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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gender could be more important majority in city, county government

There’s been a lot of talk about the liberal City Council majority, but there is another majority on this year’s legislative body – and it’s a historic one.

For the first time since the territorial government was led by Glovers and Cannons and Comstocks, a majority of women hold seats on the Spokane City Council. Also for the first time, two women occupy the majority of the three county commission seats. It’s a 6-4 local government majority.

Members of this new majority are making their presence felt in ways both small and large. Perhaps most notably, two City Council members – Candace Mumm and Karen Stratton – oversaw an investigation into the recruitment, hiring and pay of women and minorities among city employees.

They produced a 49-page report after a year of study, showing that the city workforce includes just 24 percent women, who are paid 84 cents on the dollar on average when compared to men. It also measured the wage gap citywide, finding that women are paid 78 percent of the salary of men on average, and that the gap has grown in recent years.

That report was unveiled, along with an action plan, at a news conference last week at City Hall, with council members and Mayor David Condon standing side by side. Mumm pointed to the effort – both the report and the collaborative nature of the plan going forward – as a positive result of the style that women brought to the issue.

“Something’s changed at City Hall,” Mumm said Monday. “When you have all the council members and the mayor stand together to make a change, I’m confident change will happen.”

Of the women on the City Council, Amber Waldref is the longest-serving, having first taken office in 2010. Mumm was sworn in in 2014. Karen Stratton, who was originally appointed to replace Steve Salvatori, was retained in in November’s election, when Lori Kinnear also won her seat.

That election – which also returned Mayor David Condon and Council President Ben Stuckart to office – was noteworthy in that it gave the council a 5-2 liberal supermajority, enough to overrule a mayoral veto. The council flexed that muscle in overturning Condon’s veto of an ordinance requiring local businesses to provide paid sick leave for workers; it has also been a more activist body than years past, with an inclination to wade into political issues that have not typically been council matters, whether it’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, gay marriage or elephant abuse.

The gender majority is a different dynamic, one that might easily slip into gross stereotyping. But it’s also an unmistakable historic milestone, one that the councilwomen themselves have taken note. They’re not the only ones.

After the November election, “Sen. (Patty) Murray gave us all a phone call,” said Kinnear, noting that majorities of women also serve on city councils in Yakima and Seattle. “For her, that was a big deal. She called all of us, thanked us, congratulated us. We’ve talked about it among ourselves, about how we work differently.”

Mumm and Kinnear both said they find that women tend to be more collaborative and inclusive, though both also emphasized that “men can be that way, too,” Mumm said.

Though the current majorities are historical firsts, Spokane has sometimes shown forward-looking diversity in its elected officials before, according to a review of the history of elected city officials provided by City Hall. We elected a black mayor, Jim Chase, in 1982. Three women have served as mayor – in 1986, Vicki McNeill was the first to “crack that good old boys’ network,” in the words of her daughter from a 1997 S-R profile. Sheri Barnard was elected mayor next in 1990. Both of those women served under the council-manager form of government, where the mayor was a member of the City Council.

Mary Verner was the first woman elected under the strong mayor form of government, serving from 2007 to 2011.

In the early 2000s, three women comprised a significant minority on the council – Roberta Green, Phyllis Holmes and Cherie Rodgers.

“It sounds so sexist,” said Kinnear, when talking about some of the differences she perceives in working with an all-women majority on the council. But she said that, generally speaking, she finds women in politics to be less oriented toward conflict and more focused on the end result.

While the council majority is obviously made up of left-leaning women, the County Commission is another story. Shelly O’Quinn and Nancy McLaughlin, a former conservative member of the City Council, are both conservatives on the reliably conservative commission. McLaughlin was appointed recently to take the place of Todd Mielke, who stepped down.

City administrator Theresa Sanders said the city and county majorities make it an interesting time in local government, and offer opportunities for greater collaboration on various regional issues – which has sometimes been made difficult by tense relationships or policy conflicts between council members and commissioners. She said her impression is that, though it’s early, the women serving on the two political bodies might help bring an increased “sense of calm.”

“I’m hoping we get increased coordination between these majorities,” she said.

Mumm has worked in local politics, government and media for many years. “I was on the Planning Commission for decades,” she said, “and for most of that time I was the only woman.”

She said that she and other women have tended to help bring a focus on family and children’s issues into government discussions – such as neighborhood safety or protecting walkable school routes.

“I think it’s important to have women in office to reflect the makeup of the city,” she said. “We know that when we have more people at the table and more variety, they influence a better outcome in the long run.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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