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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

David Condon’s comeback for the ages led to quick change at Spokane City Hall

In the shadow of the Riverfront Park Clock Tower and the pavilion, David Condon is sworn in as the Spokane's 44th mayor by Judge Mary Logan in this photo from Dec. 30, 2011. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

David Condon got clobbered.

In the 2011 primary for Spokane mayor, Condon took 33.6% of the vote. It was enough to limp into the general election, but his main opponent, incumbent Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, earned nearly twice as many votes.

Verner’s showing was a “landslide,” according to The Spokesman-Review headline the morning after Condon’s poor primary showing. Verner was on a clear path to break the curse of Spokane’s one-term mayors.

But fast-forward 12 weeks and Verner became the 10th Spokane mayor in a row to serve only one term. And it wasn’t really close. She lost by nearly 3,000 votes (more than three times as many votes as Nadine Woodwdard’s margin of victory this year over Ben Stuckart).

What happened?

Simply put, Condon did not give up. He ran an aggressive campaign. He appealed to liberals concerned about police oversight. He appealed to conservatives upset over growing utility rates. He stressed that he’d be a “nonpartisan” mayor who’d bring change. He ran professional TV ads. He was not shy about raising gobs of money for his campaign.

It didn’t hurt that the news in the three months following Verner’s primary cakewalk highlighted a lapse in police accountability, growing outrage in some neighborhoods over new water rates and perpetual problems with property crime.

Even so, it wasn’t a given that Condon could overcome Verner’s advantage. Prior to Condon entering the race, it was unclear anyone of note would even challenge her. Even many business leaders who initially were apprehensive about Verner had come to accept her as a steady leader who had navigated a treacherous four years of deep recession.

Perhaps most importantly, Condon made specific and simple promises to solve specific problems.

Verner normally would have been the obvious choice of liberal voters. But they had grown frustrated with the slow pace of police reform and the inability of the city attorney’s office to allow the city to accept any blame in the death of Otto Zehm, a janitor who died in police custody after he was beaten by officers in a north Spokane convenience store. Federal prosecutors even had alleged a conspiracy to cover up police actions in Zehm’s death.

When Condon suggested he would fire an assistant city attorney who had defended the city’s police department against misconduct allegations, some Democratic-leaning voters began to shift Condon’s way, including Tom Keefe, the former chairman of the Spokane County Democratic Party, who agreed to appear in a Condon TV ad.

Meanwhile, outrage in neighborhoods with the greenest lawns grew as homeowners began receiving their summer water bills. The rates shifted at the start of the year to significantly boost costs for those who used the most water. The goal was to reduce water usage, but fear was spreading of the de-beautification of a city filled with brown lawns. Suggestions to xeriscape were mocked. After the City Council doubled down on the strategy in September by raising the rates again, Condon produced a TV ad highlighting the issue.

Amid that backdrop, Spokane police announced that the city was officially disbanding its property crime unit. This in a city notoriously plagued by property crime. The police spokeswoman’s response gave the Condon campaign a money quote: “It totally sucks for everybody in the community.”

Despite this, Verner remained confident. At her election night party, Verner had predicted “pandemonium” when results were announced. Instead it became a somber affair, and Verner acknowledged to reporters that it had been a rough couple of months. Just six days before the election, a federal jury convicted police Officer Karl Thompson Jr. of beating Zehm unnecessarily and lying to investigators.

Change came to City Hall fast. Even before Condon took office, some top administrators were told they would not keep their jobs. And over the course of the year, numerous other officials were dismissed. He kept his promise to dismiss Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi. Before that, he fired the city attorney.

He worked with new City Council President Ben Stuckart to keep his promise to repeal water rates and changed the system to one much closer to the old rate system.

Those were relatively easy moves, though.

Other moves took bigger efforts to change longtime practices at City Hall.

Within a year, the city’s fire department was experimenting with ways to stop taking firetrucks to every scene, even medical calls. For years, the department had argued that despite the wear on big, expensive firetrucks – not to mention the gas guzzling – it was more economical to take firetrucks to every call than to try to maintain two sets of vehicles. They also argued they needed their trucks so they could be prepared for whatever they encountered on scene.

Still, after much experimenting, the department has settled on the use of three alternative response units, which respond to low-level medical calls in an SUV. They are no longer controversial.

For utility customers, more important than the change to water rates, he pledged to keep utility rate increases to the rate of inflation. To do that without reneging on federal requirements to build hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure needed to mostly stop the flow of raw sewage into the Spokane River, Condon agreed to borrow more money – something previous administrations had been unwilling to do.

In 2020, Spokane’s utility rates will rise by 2.9%. That’s the seventh year in a row rate increases were limited to inflation. Previous proposals suggested rate increases in that stretch of 12% or more.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes Condon’s willingness to shake up the system at City Hall more than snow gates. Snow gates are barriers installed on graders to block massive piles of snow from blocking driveways. The city previously used them, but stopped in the 1990s as it switched from graders to snowplows to push snow off streets.

But homeowners never forgot the city’s old system, and when enough snow fell to require the plowing of residential streets, city phone lines would flood with angry calls from those whose driveways were blocked by a mountain of icy snow. Officials said using snow gates was not possible because they would slow down crews too much.

It took a while – into his second term – but Condon restored snow gates to the city’s fleet. And the time it takes to complete the plow of all city streets has actually decreased under his watch.

Jonathan Brunt was the City Hall reporter from 2007 to 2013.