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

Ben Stuckart’s not the mayor, but he and his opponents talk like he is

Candidates for Mayor of the City of Spokane from left, Jonathan Bingle, Kelly P. Cruz, Shawn Poole, Ben Stuckart and Nadine Woodward talk about the issues during The League of Women Voters candidate forum at City Hall on Tuesday, June 5, 2019. (SR / Kathy Plonka)

After months of often heated campaigning among the five candidates to serve as Spokane’s next mayor, voters now have their chance to weigh in on the race.

The Spokane County Elections Office began mailing ballots on Wednesday for the Aug. 6 primary election.

There is no incumbent on the ballot in the upcoming primary election, but Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has been running in many ways as if he is one and his opponents have often treated him as such, criticizing him for the work done during the administration of current mayor David Condon.

At its heart, the campaign to succeed the two-term mayor has thus far been distilled to a debate over whether Spokane is on the right track.

Stuckart, who at times has battled Condon, points to the progress the city has made and policies the council has implemented in the nearly eight years he has helmed the dais.

Another prominent candidate, former television news anchor Nadine Woodward, believes residents are concerned about the direction Spokane is headed and “want to preserve what’s made Spokane so great.” She has been sharp in her criticism of Stuckart, but has not called out the current mayor.

Working on the foundation of two terms on the City Council, Stuckart’s campaign has focused on policy and on his depth of knowledge regarding city issues. Woodward takes a less nuts-and-bolts approach, instead positioning herself as a candidate who can be trusted and will reconnect people to city government.

Though Stuckart and Woodward may have the most name recognition, they aren’t the only choices. The race also features Spokane Fire Department Lt. Shawn Poole, business owner Jonathan Bingle and retired carpenter Kelly Cruz, all of whom have had to fight for a platform in a discussion Woodward and Stuckart have dominated.

With seven years as City Council president, Stuckart has acknowledged that he has a long legislative history to analyze. And he has been criticized for some of the policies he has pushed, such as a tax on gun and ammunition sales within city limits to fund mental health services that ultimately did not pass.

Stuckart also has a reputation for being brash, but he stresses that eight of the 11 City Council members he has worked with – including Democrats and Republicans – have endorsed him.

“I’m very direct, and then because I’m so direct, that’s seen as very assertive, and sometimes I get labeled a bully. But I think those that have worked with me closely understand that I love this city,” Stuckart said.

Woodward is a newcomer to politics after nearly three decades as a TV news anchor in Spokane, most recently at KXLY. At times, her campaign has been controversial. She skipped the first public forum for mayoral candidates in June in favor of a campaign event, and she initially rejected an interview request from the Inlander. Her former campaign manager, Abra Belke, wrote a July 1 blog post accusing Woodward of asking her to “act contrary to (her) values” before she left the job.

Woodward also made waves when she suggested that homeless people not be allowed in the city’s public library.

But there is nothing she has said in the campaign that she would take back.

Spokane residents, she said, “don’t want the city enabling a lifestyle of addiction and people who don’t want to get help. When it comes to the library, they want a safe library. They don’t want people injecting in our restrooms in the library.”

Under Stuckart’s leadership, Woodward believes Spokane could become “another Seattle.”

“I believe that this next election will define who we are as a city for at least a generation. Are we going to be able to stay a hardworking, tenacious community that finds solutions – our own solutions – to our challenges, or are we going to become a city that becomes like Seattle?”

Asked about this criticism,Stuckart noted that Seattle has “one of the strongest economies in the world.” And while Seattle has struggled with homeless encampments, Stuckart said he has continually supported Spokane’s no-camping law. But he added that in order to legally enforce the law, the city needs to provide enough low-barrier shelter beds, something he said Woodward’s approach would not accomplish.

Stuckart has campaigned on a promise to address the city’s housing crisis, which impacts not only the homelessness issue but neighborhoods on every economic level.

“I know everyone talks about the homelessness, but the housing is the crux of it,” Stuckart said. “If we can tackle, right away, our housing problem, we can help alleviate the homeless problem.”

About 800 people had housing vouchers in 2018 but could not find low-income housing because vacancy rates are near 1%, according to Stuckart, who wants to work with the state Legislature to incentivize the construction of affordable housing.

“We’re going to need a long-term strategy, whether that’s a housing trust fund or some other solution to build more low-income housing,” he said.

By citing housing as the source of the homelessness problem, Woodward said Stuckart has failed to provide even a basic definition of the issue.

“He’s saying it’s a housing issue and an unemployment issue. It’s about mental illness and addiction, and until you can define what the issue is, we are never going to do anything to improve it,” Woodward said.

Woodward said she has met with nonprofits, law enforcement, businesses, mental health services, drug counselors and people in shelters and on the street to discuss homelessness.

“All of them will tell you that a vast majority of the people they see, we call them homeless, but they have a mental illness and they have an addiction,” Woodward said. “That is why they have lost their jobs, it’s why they’ve been evicted from their homes, it’s why they’ve been separated from their families.”

According to the point-in-time count conducted on Jan. 24, there were 1,309 homeless people in Spokane County. A greater number of survey respondents indicated that family conflict, a lack of income, a lack of affordable housing or a lost job were the primary reason for their homelessness rather than drug use.

Woodward criticized the City Council’s approach to homelessness, particularly its effort to add more low-barrier shelters, because “we have to get beyond warehousing people and handing out sandwiches.”

“As mayor, I want to do far more than that,” Woodward said.

Woodward highlighted the work of the Spokane Police Department’s new grant-funded Community Diversion Unit, which teams officers with four mental health clinicians through Frontier Behavioral Health.

The aim of the program, launched in 2018, is to divert people from jail and instead link them to available services. From July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, the program served 1,049 people, including 733 who were diverted from jail and emergency departments.

“I would love to expand that program and have those teams reaching out to our homeless in encampments, in shelters or on the street to connect them to programs – drug treatment programs and mental health programs,” Woodward said.

Stuckart noted that the public safety levy, which he supported and passed earlier this year, will help continue funding for the diversion program. He also criticized Woodward’s prior comments on homelessness, particularly her claim that 80% of homelessness was tied to drug addiction.

“That’s just peddling fear and falsehoods,” Stuckart said. “There’s no other data out there than the point-in-time count, so to make assertions based on that is really irresponsible for people that are running for mayor to do.”

In describing his approach to the issue, Stuckart said if a neighbor is drowning, you pick them up and pull them onto your boat.

“You don’t ask them where they’re from. You don’t ask them if they’re on drugs or not. You don’t tell them they have to be accountable. You just pull them out of the water. And that’s my moral argument on this,” he said.

The city is going to have to find ways to help shelters offer one-on-one services so they can offer more than an overnight bed, Stuckart argued.

“It’s not like the city has been ignoring this issue. We’re all working really hard to solve it. I think people think that there’s some magic bullet, and there isn’t,” Stuckart said.

Homelessness and public safety are at the top of the minds of the other candidates, as well.

People who are chronically homeless are “overwhelmingly either addicts or mentally ill,” Bingle said. He proposes cutting 1% from city spending and reappropriating two-thirds of the savings to fund long-term mental health and addiction treatment services. The other one-third of savings would be applied to help the working poor through programs, like the EnVision Center , which connects people to social services.

“I’m a businessman; I know when to cut budgets, I know how to prioritize spending,” Bingle said.

The city should focus on assistance for the working poor to prevent them from slipping into homelessness, Bingle argued.

Investing in treatment would also help address property crime, much of which Bingle believes is tied to addiction.

“I think if we heavily invest in drug treatment and prevention that we will also naturally see a reduction in property crime,” Bingle said.

Cruz said he would make addressing property crime a priority. The underlying factor to property crime, Cruz argued, is addiction. He suggested the city needs to work with other law enforcement agencies in the region and federal agencies to combat the flow of drugs into Spokane.

Cruz’s two-pronged approach would be to first cut the supply of drugs and increase treatment for addiction, along with a “community message of prevention.”

“It’s going to be hard to help people in the community who have an addiction problem as long as the things they are addicted to are so readily, easily available,” Cruz said.

Multiple attempts to schedule an interview with Poole were unsuccessful.

At a public forum in June, Poole took a hard stance on addressing crime and homelessness.

“If we make it extremely uncomfortable to be homeless in Spokane, I think the crime will go down,” Poole said, adding that those who don’t require help will leave the city and those who do can be connected to the services they need.

Through zoning changes, Stuckart proposes increasing housing density along main corridors, which he believes would benefit businesses and be better for the environment. The city has 27 business districts that are largely surrounded by single family homes, he noted.

“In order for your business district to survive, you have to have density, so that’s going to be rezoning around our centers and corridors,” Stuckart said.

Stuckart would focus economic development efforts on developing neighborhood business centers and using the city’s three public development authorities.

“They are going to be really, really important as we move forward so that we are attracting the businesses that provide that opportunity, and we’re starting to see that on the West Plains,” Stuckart said.

With the construction of the North Spokane Corridor, the city is positioned to bring manufacturing jobs to the northeast, Stuckart argued.

Woodward’s vision for economic development is based on collaboration, particularly with neighboring communities like Airway Heights, Cheney and Coeur d’Alene in developing the Interstate-90 corridor.

“What’s good for the region is good for Spokane, and what’s good for Spokane is good for the region,” Woodward said.

Woodward said she supports infill housing downtown, which she said “creates an even more vibrant downtown.” She respects that people want to maintain the character of their neighborhoods, but acknowledged that we “do need to look at options other than single-family” homes and that much of housing development could happen outside the city limits.

Bingle highlighted the need to leverage the city’s public development authorities to provide residents with “better access to quality jobs in their area.”

“We don’t necessarily need to build a lot more affordable housing. If we invest in jobs in their areas, then we can help them to become a lot more self-sufficient,” Bingle said.

Encouraging businesses and people to come to Spokane would be a central feature of a Bingle administration.

“Spokane cannot stay the same or else we’re going to find ourselves constantly devastated when one big industry leaves. We must continue to attract new industries. Spokane is going to be changing,” Bingle said.

Bingle said people are “frustrated by roads being made to be prettier than they are functional.” Infrastructure should be based on a neighborhoods’ needs – for example, more residents might bike in Browne’s Addition than Indian Trail.

With its “road diet” approach to North Monroe Street and East Sprague Avenue – reducing the total number of traffic lanes – Bingle said the city has forced traffic elsewhere.

“You’ve actually made all the roads around it much more congested,” Bingle said.

Woodward is also not a fan of the city’s “road diets.”

“It looks beautiful and the sidewalks are wider,” she said, but “the traffic is terrible up there now.” When STA buses pull to the side, she said, drivers use the center turning lane to pass, creating a hazard.

Stuckart said the city is paving more miles of streets than ever before, thanks to a voter-approved street levy in 2013, including a record number of arterial streets. It’s also doubled the amount of spending on residential streets, he said.

On his campaign website, Poole said street and pothole repair would be a top priority.

“The hard-working citizens of Spokane deserve to commute on streets without the fear of destroying their vehicle or worse, getting in an accident because city leaders didn’t care enough to fix potholes,” Poole states on his website.

Cruz said it’s time to focus on the northeast area of the city, including Beacon Hill, the development of which is important to the community.

“That’s the gateway to Canada for us, that’s an international trade route. We should be taking advantage of that. … We could put some really nice middle-level manufacturing there, too,” Cruz said.

Cruz said a certain amount of infill within the city is necessary but suggested it won’t be enough and indicated that the city may need to expand its urban growth boundary to meet its housing needs.

Poole has said he supports the concept of the city aiding small business owners in paying rent, and, with the savings, he believes the businesses could pay employees higher wages.