Democrats face dilemma in Spokane County commissioner race


Democrats face a dilemma in next month’s primary election for Spokane County commissioner.

That’s because among the candidates they can choose are a Democrat and a high-profile former Democrat who chose to run as an independent.

Democrat Mary Lou Johnson and former Democratic County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, an independent, are up against incumbent Republican Commissioner Al French, who unseated Mager in 2010.

Mager said that during her term she worked closely with elected officials from both sides of the political aisle. By running as an independent, she said, she offers voters that model of government.

“It’s an interesting gambit,” said Tom Keefe, a former county Democratic chairman, who supports Johnson.

Keefe said there are so many independent voters today that appealing to that bloc makes political sense. He said Mager is skilled enough politically to build her own base of supporters. However, many independents in Spokane County lean to the conservative side, he said.

If Johnson loses in the primary, Mager would likely draw Democrats to her side while still appealing to independents, Keefe said.

“If anyone could put together an independent coalition leaning left, she could do it,” Keefe said.

During the Aug. 5 primary, only voters living in District 3 can cast ballots in the race. The district encompasses southwest Spokane County and portions of the South Hill and North Side.

The top two vote-getters will advance to the November election, when all county voters can make a pick in the race.

Former independent legislative candidate John Waite said the two-party system is so ingrained in voters’ minds that running as an independent is an uphill battle.

“They look at you like you are an alien,” said Waite, who calls himself a Democrat and has supported Mager with a $100 contribution. “I admire Bonnie for doing it.”

He agrees with Keefe that an independent might have a better chance of winning in the general election than a Democrat.

“I don’t think someone with a D behind her name is going to win in a countywide race,” Waite said.

His advice for other Democrats: Vote for the one you think is the best candidate.

Mager’s and Johnson’s campaign materials have avoided attacks against each other. Johnson has campaigned as a collaborative and hard worker who will bring fresh ideas to county government. Mager has stressed her independence and fiscally conservative credentials.

“We all share the goal of winning the election, and voters have a choice,” Johnson said.

Part of Mager’s independent coalition is drawn from the neighborhood movement and concerns over land-use planning and urban sprawl.

Tina Wynecoop, a leader in the Friends of the Little Spokane River Valley association, said she backs Mager because of her experience and her work as co-founder of the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County.

“Bonnie demonstrated her skills when she was head of the Neighborhood Alliance,” Wynecoop said.

Mager has drawn support from a number of Democrats, including Rick Lloyd, the county Democratic Party’s 4th Legislative District chairman.

“I’m just trying to get a good person elected,” Lloyd said of his decision to back an independent.

He said the race offers two good choices.

Former state Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane, said running as an independent is futile.

“I’m sorry. We are a two-party system,” he said. “Let’s face it, Bonnie is a Democrat.”

He said organized contributors, such as unions and political action committees, will hold onto their money until after the primary.

One Democrat found a solution to the choice between Mager and Johnson. Breean Beggs, a Democratic candidate for Spokane County prosecuting attorney, contributed $250 to both of them.

Voters often look past party labels in choosing their candidates. Former Spokane City Councilman Steve Corker, a former county Democratic Party chairman, supports French and gave him a $950 contribution.

So far, French has the largest campaign fund with nearly $62,000. Of that, about $25,000 is money French contributed to his own campaign through his architectural office. French’s top contributors are Avista Corp., Associated General Contractors PAC and developer Al Payne. They each gave the maximum of $1,900.

Johnson has the second-largest campaign fund, with $36,800. Top contributors giving $950 each are Don Barbieri, Patty Gates, Michael Pontarolo, James Sheehan, Sharon Smith, Amy Teel and Gordon Teel. She has contributions of $500 each from the Spokane Regional Labor Council and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439.

Mager has raised $13,500. Her top contributor is John Mager at $500. She has 10 individual contributors giving $250 each.

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