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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Valley’s politics changed, but they are still red … just a lighter shade

Thu., Nov. 9, 2017

Let’s not paint the Spokane Valley blue just yet.

Maybe just a lighter shade of red. A nice pink, say.

The ouster of the ultraconservative majority from the Spokane Valley City Council was the most startling news in an election marked by Democratic victories everywhere, from Virginia to the Spokane City Council – where the liberal supermajority remained untouched by a dedicated opposition that relied on largely obscure funding sources and a last-minute swerve into the sewer.

And, while it’s tempting to view the Valley results under a blue-red light, I’m guessing it says more about the particularities of local politics – conservatives versus uber-conservatives, the intense division over the firing of a city manager, the skirmishing between the camps of political power and the actual performance of the individuals involved – than any widespread liberalization of the state’s 10th-largest city.

Only time will tell, of course. Whatever the deeper, long-term vibrations of the electorate’s heartstrings, the changes on the Valley council, in philosophical, practical and legislative terms, are liable to be absolutely significant.

Three of the council’s most conservative members – Ed Pace, Mike Munch and J. Caleb Collier – were defeated soundly Tuesday by challengers Ben Wick, Linda Hatcher Thompson and Brandi Peetz.

You can probably make the case that each of the victors stands to the left of the council members they defeated.

Of course, there isn’t actually any room to the right.

Yet it’s also true that at least some of the victors were supported by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who is nobody’s liberal. He stands at the head of the camp of the Valley’s moderate conservatives, along with former Mayor Diana Wilhite, once head of the local GOP, who campaigned actively against the conservative majority.

Ultraconservative state Rep. Matt Shea serves as the de facto head of the other camp, the End Times guns-and-theocracy crowd that former Councilman Dean Grafos once called the “militia-leaning elements in our community.”

That’s the political split where Valley politics have revolved, more than any Republican-Democrat dynamic. As in Idaho politics, it’s the conservatives versus the very, very, very conservatives.

In the Valley, it’s even deeper, more particular and more personal than that. Those two camps have been passionately, even contemptuously, critical of each other. Sometimes you scratch the surface of a seemingly unrelated issue and find the Shea-Knezovich split roiling underneath it. Shea has peddled scurrilous nonsense about the sheriff – as he’s wont to do – and once attempted to link a deputy to a murder weapon in a way that was particularly slimy.

The split traces back to past party battles over county commission appointments and disputes over sheriff’s investigations. It grows from long-running disputes among Knezovich and some of his former deputies. And it ties clearly and directly into the 2016 firing of former City Manager Mike Jackson, which may have as much weight as any single event in the election.

Jackson was fired in a high-handed, secretive manner – dumped in a way that infuriated his supporters. It was Pace and three other council members who voted to fire Jackson, imperiously and with disdain for the public process.

Knezovich and many others came to Jackson’s defense. Wilhite scolded the council: “Shame on you for this.”

So when Pace surmised, on election night, that the losses might be a sign of a swing toward Democratic strength in the Valley, it sounded off the mark.

The very conservative council members have spent plenty of time crafting themselves as the antithesis of Spokane’s council, taking up such culture-wars matters as the possible creation of a “sanctuary city” for gun rights (though definitely not for immigrants) and codifying the rights of parents to send unvaccinated kids into schools during disease outbreaks.

Pace’s parental-rights proposal swept up a broad range of AM radio anti-government issues into one tidy package that had nothing to do with city government in Spokane Valley. He, Collier and Munch campaigned as a united front of Shea-style patriots, valiantly battling progressive forces in the name of freedom.

But I bet it wasn’t progressives who sent them to such resounding defeats.

I bet it was just good old-fashioned conservatives.