The race for City Council in northeast Spokane is one of what ifs.
What if incumbent Councilman Mike Fagan hadn’t intermittently been mired in controversy during his four-year term, primarily due to his own words? What if his opponent, Randy Ramos, was a stronger campaigner? What if more voters cast ballots in this notoriously apathetic district?
This quiet race was expected to erupt earlier this year, as Fagan found himself on the offensive after questioning the use and safety of vaccines from his perch on the regional health board, and as two opponents surfaced to challenge Fagan, both slamming him for what they said were inappropriate comments.
Fagan, who has navigated politics for years as an active resident in Hillyard and right-hand man to conservative initiative activist Tim Eyman, responded to the controversy by lambasting political correctness and described the vaccine issue as one of free speech, not science.
Ramos, who barely squeaked through the primary election to face Fagan this November, said he sought public office for altruistic reasons – including giving back to his community through public service and acting as a role model for fellow Native Americans.
Still, Ramos said he was inspired to run in part after Fagan said the only racism he’d encountered in Spokane came from the former NAACP president, Rachel Dolezal.
Council President Ben Stuckart, who is attempting to expand his liberal coalition beyond its vetoproof supermajority on the council, has stayed out of Fagan’s race, even though he’s endorsed candidates in the other two council races.
He said this was not a sign of approval for Fagan.
“If I lived in District 1, I definitely would never vote for Mike Fagan,” Stuckart said. “He called the governor a lying whore. That’s an embarrassment to Spokane. He questioned vaccines while sitting on the health board. That’s an embarrassment to Spokane. Both those things made national news. It’s a horrible thing for the city of Spokane.”
Fagan dismissed Stuckart’s criticism, saying though he often is in the minority on council, the stances he takes are in the “mainstream.”
Fagan said if he did it again, he likely would use different language in a 2013 fundraising letter to supporters of his anti-tax efforts, in which he called Gov. Jay Inslee a “lying whore.” The letter was co-written with Eyman.
But Fagan said the idea behind the letter remained.
“I still feel the same. The choice of words could have been better,” he said. “If I had the power to change the words ‘lying whore’ with ‘mendacious,’ I would. If you look up the word mendacious, it means the same thing, it’s just nicer.”
Still, Fagan said Inslee “hoodwinked and duped the voters” about a promise to veto tax increases.
“You’ve got to tell people the truth,” he said.
Fagan also stood behind his comments about vaccines, which he likened to global climate change as uncertain and shifting science.
“We as Americans have been conditioned through our lives to take what the doctors and nurses have told us as gospel. We should not,” he said. “We can either buy or pass on their advice. You are buying that service as a customer.”
Fagan said vaccination should not be mandatory, which it currently is not, but rather a choice.
“I will not deny anybody that personal choice,” he said.
Despite calls for him to resign his position on the health board, Fagan remains a member of the body.
Regardless of such controversy, Fagan is confident he’ll be given a second term by voters, saying he’s given his best.
“I am focused like a laser beam on the re-election and the campaign for 1366. Period,” said Fagan, mentioning his and Eyman’s latest statewide anti-tax initiative. “I haven’t sat down to have a dinner with my family in the last couple of months. Not even on a Saturday or Sunday night.”
Though Fagan calls himself a “traditional conservative” who supports smaller government and less regulation, he said his work at City Hall since 2011 has confounded attempts to pigeonhole him as a rigid ideologue.
“I’ve totally blown that reputation right out of the water,” he said.
Fagan said the three issues driving him to Election Day affect the city’s poor.
“We’ve got squatters, or adverse occupants as they are legally referred to,” Fagan said of his first priority.
He said there are more than 1,500 foreclosed homes in the city, some of which have been left unoccupied. He noted that one block in his district has “five homes in a row that have been vacant for years.”
A process begun by Councilwoman Amber Waldref, Fagan’s district mate, will put these properties on a registry, which will make banks and mortgage lenders accountable for properties they’ve foreclosed on, keeping the homes from collapsing into states of disrepair and appealing to squatters.
Fagan also wants to work with the city’s legislative delegation to change the rules around Local Improvement Districts, which allow residents to band together with the city to pave streets.
“There are 140 miles of dirt and gravel roads in Spokane, and a majority lies in my district,” he said. Though the city shoulders 50 percent of the road work, state law requires residents to pay for the other half. Fagan said his district’s residents are too poor to afford such work “so nothing happens.”
Lastly, Fagan said he would push for a “robust public education and public awareness” campaign about ways to stop property crimes.
Dave Moore, chairman of the Spokane County Republican Party, said voters understand that Fagan has “done a good job” and can look beyond sour headlines.
“I think Mike Fagan is a dedicated professional who stands by what he says,” Moore said. “I think any time there’s a controversy, it’s going to become an issue. People can’t be judged on one situation.”
Going into this election year, liberal and Democratic political activists had high hopes for unseating Fagan, who they view as overly conservative and hobbled by controversy.
Ramos hasn’t lived up to expectations.
Endorsements that have gone to his natural allies running for the other council seats – Councilwoman Karen Stratton and Lori Kinnear – haven’t gone to Ramos, including Stuckart’s and from Local 270 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the city’s largest employee union.
Ramos dismissed concerns about his candidacy, and suggested that a non-endorsement in the race was tacit approval of Fagan. Still, he acknowledged he’s not the most comfortable candidate.
“I always look at the word ‘politician’ as a dirty word,” he said. “I’m in it to get there. If they’re looking for me to pander to people, that’s not me. We’ll do the other work that needs to be done.”
Jim CastroLang, chairman of the Spokane County Democratic Party, said his group has endorsed Ramos but recognized his struggles.
“It’s interesting whenever you watch first-time candidates, they always try to go their own course,” he said. “There’s more opinions then there are people on what it takes to win a race.”
While CastroLang praised Ramos, he spent just as much time tearing down Fagan.
“Mike Fagan does not really represent the lives and the way people think out there,” he said. “He represents a radical right extreme. He says some outrageous things. We run real human beings.”
Ramos, of course, agrees. Much like Fagan, he describes the issues animating his campaign as benefitting the downtrodden.
He applauded the city’s focus on the Yard, a former rail yard in Hillyard that backers hope to turn into a modern industrial center for Spokane.
“That whole area up there could use many, many jobs. Living wage jobs. It has so much potential,” he said.
Ramos said he was focused on bringing economic development to northeast Spokane, to help lift his neighbors.
“I think the City Council is already blazing this path, and doing a good job of it,” he said.
Lastly, Ramos said he simply wanted people to vote. Ramos voted for the first time earlier this year, just 16 days before he filed to run for City Council, which he describes now as a political epiphany.
“It’s tough, but your day-to-day concerns really don’t allow you to lie there,” he said. “We need to make sure people understand that politics can have a huge impact on your life.”
Ramos pointed to the April ballot measure that would have expanded service by the Spokane Transit Authority.
“Do I really need to vote on this bus issue?” he said. “That would’ve helped this district immensely, but the turnout wasn’t there.”
Turning out the vote, it turns out, is an area of agreement for the two candidates.
“I strongly encourage the public to participate in a right and a privilege that our service members fought and died for. That is voting,” Fagan said. “We had a very dismal primary election turnout. I hope and pray that we are able to triple the voter turnout.”
Fagan described this November’s election as a “crossroads” for Spokane, saying that it was the moment to turn back the initiatives set in motion by Stuckart and the council majority.
“Spokane is at a crossroads right now. We are dealing with social justice and equity issues, the majority of which will be detrimental to our economy, jobs and affordability to citizens. Municipal elections are the most important thing our citizens can deal with.”
Fagan suggested the overall theme of this year’s city elections rested on what he described as Stuckart being dictatorial in his leadership.
“The thing is the council president can have the opinion he wants to have at this point. But it goes to show that he doesn’t want a difference of opinion. He’s working toward a 7-0 supermajority. He’s made that perfectly clear,” Fagan said. “So any kind of dissenting voice, he’s going to be against it. The problem is, my dissent is mainstream.”
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