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Shawn Vestal: With first mayoral forum finished, Spokane voters deserve more to decide who should lead city

UPDATED: Wed., June 26, 2019

Candidates for Spokane mayor 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. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Candidates for Spokane mayor 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. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

It wasn’t the whole lineup, but the main event at Tuesday’s mayoral forum was never in doubt: Round 1 of Nadine vs. Ben.

Now we need the full bout – a contest of ideas and philosophies and proposals, sharpened through debates, forums, extemporaneous interviews and every other avenue of catching candidates in the wild, separated as much as possible from stage management and sloganeering.

City Council President Ben Stuckart and retired news anchor Nadine Woodward are the presumptive front-runners in the five-candidate mayoral race. Each stands at the head of what passes for a local political machine – Stuckart from the left, Woodward from the right.

That means the election for the city’s most important job could quite easily play out along the parallel trenches of party-line fundraising and usual-suspects endorsements.

What the city needs is for these two to mix it up, in person, as much as possible.

How much of that we’ll get remains to be seen. Tuesday’s forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, was a start.

Woodward has so far established an oddly press-shy approach to her campaign, getting into a wrestling match with the Inlander over her desire to avoid on-the-record, in-person interviews, and avoiding the first candidates forum last week, saying she had an unspecified campaign commitment.

Stuckart, on the other hand, has spoken his mind so freely over the years that even his supporters have sometimes winced. He grants interviews freely and does not parse words. He has been outspoken and combative – and I’ll take that any day over candidates who hand out sanitized statements and avoid interviews – but it’s clear that he has worked to rein in this tendency in recent years and emphasize the areas of cooperation at City Council.

In both cases, one might sense political reasons for campaign caution. But what voters need is candor, not reserve.

Tuesday’s forum included every mayoral candidate: Stuckart, Woodward, Kelly Cruz, Shawn Poole and Jonathan Bingle. While Stuckart and Woodward didn’t address each other directly, they staked out distinct differences.

Stuckart emphasized the successes of the city over the past seven years, while Woodward decried crime and political warfare at City Hall.

Woodward took an unapologetic hard line on homelessness with a focus on policing street people aggressively, while Stuckart emphasized support for a shelter model that connects people with addiction and mental health services.

Stuckart pointed to the past seven years of fiscally responsible budgets at City Hall, while Woodward took pains to credit Mayor David Condon for that and criticized last year’s public safety levy.

They agreed that they both really, really love Spokane, though.

Woodward made no bones about her chief concern: homelessness and crime, and her view that the two are connected via drug addiction. She called for a greater police presence downtown. While she acknowledged that crime reports are down this year, she noted they were way up six months ago.

Woodward said – incorrectly – that Spokane has spent $22 million on homeless programs, and that she would scour that budget and support only programs that would give people “a foot up and enable them to get out of homelessness.”

The city actually spent about $4.5 million of its own money during the recent budget cycle on programs for the homeless; the rest of that $22 million comes from the federal government and other sources, and is administered by the city (though not subject to mayoral line-item vetoes).

She said her plan is to either arrest the “criminally homeless” or force them into treatment.

“We can no longer continue to warehouse people and hand out sandwiches,” she said. “That is not compassion.”

A person without a sandwich might disagree, but Woodward isn’t the only candidate who thinks it’s time to crack down on the homeless. Poole said Spokane should make it “extremely difficult to be homeless” here, and that our crime rates would go down as a result. Bingle said, “We need to make people go into treatment.”

One wonders how the constitutional problems of these “solutions” might be navigated, as well as where the money for the dramatic expansion of forced addiction treatment will come from. Perhaps future debates will illuminate that.

Stuckart emphasized the many-faceted nature of the problem, and rejected the assertion that it was only addiction-based. He cited the city’s point-in-time count, in which most homeless people cite economic reasons for being on the street, and he noted Spokane’s affordable housing crisis, and said 800 people with federal housing vouchers were unable to find a place to live last year because of the city’s tight rental market.

He said he supports a 24/7 shelter system that connects people to services to deal with addiction or mental illness.

It was the fullest side-by-side picture of their competing visions for the city and how we should respond to the homeless population that we’ve seen so far.

Spokane would benefit from even more of it.