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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Analysis: Candidates for Spokane’s mayor have taken confusing, but understandable postures. So does either one have the advantage?

Candidates for Spokane Mayor, Ben Stuckart and Nadine Woodward speak to the issues facing Spokane during the Pints and Politics: The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages Forum and KHQ on  Oct. 15, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

To paraphrase Homer Simpson: Are we living in a cuckoo clock?

Tuesday’s election features a candidate running pretty much as the incumbent mayor, though he isn’t the incumbent mayor, against an opponent who for the most part concedes that she’s running against the incumbent mayor, though he is not.

The actual incumbent mayor is backing the challenger, who is highly critical of the actual mayor’s homelessness policy, even though the real mayor’s homelessness policy – at least on paper – is more in alignment with the candidate running as the incumbent mayor.

And one candidate brags of the support he has from city employee unions, but says he never wanted the backing of one of the city employee unions – the one that represents the police. The other candidate warns that her opponent is backed by city employee unions, but brags about the support she gets from the city employee union representing police.

If the roles in the race for mayor between Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and retired TV news anchor Nadine Woodward seem confusing, determining which of them has the edge might be even more mind-boggling.

Stuckart has the résumé that points to experience, the kind that would make him a shoo-in if the mayor was selected by a panel of academics. As one of his campaign mailers says: “Ready to Lead on Day One.”

But Spokane doesn’t necessarily favor experience. Until current Mayor David Condon, Spokane voters went 40 years without re-electing a mayor. Stuckart won his current job by defeating Dennis Hession, a former park board president, city councilman, council president and mayor who arguably had the best résumé among any candidate running for Spokane city office any time, well, ever.

Also, Stuckart has a reputation to overcome. Opponents say his style often makes people mad and question his ability to build bridges and compromise. (Supporters say his style is refreshing – a politician who prefers to say what he believes and gets things done.)

And Woodward won the primary. The final gap between Woodward and Stuckart wasn’t much – 2 percentage points. But the candidates who came in third and fourth, accounting for 19 percentage points, have both endorsed Woodward.

Woodward’s primary showing makes her the favorite, but she’s less of a favorite than the incumbent mayor was eight years ago. Mayor Mary Verner won the primary over Condon by more than 25 percentage points. Condon, a significant underdog, won the November election by nearly 5 percentage points.

So is Stuckart an underdog? Yes. Just look at the primary for Congress last year. Democrat Lisa Brown nearly tied incumbent Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, with multiple other conservative candidates far behind. But if you added votes received by those conservative candidates to McMorris Rodgers, that’s about the percentage McMorris Rodgers took last November to cruise to victory.

But Stuckart has advantages over where Brown stood was a year ago. Namely, he’s only running within city limits.

He is the liberal choice in a liberal city. Spokane overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as Brown over McMorris Rodgers.

And the electorate will nearly double in Tuesday’s election. A bigger pool of voters, many of whom barely pay attention to city politics, gives him a fresh chance to make a case.

But while he’s the liberal choice, he hasn’t generated the excitement among politically active progressives that Brown did last year. The most liberal City Council member, Kate Burke, even has shunned his candidacy. While Brown signs seemed to dot every other yard on the lower South Hill last year, signs for “Ben” are seen more like every other block.

Are progressives saving their energy for 2020? Are they turned off by Stuckart’s in-your-face reputation? Or will they turn out Tuesday, and quietly bring their friends and neighbors with them?

Woodward started the race in an enviable place for someone who wants to win office – with major name recognition, yet a blank slate as far as what voters knew about her politics. She succeeded in defining homelessness as the key issue of the race. She has a significant fundraising advantage if you consider the business community and Realtor spending independent from her campaign. But that fundraising advantage could turn off voters, and Stuckart and his allies have had some success painting her as a Republican.

Of course, if Condon proved anything, it’s that even in this age of hyperpartisan politics in an allegedly nonpartisan municipal government, the city’s Democratic-leaning electorate is willing to accept a Republican as long as her or his focus stays on paving the streets, getting sewage to the sewage plant and clearing snow from streets (especially if you stop blocking driveways).

So why does Stuckart’s campaign act like he’s already in charge? He probably wants voters to ask if they’re better off than they were eight years ago. He teamed with Condon on several initiatives that are giving the city smoother streets and an amazing makeover of its most prominent public space (Riverfront Park), and the median income in Spokane is outpacing income growth at the state and federal levels.

Why does Woodward let Stuckart take credit for the city’s successes when he’s not really the mayor?

Because it isn’t all success. And she has focused the majority of her argument on homelessness. Issues surrounding homelessness have become much more noticeable to the average Spokane resident in the past eight years. If you say Stuckart’s in charge, then he might as well have personally installed deluxe mattresses along the city’s sidewalks.

It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that both candidates act as if Stuckart already runs the place. He is the progressive leader of a City Council that has a progressive, veto-proof majority. His power to craft laws and pass them, even if Condon opposes them, has made some refer to Stuckart as the de facto mayor.

But Spokane is a strong mayor city and has been for 20 years. It’s the mayor, not the City Council, who directs the 2,000-strong city staff what to do. It’s the mayor who selects people to fill the top jobs and commission and board openings. The mayor controls the city attorney’s office and generally directs the direction of the city.

We’ll find out soon if Stuckart will transition to becoming the real mayor on Jan. 1, or if Spokane will revert to its usual embrace of new leadership.

Jonathan Brunt is the government editor for The Spokesman-Review.