For the past year, the debate at Spokane City Hall often has devolved into two camps, the mayor versus the City Council. Or, more directly, David Condon versus Ben Stuckart.
It’s true that Mayor Condon, who hails from Republican circles, doesn’t always agree with the City Council, which has held a left-leaning, veto-proof voting bloc since last summer. And it’s true that at times Condon and Council President Stuckart have entered into public political fisticuffs over issues including how much Condon’s inner circle at City Hall should be paid and an informal handshake deal between Condon and hotelier Walt Worthy to use city funds to pay for environmental cleanup.
Stuckart said there were more important issues at stake in this year’s election than a battle between the branches of government. Still, he said keeping a strong council majority to counter Condon’s policies was vital.
“If the City Council is completely aligned with the mayor, there are no checks and balances and there’s no way for us to find ways to compromise,” Stuckart said. “You just shove things through. That’s what we saw my first two years in government. They eliminated the arts department and the weights and measures department, there was a 5 percent cut in city positions, they eliminated a fire station. The mayor tried to privatize the city pension system for all new employees. There were just no checks and balances.”
Condon did not comment for this article. His campaign cited scheduling issues. Some of those ideas cited by Stuckart, however, including the elimination of the arts department, were in the works before Condon became mayor.
Stuckart, who won’t appear on a ballot until November because he only has one challenger, pointed to Councilwoman Candace Mumm’s election as the turning point where Condon’s policies first met resistance, something that was strengthened when Steve Salvatori quit the council for work in Texas and Karen Stratton was appointed to replace him.
But with 13 names on this year’s primary ballot for city positions, this election can’t be simplified to just two personalities.
Range of choices
On Spokane ballots for the Aug. 4 primary that will be mailed this week, voters have an array of choices. Among them: a marijuana farm co-owner, a green architect, a comics and game store owner, a Spokane Tribal College recruiter and a public works inspector.
In Spokane’s northeast district, controversial comments made by Councilman Mike Fagan inspired both of his opponents to challenge his incumbency. Randy Ramos, who grew up in part on the Colville Reservation, said Fagan showed he was out of touch with Spokane voters when he said the only racism he’d encountered in Spokane came from the disgraced former NAACP president, Rachel Dolezal. Ben Krauss, an analyst with the Spokane Police Department, took offense at comments Fagan made this year suggesting women weren’t cut out for work in the police and fire departments.
On the city’s south side, the council seat left vacant by exiting Councilman Mike Allen is being sought by LaVerne Biel, a local business owner endorsed by Condon and Allen; Lori Kinnear, who has worked as a legislative aide for council members for more than six years; and John Waite, who lives and owns a business downtown and has run for City Council three times before in other districts.
In the northwest, three men are challenging Stratton, who was appointed in August. Kelly Cruz, who won a lifetime, $1,000-a-week lottery prize last year, has run for council before and is the former chairman of the West Central Neighborhood Council. Evan Verduin is an architect and vice president of the city’s Plan Commission and has received Condon’s endorsement. Dave White, a public works inspector with Spokane County, previously ran for the state Legislature and for the past few months has been a regular speaker during the council’s public forum, usually speaking as a member of the conservative, anti-tax Eighth Man contingent.
Still, as many of the candidates have expressed, though the election is not a mandate for either Condon or Stuckart, it does hinge on the actions of the two men, who hold the only citywide positions.
Under Condon, the city cut $150 million from its federally mandated effort to keep pollutants out of the river, and he’s pushed to make City Hall more business friendly. Under Stuckart, the City Council has asserted its independence from the mayor’s administration as the city’s legislative body, even hiring its own attorney – separate from the City Hall staff of lawyers – to represent it full time.
Verduin suggested he’d like to see both men re-elected.
“To have the mayor re-elected and the council president re-elected would be good for the city, to have that continuity of leadership,” Verduin said. “I assume they’ve found a lot of common ground, and I think they have a very productive relationship.”
Still, Verduin said, the council should be more “balanced” and “more open-minded about what’s best for the city.”
“When Stratton was appointed, it gave them a lot more power to do things without working with the mayor,” Verduin said. “With a veto-proof majority, you don’t have to worry about what the mayor thinks.”
Stratton said the mayor had ample avenues to carry out his policies but took Condon to task for trying to influence the election by endorsing Verduin and Biel.
“There was a time in my life when you didn’t ask an elected official for an endorsement,” she said. “If I’m successful, I’ll be in a situation where I’ll be working with a mayor who endorsed someone else.”
Biel, obviously, doesn’t see it this way, but she praised Condon and Stuckart’s relationship, if heaping more Condon’s way.
“It’s been pretty harmonious,” she said. “Mayor Condon seems passionate about his position, and making sure the city is positioned well for the future.”
Kinnear, who is closer to city politics than perhaps every candidate but Fagan, framed any discord as a simple function of government, noting that doing the public’s business is a messy affair.
“I think it’s inevitable. The council is charged with creating policy and the budget. The mayor is not,” she said. “If they’re truly independent, you’re going to see clashes.”
A divided city
Fagan, who is easily the most conservative member of the council, said he wanted this election to bring an end to the council’s 5-2 supermajority, though he had no illusions the election would shift things much.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a change in the majority, and that’s all fine and good,” he said, noting that being on the short end of 5-2 and 6-1 votes is wearisome.
“Of course it’s frustrating, but we all have an opportunity to speak our minds” on the dais, Fagan said. “You know what? The people don’t pay me to be frustrated.”
In a way, Stuckart echoed Fagan’s sentiment, saying that maintaining a strong council in case the mayor gets re-elected buttresses a bright future for Spokane and its people.
“Spokane is on the verge of a renaissance. We are at the start of it,” he said, pointing to the recent success of ballot measures funding a renovation of Riverfront Park and 20 years of street work, as well as the city’s efforts to keep pollutants out of the river, police reform and the current wave of economic development. “Those all came together because we came together and found common ground.”
Though Stuckart did not endorse Condon’s re-election efforts – or any other primary candidate, for that matter – he said maintaining an ideological divide in the branches of government was productive.
“There’s part of me that’s says I’d love to have a 7-0 majority and someone that agrees with me in the mayor’s office,” he said. “But I look back at the last two years, and we’ve moved massively forward as a result of compromise.”