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Sunday, July 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Election preview: Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton draws five challengers in the northwest

Five men with varying political experience are trying to unseat a Spokane councilwoman who has adopted an at-times antagonistic relationship with the mayor’s office at City Hall.

Incumbent Karen Stratton, who was first appointed to her seat then elected in 2015, says there’s still work to do in defending city employees and bringing attention to neglected areas of the northwest, including the West Central neighborhood. Her challengers include a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, a certified fraud examiner for the state, a job recruitment specialist, a Lyft driver and a retired police detective, who argue the district would be better served by someone of a different political persuasion or with a better pulse on the neighborhoods.

Stratton, 60, says she’s worked hard in her four-plus years on the council addressing the causes of concern in her portion of the city, pushing for sidewalks near school crossings, additional police officers in the neighborhood and revamping so-called “zombie properties” that can attract illegal activity.

“There’s a wave out there, of people saying that all the City Council members need to go and we need to start fresh,” said Stratton, who’s often listed by opponents as a member of the council’s liberal supermajority. “I’m flattered that they think it’s going to take five of them to get me out of there.”

Andy Rathbun, 55, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and longtime resident of the West Central neighborhood, has been Stratton’s most vocal critic early in the contest for the seat after ending his candidacy for mayor earlier this spring. He lodged a formal complaint with the city alleging Stratton’s acceptance of a $1,000 contribution from Avista Corp. violated the city’s new campaign finance law drafted by City Council President Ben Stuckart and supported by Stratton.

The city later issued a formal opinion saying that because Avista is not a traditional contractor competing for city contracts, the ban on campaign donations doesn’t apply to them. Avista has also given $2,000 to Stuckart’s mayoral campaign.

Rathbun said in an email that he accepted the city’s interpretation of the donation, but argued that Stratton’s ability to meet with Avista and have them review her legal response to concerns about the political contribution indicated city lawmakers had access that other candidates would not.

“I find it hard to believe that any regular-person candidate, such as myself, would have the kind of access to the corporate officers at Avista that Karen describes. Again, very troubling,” Rathbun wrote.

Stratton said her own relationship with the corporation goes back to her childhood, when her father worked as a longtime Washington Water Power employee before and after his own service on the Spokane City Council.

“They’re people that I trust, and they’ve been part of my life from back when I was young,” Stratton said.

Rathbun said his experience bringing community-oriented policing programs to West Central and as a longtime member of their neighborhood council would serve as a springboard to representing the district on the City Council.

“I’m looking at, you know, progress over politics,” Rathbun said. “There’s been a lot of wasted time on some issues that the City Council can’t, or shouldn’t be affecting.”

Rathbun said he supports additional police to deter property crime in the district, and that Spokane’s growth and increased tax revenues from that growth could go toward bringing the size of the police force in the city closer to the national average based on size.

Jeff Martin, a 49-year-old fraud examiner working for Washington state, said he, too, would bring a more ideological balance to the Spokane City Council. Martin noted that he has held elected office as a precinct committee officer for the Spokane County Republican Party and represented his public employee union in negotiations, showing he is capable of incorporating both sides of the political aisle in his decision-making.

“I consider myself a true moderate,” said Martin. “I believe that the political divisions on both sides are not conducive to accomplishing things.”

Martin said to address issues of illegal activity downtown, the city needs to get back to enforcing its laws on public drug use and camping. He also said traffic is a big issue in the northwest part of town, driven by housing developments off Indian Trail, and while he appreciates the new look of the North Monroe corridor, some motorists are waiting for long periods during rush hour.

Stratton defended the work on Monroe Street, saying it got off to a “rocky start” but that the project has been successful for residents and businesses. On homelessness, she said the city needs to branch out and start enlisting the help of local health care providers and universities to aid in the response.

“We have to expand our partnerships,” Stratton said. “We can’t do it alone.”

Christopher Savage, a 28-year-old Lyft driver, said he is running to amplify voices in the neighborhood at City Hall. The first-time candidate has been attending neighborhood meetings throughout the district this spring and many residents don’t feel like their concerns are making it into the decision-making process.

“Some of the people there don’t understand what is going on, there’s no communication going on,” Savage said.

As a Lyft driver, Savage said he’s seen firsthand the effects of city policy on his daily life. A self-described proponent of limited government, Savage said he would have sought to ease regulations on taxi drivers in the development of that policy, rather than subjecting ride-hailing companies and their contractors to more rules.

Ken Side, 67, is a self-avowed conservative and supporter of President Donald Trump. He said he’s running to make those positions known at City Hall and is unapologetic about whom it might upset.

“I’m very pro-life, there you go. I’m very pro-gun, and I’m very pro-wall,” said Side, a former Cheney police detective. Side identified himself as a “semi-prepper,” raising some livestock on his property in the Audubon-Downriver Neighborhood, and that perhaps in contrary to his conservative beliefs he’d look to make it easier for residents to pursue green energy.

Jeff Rugan, a 37-year-old account manager at the job recruitment firm Express Employment Professionals, said he’s making his first run for office on behalf of his 5-year-old son and improving Spokane’s safety for the next generation.

“It’s very important to me that my kids and future city leaders grow up in that same kind of wholesome, family friendly environment that I did,” said Rugan, who graduated from Mead High School in 2000. Rugan said the city needs to meet with those living on the streets downtown and determine who among them wants to receive help with employment and housing, but also pursue a more visible police presence to deter criminal activity.

Rathbun reported the most cash on-hand in his bid for the northwest seat, standing at $37,720 as of Friday. Of that total, a little more than $19,000 is coming from Rathbun himself. He also has received support from the Washington Association of Realtors.

Stratton reported $17,314 in donations to her campaign, which does not include any of her own money. Her supporters include Avista, the political action committee of the Spokane Firefighters Union, the Spokane Tribe of Indians and several industry unions, including the hospitality workers, the iron workers and Laborers Local 238.

Martin’s donations total $2,100, and Savage has raised $1,000. Neither Rugan nor Side has reported contributions to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

Ballots are due for the primary Aug. 6. The top two candidates will advance to the general election in November.

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