If Shannon Sullivan’s television hadn’t been on the morning of May 6, her life would be so much simpler today.
That was her son Dylan’s ninth birthday, and when he came out of his room before breakfast, he looked at the TV screen and said, “Mom, that’s the mayor. What’s he doing?”
That also was the second day of coverage of allegations that Jim West had abused youngsters in the 1970s and more recently had used his office as Spokane’s mayor to offer jobs and favors to young men a third his age on a gay chat line.
Like most parents in the 21st century, Sullivan had talked to Dylan about sexual molestation and personal safety, so after he heard the news report, Dylan had a question: Why isn’t anybody doing anything?
“I don’t know,” Sullivan recalls telling him. “Maybe they’re scared.”
Dylan digested what she had said with breakfast and on the ride to school, but as he got out of the car for another day of third grade, he turned to her and asked: “Mom, are you going to do something? You’re not scared, are you?”
“It hurt,” Sullivan said last week, sitting in her north Spokane living room. “I teach him to always respect authority.”
So Sullivan decided she could do something: She could sign a petition calling for West’s recall, which she thought the TV report had said was available at the county elections office. “I’ll go down and put my name on it,” she decided.
When she got to the elections office, however, she thought she was at the wrong place. There was no crowd, no line of people waiting to sign.
Because, she discovered by asking inside the office, there was no petition. When Sullivan asked about the recall, elections officials handed her information about the process.
Starting a recall petition was more than she’d planned that morning. But she recalled looking at the information and thinking, “How hard can it be?”
Five weeks, two court hearings, uncounted hours at the Gonzaga University Law Library and some sleepless nights later, the 37-year-old single mom knows how hard it is to try to remove a mayor at the ballot box for allegations of illegal conduct.
Her part-time job as a florist is gone. So is the $500 she had tucked away in a savings account, spent on photocopying and gas. Her son’s motorized dirt bike was stolen from the garage. The rent’s overdue. She’s been on more than 30 job interviews, for everything from cleaning houses and mowing lawns, but no job prospects.
“I don’t want a donation; I want a job,” she said. “I had one guy tell me he’s not sure if his customers would want me mowing their lawns.”
She’s been lionized and criticized on talk radio; compared with Erin Brockovich, another single mom made famous in a Julia Roberts movie for winning a legal battle against well-heeled lawyers; had a misdemeanor criminal incident from her past – shooting out the tires of a former friend’s car – tossed into the public debate about the mayor’s sexual conduct.
The cellphone rings constantly and the news media horde covering the early days of the West sex revelations created so much commotion staking out her house that the congregation at her nearby church paid for her to spend a couple nights in a motel to escape the chaos. Lawyers told her she has no case; politicians have said she’s naïve; anonymous critics phone to say she’s a pea-brain or write to say she’s stupid.
Members of her large, longtime Spokane family ask, “What were you thinking?”
Dylan, however, is not surprised that his mother has stayed the course. “She always does what she says she’ll do,” he said recently.
Shannon Sullivan, a high school graduate with experience as a florist, business owner and journeyman painter – but no training in the law – did the “something” her son wondered about. Last week, she out-argued three attorneys representing West and convinced a Superior Court judge that West should face the voters in a recall election for improperly offering internships to young men.
“This is not a political issue for me at all, this is a moral issue,” she said. “My kid and all these neighborhood kids are not going to look up to him.”
Sullivan is uncomfortable in the role of Spokane’s Brockovich, Norma Rae or Joan of Arc. “Yeah, right,” she says with a shake of her head, “like they’ll make a movie out of this.”
The Spokane native is a neighborhood activist in that she keeps a close eye on Dylan and the other neighborhood children who regularly report what they’re doing and where they’re going. She’s a regular fixture at her son’s school. But she’s never been involved in a political campaign, noting her parents used to tell her that politics and religion were the two things you never discuss.
Her previous legal experience centered around pleading guilty to a gross misdemeanor for intimidation with a dangerous weapon – shooting at a car parked next to a former friend’s house. The 2003 incident was one that she regretted so quickly that she was at the police station ready to confess before the officers in the field had finished taking reports. She waived her rights, confessed and told police where to find the gun.
Sullivan won’t talk about the incident, but the court records show she pleaded guilty, said she was sorry and admitted her “actions were stupid and dangerous.” She got a suspended sentence and probation.
She never expected to be “put through the wringer” for that mistake because she called for the mayor’s removal. Her actions aren’t the issue, she insists, West’s are; she faced up to her mistake while he hasn’t.
“I’m not single-handedly trying to take out Jim West,” she insisted. “I just want to put it to the people and let them decide.”
The only time she wavered was when Dylan’s motorized BMX bike was stolen, which she suspects was a way to get to her through him, because nothing else in the garage or house was taken. That made him mad, Dylan said, but he told her to stick with it, even though he’s bored with his classmates asking why his mother was on TV.
“People come up to us in the store and places and say ‘You got that petition?’ ” he said, waving his hand in the air like a person signing a paper.
But giving voters that chance to decide through a recall is a complicated legal process, Sullivan discovered. Her first petition was rejected by the county prosecutor’s office for problems with the standard of proof. When that was announced, she assumed a lawyer would volunteer to help, but none did, so she decided to make the changes herself. “Again, I thought it couldn’t be that hard.”
She spent her days at the GU Law Library while her son was at school, thinking all the while “at some point some lawyer’s going to come up to me and offer to help.” Instead, she was referred to a lawyer who read the petition and said she had no case.
When some other West opponents began calling for her to drop her petition so someone else could file one, she reached a turning point. She decided to get control of her petition, and herself, and try to make the changes necessary to put the recall before a judge.
“I didn’t see anybody else stepping up,” she said. “Besides, I was already dragged through the mud.”
When the allegations in that second petition passed muster with the county prosecutor’s office, Sullivan found herself at a table in front of a visiting judge, Benton County Superior Court Judge Craig Matheson. At the other table were two of West’s attorneys, Bill Etter and Susan Troppmann, while a third, Carl Oreskovich, was in the audience.
The afternoon before the hearing, West’s attorneys had filed a motion to dismiss the recall petition, but Sullivan hadn’t seen it until it was handed to her a few minutes earlier. Matheson called a recess and gave her five days to prepare a response.
The thing that irked her most, however, was when a television reporter motioned from across the room with the command: “Shannon, come here.”
“Can you at least say ‘please’?” she said, addressing the reporter like she would the children who play in her yard. “I’m serious. Don’t I deserve at least that much respect?”
When everyone returned to the courtroom on June 13, Sullivan had spent much of the intervening time in the law library. She apologized repeatedly for not knowing the proper procedure, but managed to introduce support for her charges over Troppmann’s repeated objections.
“I didn’t have my paperwork in order. I handed him the wrong paperwork for charge one,” she said later. But West’s attorneys, too, had some problems arguing their side.
After a second recess, Matheson came back with a decision.
He said he wanted to start in reverse order, with the third allegation that West’s actions over the years are “hurting the reputation of the city.” He dismissed it quickly, saying there were no identifiable actions in the documents Sullivan had produced.
Then he skipped to allegation one, that West had misused his computer privileges by using his city-owned computer to interact with young men on a gay chat room. Also dismissed, said Matheson, because there wasn’t anything in the record to connect with the dates in Sullivan’s petition, and it wasn’t as concise as the rules required.
Sullivan bowed her head and her supporters in the audience sighed quietly.
“But… ” Matheson continued. Some in the audience gasped and Sullivan looked up, for even without legal training it was clear the judge was about to shift course. “… I am going to allow the recall to go forward on count two.” The allegation that West had offered internships to young men “for his own personal uses” did have some identifiable facts in the record, he said.
Before Matheson finished explaining his ruling, Sullivan was in tears and West’s attorneys were sitting in disbelief. She’d won a round and pushed the recall forward a step. She hugged her supporters and stepped out of the courtroom into the glare of television cameras, the same reporter she’d admonished a few days earlier said, “Shannon, may we please talk with you for a minute.”
The person who may have been least surprised by Sullivan’s win was Dylan.
“I knew she was going to win, because of grace,” he said last week. “God’s helping her out.”
The courtroom sessions have been learning experiences, Sullivan said. She’d welcome an attorney’s help with any future court proceedings, but isn’t counting on any. Besides, she may know as much about recalls as most attorneys at this point.
West is expected to announce sometime this week if he will appeal. Sullivan expects him to do that, even though she’s quick to add that West said at his June 3 news conference that if the voters of the city ask him to go in a recall he would “gracefully go.”
“Let’s see if he stands by his word, by his newfound religion,” she said. In the meantime, “I’m already working on my appeal.”
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