oelrich was appointed by West to the city’s Human Rights Commission in 2004, then fended off West’s advances for months. He said he knew other young men who’d had similar experiences.
He came forward after the newspaper’s initial stories were published, and his case lent a lot of weight to concerns about West. All along, Oelrich took a compassionate tack - or at least as compassionate as he could, given the circumstances. He said more than once that he forgave West, but believed the mayor should have resigned for the good of Spokane.
In the intervening years, Oelrich has lived a full life that has nothing to do with that scandal. After a decade of working with youth in various capacities, he now owns a company, Connex Consulting Services, that designs team-building exercises such as retreats. His balloon art has been a fixture at First Night and other community events. He’s just published a children’s book, “The Great Adventures of Carson the Balloonatic.”
Some of that has kept him in the public eye, occasionally as the guy who “slept with the mayor.” He says he was turned down for a job once, for the explicit, erroneous reason that he’d tried to sleep his way into a job. A nonprofit organization once wrote him a scolding letter on the same misguided basis.
“It’s amazing how people think and jump to wrong conclusions,” he said.
He says that the public attention has made him more sympathetic to West, more understanding of the pressures that might make it hard for someone in his position to come out as a gay man and to meet romantic partners.
“I realized how incredibly lonely he was,” he said. “I could relate to the position he was in.”
He also said that - measured apart from the scandal - West was in many ways a good mayor.
“He did a lot of amazing things for Spokane,” he said.
When producers for the documentary contacted Oelrich a couple years ago, he was interested in participating, in part, to help “bring closure and clarity to a clouded chapter in my life,” he said in press materials for the film. He said he wanted to focus on his own behavior and mistakes, not point fingers.
He says he could have cut off interactions with West sooner, been more cautious about who he was meeting online. In fact, Oelrich has become skeptical about the whole enterprise of meeting romantic partners technologically. He recently spent several months communicating with someone online before they met for a first date.
“After spending just 30 minutes in person with him,” he said, “I realized we had nothing in common.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.