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Passion defined Ben Stuckart’s two terms as Spokane City Council president

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, questions leaders of charities groups about what the city can do to make progress with the city’s homeless problem  Sept. 25, 2017 at Spokane City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, questions leaders of charities groups about what the city can do to make progress with the city’s homeless problem Sept. 25, 2017 at Spokane City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s never easy to be the lone voice of dissent, but a bottle of cinnamon whiskey sure takes the edge off.

After two terms as president of the Spokane City Council, Ben Stuckart’s colleagues reflected on a sense of camaraderie that crossed ideological lines, even when the political debate was at its fiercest.

There might be no better emblem of that bond than “6-to-1,” the label that adorned a bottle of whiskey stashed inside City Council offices by Councilman Steve Salvatori during Stuckart’s early days in office.

The story goes that if any vote of the seven-member council ended 6-to-1, several members would head from council chambers and honor the one-member stand with a swig of Fireball.

“We were kind of celebrating the individual person. You did what you felt like was right,” recalled Nancy McLaughlin, who served with Stuckart on the council in 2012 and 2013.

As he leaves office, Stuckart’s former council colleagues described his leadership style in interviews with The Spokesman-Review as unrelentingly passionate, at times to a fault, but politically skillful and rooted in his dedication to serve Spokane residents.

Under his watch, the City Council evolved into a full-time job for its members, who were complemented with full-time assistants and saw substantial salary increases. His fingerprints are all over initiatives aimed at boosting economic growth, including efforts that helped revitalize the retail business strip on East Sprague Avenue now called the Sprague Union District. And Stuckart spearheaded socially progressive, and often controversial, initiatives like a measure to regulate reality television shows like “Live PD” and “Cops” that film in Spokane.

Much was made in the 2019 City Council elections about the current City Council’s “veto-proof” liberal majority. But when Stuckart came aboard in 2012, the majority of his colleagues were conservative.

In the two years she served on the council with Stuckart, McLaughlin recalled him as pragmatic and even-handed. He brought his personal background in advocacy and nonprofit work to his role. That earned McLaughlin’s respect, “even though we totally disagreed a lot philosophically about the role of government,” she said.

Stuckart was behind an ethics complaint filed against her – and later dismissed – during her state Senate bid in 2012, McLaughlin said. She had used an official Spokane City Council photograph in a campaign mailer, and the complaint alleged that she had therefore misused public resources for political purposes.

“For me, Ben was always the type of guy that you wanted to go out and grab a beer with because he could be very fun. But be careful, because if you got him mad at you, he would would hug you and stab you in the back at the same time,” McLaughlin said.

Mike Allen, who was on the council from 2007 to 2015, remembered Stuckart’s tenure fondly, but acknowledged that at times “we’d go into closed doors and yell at each other.”

The animosity grew intense when Stuckart threatened to have Allen removed from the Park Board, a retaliatory gesture after Allen refused to endorse a plan to hire full-time legislative assistants for each council member. Allen thought city voters should weigh in on the plan; Stuckart thought maybe Councilman Mike Fagan would make a better Park Board member.

Allen ultimately kept his Park Board seat, but “we had a pretty good dust-up,” he said.

“We had our conflicts, but at the end of the day, Ben and I were always able to put those aside,” said Allen, who endorsed Stuckart’s candidacy for mayor earlier this year.

Perhaps the biggest dust-up Stuckart had with another council member occurred when Councilwoman Kate Burke asked the human resources for advice on whether he had bullied her on the dias. The review determined he didn’t. Burke did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Former Councilman Jon Snyder preferred conflict to apathy.

“I’m not going to say that Ben’s demeanor was perfect all the time, and he and I sure had our conflicts, but they were conflicts of passion,” Snyder said. “Something that’s really kind of lost in the discussion about this is how willing Ben was to step across the aisle, and work with people who were of different political stripes.”

Councilwoman Karen Stratton was appointed to the council in 2015 but knew Stuckart from her days working in the City Clerk’s Office.

“Ben was a big fiery ball of energy, and it was positive energy,” Stratton recalled. “He wanted to get things done, he was always in a hurry to do it, and employees respected and liked him very, very much.”

She learned to sense when Stuckart had been thinking about an issue for 48 straight hours and hadn’t slept, grown frustrated and wanted to get the work done. But Stratton said she was never intimidated by Stuckart because she understood his passion.

“I’ve always considered Ben like the little brother I didn’t have, because when you care about somebody, you can get mad as hell at them and you come back around,” Stratton said. “You can apologize, give them a hug and move on.”

Stuckart was known to, at times, become fiery on the dais. But his predecessor, Joe Shogan, also had a bit of a flair for the dramatic.

“During those first two years, Ben did not let his buttons be pushed nearly as easily as Joe Shogan,” McLaughlin said, noting that Shogan remains a friend.

Kinnear had her first clash with Stuckart prior to her election to the City Council when she was working as one of its legislative assistants. She can’t recall the details, but remembered learning that his passion is just part of his personality.

“That was part of his charm. We look at elected officials and think that they should have these perfect personalities and be perfect in every way … that’s not the case,” Kinnear said.

Kinnear recalled collaborating with Stuckart on the city’s sustainability ordinance and an urban farm ordinance. They both campaigned for the public safety levy, which voters approved earlier this year and funded the hiring of 20 new police officers and retention of 30 grant-funded firefighters.

Councilman Breean Beggs, who will succeed Stuckart as City Council president in January, watched Stuckart as an example of how to get things done. There’s a whole structure to the city, and a way to navigate it. Stuckart knew how.

“He was always getting agreements when things had broken down,” Stuckart said. “I kind of watched that and learned from him who had influence.”

Kinnear described him as well-schooled in each and every area important to municipal government, from economic development to city budgets.

Several of his colleagues highlighted Stuckart’s professional approach to his work as a City Council member, expanding council staffing and dedicating himself to it full-time. It was an evolution that Mayor David Condon, who is also leaving office this month, fought until the end.

Snyder agreed with Stuckart’s position on full-time council members, noting that Spokane is the state’s second-largest city and has “big-town issues, big-town challenges and big-town opportunity.”

“A lot of people on the council before had been in real estate or were lawyers or retired, and Ben was really part of this group, myself included, that felt like council deserved your full-time attention,” Snyder said. “We really wanted to give the people of Spokane 100%.”

Stuckart also championed a paid sick leave law in Spokane, which the council adopted in 2016. Though Washington voters eventually approved a statewide initiative mandating paid sick leave later that year, Snyder credited the Spokane law with giving it momentum.

“The fact that Spokane passed it before we took a vote as the rest of the state was a huge push for the statewide campaign, and Ben really worked hard on that effort,” Snyder said.

For Beggs, one of Stuckart’s greatest accomplishments was rallying multiple stakeholders in establishing the West Plains Public Development Authority, a joint venture of the city of Spokane, Spokane County and Spokane International Airport meant to spur economic investment.

“Nothing like that had ever been done or attempted, and he just kept working on that until we finally got the agreement,” Beggs said

In 2014, Stuckart championed the successful Riverfront Park bond and street levy that led to a renovated U.S. Pavilion and miles of repaved roads.

“There were some really transformative things done in those eight years,” Allen said.

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