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In race to lead Spokane City Council, Stuckart faces legislative veteran

Oct. 16, 2015 Updated Fri., Oct. 16, 2015 at 11:18 p.m.

Incumbent Council President Ben Stuckart, left, faces former state Rep. John Ahern in the November election.
Incumbent Council President Ben Stuckart, left, faces former state Rep. John Ahern in the November election.

Not many people wanted John Ahern to run against Ben Stuckart for the position of Spokane City Council president.

Following his lopsided loss to Councilman Jon Snyder two years ago, and his out-of-pocket demand for a limited recount that had no chance to change the race’s outcome, the former Republican state legislator gained the reputation of being a weak candidate and a poor loser.

So when Councilman Mike Allen said he would not seek re-election this year, local Republicans pressed Ahern not to run for the seat. Ahern agreed, instead filing to run in one of the two races where all of the city’s voters cast ballots.

For conservatives, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. To some of them, Stuckart was a dangerous radical leading the city toward socialism. An effort to draft popular state Rep. Kevin Parker into the race against Stuckart was unsuccessful. Rumors of a challenge from former Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin and Tim Benn, a young conservative twice vanquished in recent legislative races who regularly attends council meetings, remained just rumors.

Stuckart, on the other hand, marched toward his re-election as a hero of the left, even resisting attempts to get him into the mayor’s race. Despite his supporters’ higher ambitions for Stuckart, they still cheered when he said he would stay put and lead the council for four more years, voters willing.

Regardless of support, the two men have left records that show a stark contrast. Since entering public life 15 years ago, Ahern has beat the conservative drum of less government when it comes to the market. And he’s not shy to speak on gay marriage, abortion and other contentious political subjects.

Stuckart has staked his flag on progressive soil, but carved out a plot of business-friendliness that has won him the support of unlikely allies. His brash last words from the dais, notably on labor and immigration issues, leave little room for interpretation.

Ahern has declined numerous requests for interviews, saying that The Spokesman-Review “has always been quite negative to everybody that’s a Republican.”

“I’d be glad to give you a full blown interview after I win the election,” Ahern said. “Like a colleague of mine said to me in the House, he pulled me aside and said, ‘Ahern, what you don’t say can’t hurt you.’”

On the campaign trail, however, Ahern has stuck to three issues: immigration, marijuana and the council’s tabled sick leave policy.

Stuckart has trouble pointing to two, three or even five issues that he’s passionate about. Instead, it’s an outline of topics, each bullet-pointed with many more secondary issues. Stuckart argues that the council he has led has been the most productive in recent history, and has made progress on economic development, the arts, environmental policy and labor issues.

“We’ve passed over 60 ordinances and resolutions that I’ve sponsored,” Stuckart said. “That’s a hell of a record for three and a half years, compared to my opponent who passed two bills in the Legislature in ten years.”

That’s about as much mud as Stuckart flings at Ahern. He doesn’t really have to go negative, because he’s raised far more money than Ahern and garnered unexpected endorsements from the Spokane Home Builders Association and the Spokane Association of Realtors – approving nods from what should be Ahern’s natural allies.

Though Stuckart generally has kept to the high road, Ahern has suggested that Stuckart comes to council meetings under the influence of marijuana, and told high school students at a recent debate hosted by the Chase Youth Commission that he supported “mandatory drug testing in the City Council to find out who’s flying high.”

“He harps on ‘sanctuary city’ and how anti-business we are,” Stuckart said. “That’s just not true.”

Ahern’s politics

In July 2000, Ahern launched his first campaign. At 66, he was already past the age of retirement, and his opponent joked that they were “two mild-mannered grandfathers.”

Ahern is amiable, but mild – in words and beliefs – he is not.

His priorities then were based in the same philosophy he brings to this year’s race: trimming the size of government and reining in business regulations. He proposed capping property tax and eliminating the business and occupation tax. He also said he wanted to double the sentences for sex offenders, and privatize the state departments of Transportation and Social and Health Services.

Like he does to this day, Ahern railed against the state’s business climate.

“All you have to do is look right across the border to Idaho,” Ahern said. “It seems like all the high-tech and biotech jobs are going there because of the business environment there.”

In the 2000 primary, Ahern faced Monty Cobb, another Republican who said Ahern was too conservative for the district.

“I believe the 6th District is more moderate than John, I’m banking on it. … I’m more of a middle of the road Republican,” Cobb said at the time. “John’s taking a very conservative, hard-line approach, and his facts are all messed up.”

In the general election that year, Ahern squeaked by former Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty, a family friend and now a supporter of Stuckart. It didn’t take long for Ahern to wade into contentious political issues.

In January 2001, Ahern was one of many lawmakers who marched onto the Capitol steps in Olympia to protest abortion rights. He told the crowd that the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion was “without a doubt the worst decision that ever came down the pike since the Dred Scott decision of 1857,” which stated black slaves could not sue for their freedom.

During his first term, he secured one of his two signature achievements in the House by being the prime sponsor of the bill that brought the Veteran’s Home to Spokane, the first of its kind in Eastern Washington.

In 2002, he successfully ran for re-election, reprising a favorite line of his. “We have a reputation as being the most business-unfriendly state in the union,” he said.

In March 2003, Ahern joined an impromptu rally supporting George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Ahern called Saddam Hussein “another Hitler.”

“This time, we’re going to finish the job,” Ahern said, referring to the 1991 Gulf War that left Hussein in power.

In 2004, he won re-election again, and again railed against the left.

“None of us on the Republican side believe she’s the legitimate governor of the state of Washington,” he said of then-Gov. Chris Gregoire, speaking about the ultraclose recount of the race where just 129 votes out of 2.9 million separated her from her opponent, Dino Rossi.

That December, Ahern helped spark what have become the annual Christmas tree wars, demanding that Gregoire re-name the official Holiday Tree. Ahern eventually agreed to the moniker Angel Tree.

Again, in 2006, he won re-election.

After years of effort, and multiple changes to the original bill he floated during his first term, Ahern persuaded the House to pass a bill strengthening penalties against repeat offenders of driving under the influence, his other signature achievement in the House. The bill, which was passed in the 11th hour of the 2006 legislative session, stated that someone convicted of five DUIs in ten years would receive a felony and an average of 22 months in prison and treatment.

The bipartisan support for Ahern’s bill didn’t translate to tempered comments.

In 2007, the House overwhelmingly granted same-sex couples some of the legal rights and protections granted to married couples.

“This is really a sad day,” Ahern said. Later, he said that “a gay act is abomination.”

In 2008, at a legislative hearing about creating a domestic partner registry, Ahern drew gasps from some in the crowd when he asked if the state is checking up to make sure people aren’t registering their pets as partners.

“I’m just kind of worried about whether or not there could be some individuals out there scamming the system and that they’re actually claiming a dog as a domestic partner or just a, you know, a figment of their imagination, just whatever,” Ahern said.

Another legislator cut him off, calling his comments “absolutely inappropriate.”

During that same session, Ahern was visited by members of the Inland Northwest teen advisory board for Planned Parenthood in his Olympia office, lobbying for funds for family planning and sex education.

“How many unborn babies have you guys killed in the last year?” he asked the group, more than once. (Ahern said later he asked, “By the way, I need to find out how many unborn babies were killed by Planned Parenthood.”)

One of the teens’ fathers filed an ethics complaint against Ahern for “verbally abusing” his daughter, but it was dismissed by the ethics board because Ahern was “entitled to his opinion.”

Ahern was not re-elected that year, falling in the nationwide Democratic wave left in President Barack Obama’s wake. Two years later, in 2010, he made a comeback and retook his seat after helping expose the Tea Party fractures in the GOP and running on his tried and true platform of less government.

“There are three ways we can do it: Privatize, privatize, and the third way, guess what, privatize,” he said, describing how he’d balance the state budget.

That session, Ahern missed 66 votes, far more than he had missed in previous sessions. He said his wife had been ill and his son was in a car accident. The reasons for the missed votes foretold Ahern’s decision in 2012 not to run for re-election. He said he wanted to be closer to his family.

From the left

Stuckart never really left Spokane, and though his record doesn’t stretch as far back as Ahern’s, he made his views known.

In 1995, Stuckart was named in the newspaper as a member of the Gonzaga University debate squad competing in the Kansas City Classic. The squad won both first and second place that year, but Stuckart only made it to the quarter-finals, falling to Cornell. His debating chops earned him another mention in the paper, and then another and another.

When Stuckart next appeared in print, he was his own scribe, writing a letter to the editor about the “hypocritical” actions of his “flag waving” neighbors who didn’t take the time to vote.

“Shame on those of you who believe we stand united but cannot even take the time to participate in one of the main responsibilities that actually separates our country from those that spread hatred around the globe,” he wrote.

A few years later, in 2004, Stuckart wrote a letter to the paper about his support for long shot Democratic presidential nominee Dennis Kucinich, the party’s progressive standard bearer that year.

Stuckart praised Kucinich’s stances on “universal health care, full funding and guaranteed Social Security … guaranteed pre-kindergarten through college funding.” Stuckart said the Ohio representative was “committed to workers over corporations, family farms over corporate farms and the environmental safety of our citizenry over the pollution caused by large corporations.”

In 2005, Stuckart called for George W. Bush’s impeachment, saying that the president had declared “war on United States citizens” with the domestic spying program put in place after Sept. 11, 2001.

“To not abide by the law is a clear trampling on our Constitution and should be considered reason for impeachment,” Stuckart wrote.

Stuckart began making news of his own in 2008, as executive director of the Spokane affiliate for Communities in Schools, a business-funded nonprofit trying to lower the city’s high school dropout rate. In 2010, Stuckart led an initiative that put a levy before voters to fund and create the Children’s Investment Fund. The money in the fund would have been used to support early childhood learning, abuse and neglect prevention and treatment programs, mentoring programs and before- and after-school activities. The measure failed badly, with 65 percent of voters saying no to the levy.

Stuckart wasn’t down for long. Within a few months, he had registered to run for City Council president. He got in early, gathered enough supporters and raised enough money to beat Dennis Hession, a former mayor and council president.

At the time, Stuckart said he was running, in part, because council leaders had been too weak since the city transitioned to a strong mayor form of government.

“They seem very reactive,” Stuckart said. “A strong leader as the City Council president can come in and work with people with different viewpoints … and create that shared vision.”

When campaigning, he said no city departments should be eliminated and that if the city focused more attention on economic development for small businesses and in neighborhood centers, the city’s financial woes could be solved.

“This will give us the revenue to keep our streets maintained and keep police officers and firefighters employed and keep our libraries open,” Stuckart said. “We need to look forward, not look forward to cutting services.”

For his re-election, Stuckart said he’s largely delivered on his promise of economic development, but said there was more to do.

He pointed to the 11 percent increase in 2014 for the city’s median household income and the two percent drop in unemployment over the last four years. He said there’s been far more construction in Spokane than in the Valley or the county five years in a row.

“I can talk about all the pro-business stuff I’ve done, but the proof is the pudding,” he said. “Every single economic data point shows that Spokane is moving in the right direction. If their argument is that a liberal City Council is driving business away, the data doesn’t back them up.”

He also points to the city’s Targeted Investment Program, which is directing $18 million from 22 different sources at East Sprague for traffic calming, housing rehabilitation and street repair and lighting through 2018. That program was recently broadened and institutionalized in the city’s economic incentive program, crafted by both Stuckart and Mayor David Condon.

“Targeted investment was my idea,” he said. “It’s the smart use of public money to replicate what’s happening in the Perry District.”

Stuckart has been criticized for being distracted from city business by unnecessary topics, such as immigration policy and worker rights. He dismisses such concerns.

“I didn’t run for office to be quiet. Those issues aren’t just national. There are local things that we can do on each of these issues,” he said, saying the council has done “a really good job with the basics” such as street repair under the 20-year levy approved by voters last year, keeping utility rates down, funding libraries and keeping the effort to stop pollutants from entering the Spokane River on schedule.

“If all I did with my time was to fill every single pothole, well that’s not my job. I craft policy,” Stuckart said. “We should focus on the big stuff.”

Compromiser or social engineer?

A sign of his success as council president, Stuckart said, is that all but one of the council members have endorsed his re-election effort.

“There’s no animosity. Even Fagan and I sit down and chat,” he said.

Fagan, the sole member to endorse Ahern, painted Stuckart as dictatorial.

“It’s all about gaining power, retaining power, growing the power with these guys. When it comes to constituent issues, that’s secondary,” Fagan said. “I didn’t go to City Hall to change the landscape of the city, like my colleagues have. That’s social engineering.”

Fagan praised Ahern, saying he led an “exemplary life” and had an “honorable career” in the House.

Still, Fagan didn’t speak so much in favor of Ahern, as against Stuckart.

“I think John recognizes the danger of the supermajority the council president has secured for himself,” Fagan said. “The only way the council president can push his agenda is through a supermajority.”

Condon, who has stayed out of the race, gave his tacit support for Stuckart, even while decrying the lack of balance and a business-minded orientation on the council.

“I think many of the philosophies Ahern brings to the table, he and agree quite a bit,” Condon said. “That being said, I think there’s a time for elected officials to serve, and I think he’s served our community very well at the state level. I think with Ben, we have on major issues come to a lot of agreement for this community.”

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