The close primary election between incumbent Spokane County Commissioner Al French, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Mary Lou Johnson, moves to a much bigger and more Republican playing field for the Nov. 4 general election.
Both candidates competed along with third-place finisher Bonnie Mager in just one third of the county – Commissioner District 3 that encompasses a wide swath of older urban areas of Spokane as well as the West Plains and rural areas of the western and southwestern county.
Under state law, candidates for commissioner are nominated by district in the primary.
Now, voters countywide will get to choose which of the two will get to serve the next four years on the three-member county commission, the executive board of county government.
French said his district has the largest percentage of Democratic and liberal-leaning voters among the three commissioner districts.
“We know in my district, it’s harder to get my vote,” he said. “When we go countywide, we will make up the difference.”
A look at the last presidential election bears that out. President Obama won a majority of voters in District 3, but lost in the other two commissioner districts.
But the combined support for Johnson and Mager was higher than 50 percent in all but a handful of the district’s precincts in Tuesday’s count.
Johnson and French were virtually tied Tuesday night with 36 percent of the vote each. French led by 106 votes following Wednesday’s tally.
Mager, who ran as an independent, had been seeking to reclaim the commissioner seat she lost as a Democrat in a close race with French in 2010.
Johnson is a newcomer to elective politics. She said her campaign in the primary was largely fueled by individuals – some 270 of different supporters gave her campaign money.
On Wednesday, she said the primary returns resulted in a groundswell of new offers for donations and volunteering.
“I’m very much looking forward to talking to more voters,” she said.
She plans to contrast her views on the issues with those of French, including the need to rein in urban growth.
Johnson said voters countywide share her concern with spending tax money wisely and making county government smarter.
“Perhaps a fresh set of eyes is a positive thing,” she said.
Johnson is a former nurse practitioner, nurse educator and attorney in U.S. District Court.
French, a former Spokane city councilman, said he will emphasize his experience and accomplishments – working to draw new jobs to the county, supporting the sheriff’s anti-crime work and getting the county budget under control, for example.
He said he is looking forward to a civil campaign based on the issues, track record and ability to get things done.
Republican state committeeman Michael Cathcart said putting on an effective campaign as a newcomer is not an easy job. “It’s going to be difficult for someone with no name recognition and not being around very much to break through,” he said.
Former Democratic County Chairman Tom Keefe said French can’t be pleased that a challenger is running so closely with him in the primary.
“Al is clearly a professional politician,” Keefe said, adding that French has made his share of friends and enemies. “Al speaks to a very yesterday constituency.”
Jim Camden contributed to this report.