In a surprise turnaround, Spokane mayoral hopeful David Condon took a comfortable lead in early returns Tuesday, erasing what had been a record-setting primary victory for incumbent Mary Verner just three months ago.
Condon, a former congressional aide to Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, acknowledged that more ballots have yet to be counted but still claimed victory at a jubilant and crowded victory party at Barrister Winery in downtown Spokane.
“You know I just continued to do what I did in the primary,” he said. “I kept my head down and talked about a lot of the same issues. As we got closer to the general election folks started to listen. We continued to talk about the failed policy of the water rates, the failed leadership in the Otto Zehm issue and most recently the leadership in the property crimes and budget priorities.”
Condon, 37, who received $63,000 from the state Republican Party late in the campaign, likely will head up a major shift in the leadership of the city, one that’s younger and more conservative.
Candidates backed by the Republican Party are leading the races for three seats on the City Council. Only one candidate backed by the Democratic Party, Ben Stuckart, 39, won on Tuesday. He beat former Mayor Dennis Hession and will take over for Joe Shogan as City Council president.
Condon leads the mayoral race 52 percent to 48 percent. About 40,000 ballots are left to count countywide, but not all of those will be from city voters, and trailing by nearly 1,800 votes puts Verner at an extreme disadvantage.
If the results hold, Verner will be the 10th Spokane mayor in a row to serve just one term or less.
Speaking to her supporters at Taaj Indian restaurant in downtown Spokane just prior to the release of the tally, Verner predicted “pandemonium” once results were known. When campaign staff first got the result, Verner was pulled into a foyer where they examined numbers.
She soon addressed a quiet, packed room of supporters.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t have finality tonight,” Verner said. “It’s still too close to call, and there are a lot of ballots left to be counted.”
Speaking to reporters, Verner, whose voice was hoarse from a cold, blamed the results on recent events in the news and Condon’s campaign. Last week, for example, a jury convicted Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of violating the civil rights of Otto Zehm, a janitor who died after he was beaten, shocked and hog-tied in a police confrontation in 2006. City Hall had backed the officer’s version despite a security video that contradicted it.
“There were issues that arose that no candidate would have asked for in an election year, and also my opponent ran a relentlessly negative campaign for several months,” Verner said.
Verner won convincingly in the August primary, taking 59.3 percent of the vote to Condon’s 33.6 percent. But Condon’s campaign gained momentum as he began criticizing Verner’s handling of the Zehm civil and criminal cases.
Condon also highlighted recent large utility rate increases and the restructuring of the city’s water rates last year. Although most people paid less over the summer than they would have under the old water rates, the city was deluged with complaints as summer bills, many significantly higher, were opened. Finally, police spokeswoman Jennifer DeRuwe handed Condon a signature issue when she announced in early October that the Police Department had eliminated its property crime detective unit, a change that she said “sucks for everybody in the community.” The quote was featured prominently in a Condon TV ad.
During Verner’s tenure, city attorneys responded to a lawsuit from the Zehm family arguing that Zehm was at fault for his death and that Thompson broke no city policies even though Assistant Chief Jim Nicks had by that point determined otherwise.
Verner has promised a full review of the city’s actions after the civil case is settled. Condon said Tuesday the review should have started earlier.
“We’ve known what’s been going on since mid-2009; why haven’t we taken actions?” Condon said. “I’m going to definitely have a complete review of the legal department and make sure that we hold those accountable that made poor decisions in this case.”
Condon’s campaign got a significant boost when former Spokane County Democratic Party Chairman Tom Keefe endorsed Condon, citing his disappointment over Verner’s handling of the Zehm fiasco.
“I think Otto Zehm was the missing voter,” said Keefe, who attended Condon’s victory party. “I think he was the decisive vote.”
If Condon prevails, the top two elected jobs at City Hall will be held by men who have little experience in city government.
Speaking Tuesday night from his victory party at Two Seven Public House, Stuckart said he can work well with Condon or Verner.
“There’s not going to be any leadership vacuum at City Hall,” Stuckart said. “Leadership is not something that is gained by being in office. Leadership is a trait.”
Stuckart will lead a City Council with a new political leaning.
Councilman Richard Rush, who was endorsed by the Democratic Party, is losing to former Councilman Mike Allen, who was backed by the GOP.
Republican businessman Steve Salvatori defeated Joy Jones. He will replace Councilman Steve Corker.
And Mike Fagan, who co-hosts a conservative local radio talk show, defeated Logan Neighborhood activist Donna McKereghan. Fagan will replace Bob Apple, who was prohibited from running again by term limits.
Salvatori and Allen were featured at the Condon victory party.
“Obviously there’s another couple of days counting, and it’s really close,” Allen said. “But I think the voters are really interested in us moving forward with the things that are important with fiscal accountability and more importantly job creation for our community. So I’m excited to get to that work and I’m very honored to be able to potentially have this opportunity.”
Rush, who trails 49 percent to 51 percent, said there are enough votes left to count to turn around the result.
“It’s a bit of a sobering evening and a surprise, particularly as regards the mayor’s race,” Rush said.
In the heated race between two Republicans for an open state Senate seat representing Spokane Valley, Mike Padden, a former legislator and district judge, took a comfortable lead over incumbent Jeff Baxter. The winner will represent the 4th District seat that was opened by the resignation of the late Sen. Bob McCaslin.
“That’s great,” Padden said when told he had about a 2,700-vote lead out of some 25,000 cast. “I think the people knew my record and they wanted a steady hand. They knew I had a strong conservative background.”
The race featured two Republicans because Democrats didn’t field a candidate in the race. Both ran as strong fiscal and social conservatives in a district that has been strongly Republican for the last 30 years.
Many former Valley legislators and the current county commissioners, all Republicans, backed Padden. The Senate Republican Caucus, however, threw its support behind Baxter.
That won’t cause hard feelings if he wins, though, Padden said. “I know a lot of them and they were supporting a member of their caucus.”
Baxter wasn’t ready to concede, however, because thousands of votes remain to be counted, and his campaign made a strong push in the closing weekend. “I know it’s a gap we can make up because it’s a gap that’s been made up before.”
He pointed to David Condon’s ability to finish election night ahead of incumbent Mary Verner in the Spokane mayor’s race after trailing her badly in the August primary, and the reversal of several legislative races in 2010 between the first counts on election night and the final certification of results.
This year, that certification takes place Nov. 29, the day after the Legislature begins a special session to address a projected budget shortfall of some $1.4 billion.