For most of 2014, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart considered running for mayor – even after he said he wasn’t going to run for mayor.
Progressives in town were excited about Stuckart entering the race against Mayor David Condon, who had started raising money for his re-election campaign three days after he was sworn into office nearly four years ago.
Stuckart eventually decided to stay on as the council’s leader and run for re-election, while Condon has amassed a political war chest of $362,500, the latest tally.
All of this is to say that the anticipated bout between the two Spokane political heavyweights didn’t happen and likely never will. An uneasy peace holds between the two, both saying that the tension between the branches of city government is productive and good for the city.
However, the race for City Council in northwest Spokane’s District 3 appears to be the proxy for a race between the mayor and the council president, drawing the eyes and energy that would’ve gone to a mayoral matchup.
Incumbent Councilwoman Karen Stratton was appointed to the seat a year ago, in part because she would “run a campaign,” Stuckart said last year.
“I think that working hard for the city and being able to run a campaign go hand in hand,” Stuckart said then. Stuckart has endorsed Stratton and campaigned with her, but he hasn’t donated to her campaign, which has raised $40,887. Her biggest donors include Avista, Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, the Spokane Regional Labor Council’s Committee on Political Education, the Washington State Council of County and City Employees and Planned Parenthood.
The campaign of Stratton’s opponent, Evan Verduin, was first paved by his appointment to the city’s Plan Commission by Condon, who has endorsed Verduin. The two men are campaigning together, and Condon and his wife have donated $250 to Verduin’s campaign, which has raised $42,030. His biggest donors include William Bouten and his company Bouten Construction, the Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors’ Build East political action committee, the auto auction house DAA Northwest, Premera Blue Cross and Verduin’s design firm, MAKE. Christi and Jim Walsh, and their Spokane Valley business Wake Up Call, have given $2,850.
Stratton said she resents the mayor’s involvement in her race, calling his endorsement of not just Verduin, but also council candidate LaVerne Biel and incumbent Councilman Mike Fagan, “unprecedented.”
“They doorbell together. Their signs are together. They’re the quote-unquote team for northwest Spokane,” Stratton said. “I won’t say it’s laughable, but I don’t think they’re fooling anybody. People resent it. It feels like cronyism.”
Verduin, an architect who owns his own design firm, said he appreciates the support from Condon but refuses to view his race as a stand-in for one that didn’t happen. He added that he doesn’t believe there has been “any unfair or abnormal attention.”
“It has turned into this council-president-versus-mayor thing, and who they are endorsing. It’s unfortunate,” he said. “This isn’t about party. This is about policy.”
Verduin said he sees himself in the mold of outgoing Councilman Mike Allen and Steve Salvatori, who resigned from the council due to work, leading to Stratton’s appointment and the creation of a five-member, veto-proof, left-leaning majority on the council.
Verduin emphasizes that he is an independent politician, not beholden to party politics, and vows to maintain a balanced voting record if elected.
He also pointed to areas of agreement he has with the current council majority in urban planning and the city’s design codes. Like he has before, he said he tacitly endorsed Stuckart’s re-election simply for “continuity of leadership” at City Hall – one of the reasons why he supports Condon.
“The continuity of leadership is an important thing,” he said. “I didn’t go into this saying, ‘I’m running against the council president.’ I’ve had very little interaction with him, unfortunately, but I don’t think he understands my political philosophy.”
That philosophy, Verduin said, begins with the basics.
“People want to make sure we have our priorities, and that’s police,” he said. “They want to make sure that we’re continuing to hire more police officers and expand the precinct presence.”
Verduin also said he’s focused on making sure road work continues apace and vowed to craft a city budget that prioritized streets.
“It sounds cliche, but roads are always important,” he said. “We need to continue to work on it.”
Besides such perennial voter concerns, for Verduin, the race is more about “reining in the council a little bit” and bringing the perspective of a business owner to its ranks.
“My clients are other businesses, and I have to know how they’re operating,” Verduin said, adding that his work has put him in greater contact with city requirements than the average resident. “There are things that the city requires and pushes on the developer. … I do truly believe that it’s something unique that I bring to the table.”
Verduin said the council has wasted time focusing on issues such as sick leave and minimum wage, even though a sick leave proposal was indefinitely tabled after Stratton pulled her support and a formal discussion of a minimum wage increase hasn’t occurred at City Hall.
“Those policies aren’t in line with what citizens want in Spokane,” Verduin said.
Verduin said the postponement of a sick leave policy requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees was politically motivated.
“They’ve heard the feedback. The business community wasn’t in favor of it,” he said. “They decided to wait as a political maneuver. They aren’t going to hear anything new.”
Verduin suggested discussion of such economic issues tied into the council’s approval last year of an apprenticeship ordinance, which requires a portion of bigger public works projects to be done by apprentices, as well as to the Worker Bill of Rights appearing on the ballot alongside Verduin and Stratton.
The apprenticeship law was “more appealing for labor groups than the need of the workers,” Verduin said, and would lead to a monopolization of city jobs by a handful of large contractors, to the detriment of small contractors.
“I’m talking about the small contractor with 20 or 30 employees, or someone like myself who is trying to hire his first employee,” he said, calling the ordinance an “overstep of the council’s authority.”
Though he acknowledged that most council members had stated their opposition to the Worker Bill of Rights, he called on them to endorse Greater Spokane Incorporated’s No on Prop 1 campaign.
“I think it’s important for the council members to be vocal against it,” he said. “The council really needs to be on board campaigning against that proposition. There’s still quite a bit of lack of education on it.”
Verduin suggested Stratton hadn’t made her position on the proposition clear, but she has said before she won’t vote for it, even if she hasn’t joined the campaign against it. She said she pulled her support from the sick leave policy because business owners convinced her it wasn’t ready, and she saw the Worker Bill of Rights on the horizon.
“If we passed sick leave, and if the Worker Bill of Rights passed, what have we done to our businesses?” she said.
Stratton also pointed out that she and her husband, Chris Wright, own two businesses, faulting Verduin for stating the council badly needed the perspective of a business owner.
“My husband owns his own firm, and my family owns a marijuana business,” she said. Wright is an attorney and president of the city’s Park Board.
Running a legal marijuana business with six other family partners has given her new perspective on not just government regulations but also stretched budgets, Stratton said.
“It has been a hardship on us. We’ve had to cut back and make sacrifices. We’ve had to learn how to market ourselves,” Stratton said. She added that during harvest, “Workers came in and got paid $15 an hour. Everybody got paid but the owners of the business.”
Stratton dismisses those who criticize her and her family’s year-old venture.
“It’s the beginning of a brand-new industry, and it can be overwhelming,” she said. “Some people can be dismissive. If this was a winery or a brewery, they probably wouldn’t be harping on it, but since this is a marijuana farm, I’m going to hear it.”
Much like Verduin, Stratton said her top priorities are public safety and streets.
“Crime is a huge issue in every neighborhood. Not just West Central, but Corbin Park, Five Mile,” she said. “People say they call the police and nobody shows up.”
Stratton said she was in a public safety committee meeting earlier this year and asked former police Chief Frank Straub, “ ‘On any given shift, how many cops are in the street?’ He said eight. Eight. And they have two they can call in for an emergency. I think about that all the time. It just echoes in my mind.”
The solution to the problem is hiring more police officers, focusing on community-oriented policing and closer collaboration between the police department and the COPS shops.
Stratton also said that while the voter-approved, 20-year street levy would repair and maintain the city’s arterial streets, she wanted more focus on the city’s residential streets and making sure funding was secure for their maintenance.
“It’s very frustrating for people,” she said, noting that she urges patience in some cases of road work rage. “It’s a big city and there’s a lot of city to cover.”
“People want to feel safe and have their roads fixed,” Stratton said. “I do think we do need to remind ourselves that basic services are very, very important. But we also need to look at the bigger picture. People also need help. Low-income people need housing. As we grow the city, how are we going to take care of people that need a little help so they’re not a burden, so they’re not out there on the sidewalk?”
Like her opponent, Stratton stressed her independence, and she called upon her mother, Lois Stratton, as a role model.
“My opponent and the mayor are putting party politics where it really doesn’t belong. My mom served this district for 13 years as a very conservative Democrat, and she was very popular,” she said. “People are not so concerned about the partisanship, but how well people are going to serve. It takes away the issues. I want to talk about the issues and what I can do. That’s what’s important to me.”
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