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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Mayor Condon should have argued his case against city’s new campaign finance law

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 12, 2018

FILE - Spokane Mayor David Condon (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane Mayor David Condon (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

David Condon is, officially, the strong mayor.

But in his recent dispute with the City Council over campaign finance reform, he donned a different cloak: The passive-aggressive mayor.

Rather than making a public appeal tied to his opposition to the new campaign finance legislation, he stayed strategically quiet during the two months that the proposal was public – and then vetoed it abruptly. One might easily have guessed his position, of course, but is that the way policy differences should be hashed out?

Via guesswork inside a cone of the silent treatment?

Weak, at least if you believe that representative leaders should be communicating with the public about what they’re up to.

Once Condon had issued his veto, he sent a letter to the council, with some case law that doesn’t actually make the case against the ordinance, concerns about the costs of implementing the legislation and whether campaign finance isn’t best left to the state, and the idea that limiting campaign cash continues to make Spokane unfriendly to business. The city’s current economy might seem to make this a strange time to make that argument, but nevermind.

It was weak, and not because he was wrong about the legislation – though I think he was – but because he didn’t really bother to try and persuade anyone. Most of the arguments I heard put forth publicly against the legislation were not very persuasive because they were not very deep or well-informed, relying almost entirely on raising the most reliable conservative bogeyman there is: public sector unions.

When I asked Condon why he hadn’t made a public case before the veto, he said that he didn’t think it would make any difference, because he and the council members who support it would be at an ideological “impasse” already, and because he was trying to focus on getting the city budget passed without ruffling feathers.

He also noted that Council President Ben Stuckart hadn’t approached him first.

OK. But the key people who needed to be communicated with – talked to and listened to, on this issue and others – are not those on the council with whom Condon has entered such a chilly and mistrustful détente.

It’s the people he represents.

It was, all in all, exemplary. Having once described himself as an “action guy,” Condon has put little emphasis on being a “communications guy” – the element of public leadership in which you persuade, argue, engage, and promote an actual “conversation” about the ideas that may or may not become law.

But that’s action, too, of course. Though people often disdain talk as empty, it’s among the most important actions that effective leaders can take in a democracy. Action, politically speaking, is more than examining how to merge departments or where to put the clerks, and it’s more than setting “benchmarks” for departments or measuring outcomes or coming up with cool new budgeting processes.

In politics, talk is action.

So is silence.

Among the most persuasive arguments in favor of trying to shine more light onto the identities of big-money donors is the sense that public participation in city politics is shrinking: The number of Spokane residents who don’t bother to vote in elections is appalling – most recently, with well-contested council races and the coal train initiative to settle, about one-third of the electorate voted.

Part of that, surely, is a product of a political system that has become more cloistered and insular, more insidery, more divided between a public façade and a private reality where power and money set the real agenda. This is only intensified by the necessity for candidates to form relationships primarily to raise big money. That, in turn, creates an environment of deep suspicion, in which every public proposal is seen as a stalking horse – a pretense under which an unstated ulterior motive lurks.

City government is perhaps least susceptible to these forces – and least able, frankly, to make much of a dent in the overall system – and yet the debate over the campaign finance laws played out largely along those lines. Everybody thinks they’ve got everybody else’s ulterior motive figured out.

Relations between the council and mayor transpired in that way, too, and it seemed most pronounced in the way the mayor exercised his veto. It’s as though, having looked at the political reality and foreseen what was almost certain to happen – veto, followed by override – he went through the motions.

I think this legislation is worth a try, within the limitations of the post-Citizens United age. Secret money is a poison, eroding trust and producing the worst examples of campaign sliminess on both sides, and the people who want to defend secret money ought to feel obliged to make better arguments than demonizing unions – which are treated the same under this law as big-money PACs like Better Spokane.

Mostly, though, they didn’t. Councilman Mike Fagan, the lone council conservative, talked before casting the lone vote against overriding the veto about how hard it is for conservatives in this town to raise money and what a disadvantage they suffer compared to liberals. (If he wants to feel better about this, he should check out the mayor’s PDC page. Or Evan Verduin’s. Or LaVerne Biel’s. Or Michael Cannon’s. … )

Fagan predicted this new law would mean the end of all conservatives in city government. No more conservatives. None!

That must be what those wily council liberals are up to.

Someone, anyone – even the supposedly strong mayor – should have made a stronger argument.

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