Tim Hattenburg is known as a Democrat. He even ran as one in two elections.
That party affiliation, he said, used to be the “kiss of death” in Spokane Valley, a longtime conservative stronghold.
But not anymore.
With most votes in as of Friday, it looks as though Hattenburg will join the Spokane Valley City Council at the start of the new year.
His apparent victory, plus the union-backed Brandi Peetz clinging to a narrow lead over the Matt Shea-endorsed Michelle Rasmussen in another Spokane Valley council race, signals the city’s politics could be trending toward the center – or maybe a bit left of there.
If Peetz holds on to what was just a 350-vote lead as of Friday, the majority on council will flip, and the new more moderate majority of council members will choose a new mayor when they take office in January.
“As the Valley is growing in population, we’re getting a much more diverse group that tends to be more independent-minded,” Hattenburg said.
An author and lifelong Spokane Valley resident, Hattenburg ran on a fiscally conservative platform in this year’s race but he also supported looking into the city’s equity policies, a proposal other moderate candidates and council members also supported.
Hattenburg, who ran as a Democrat in 2004 against Sen. Bob McCaslin and against the controversial state representative Shea in 2008, said voters were far more open to his ideas in this election than they have been in the past.
“In 2008 and 2004, I had more negative reactions and door slams in a week than this entire campaign,” he said.
Dean Grafos, a former mayor and councilman who resigned amid clashes with more conservative council members, said someone known as a Democrat winning a Spokane Valley municipal election seemed impossible when he was in politics.
“I think it’s quite unusual,” he said. “It’s a sign of the times. When I was on that council, if you said you were a Democrat, you were out of luck.”
He said that, after he resigned in 2016, the Spokane Valley City Council became much more extreme than it had been in the past. This election, he said, will likely produce a council that’s more pragmatic and less ideological.
Peetz won the support of several unions in the race as well as of Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. Rasmussen was supported by the current council majority and by Shea.
Grafos said Hattenburg’s victory and moderate Peetz’s lead are likely signs that the area is rejecting some of the fringe policies and proposals it has been known for in the past.
“It shows that we have a new sense of who we are as a city; we don’t want to be a part of the state of Liberty,” he said.
While no candidates in this election have called for making Eastern Washington its own state, past Spokane Valley City Council leaders have discussed it.
Spokane Valley City Council’s recent meetings are tame compared to the issues discussed at meetings in 2016 and 2017, when topics such as sex education, vaccines and Liberty state were debated. The council members who pushed those kinds of discussions have been voted out of office, a trend that some former city leaders say will continue.
Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins, who was on the council during that time, said he opposed those discussions and that they haven’t come up in the past few years because they aren’t city business.
“I wasn’t in favor of it,” he said. “Our council has no place taking” those positions.
Higgins said Hattenburg’s opponent, chiropractor Bo Tucker, was a little behind jumping in the race and didn’t have the same name recognition. In addition to running for state office twice before, Hattenburg is a former Central Valley School District teacher and athletic director and a Spokane County Library Board trustee.
Tucker said he appreciated the way Hattenburg ran his campaign and said he liked him on a personal level.
“I thought he ran a very clean, respectful campaign,” Tucker said. “I worked hard, I did my very best, but he got more votes than I did.”
Higgins also said he doesn’t believe Hattenburg, Peetz or Lance Gurel, who lost a race against incumbent Councilman Arne Woodard, are moderates. He considers them progressives and believes a new majority will put the city’s budget at risk.
“Our city has been extraordinarily successful moving ahead in the last four years,” Higgins said. “I suspect we might not be as successful moving forward.”
Several current council members and moderate candidates have suggested using surplus money to pay to repair and improve roads. All three moderate candidates have argued that the city should spend what it has before asking for more.
Higgins and Woodard, on the other hand, have both said using surplus money isn’t a long-term solution.
Peetz said she disagrees with her opponent’s and Higgins’ characterization of her as a progressive, and pointed out that council races are nonpartisan. She said when she first won her seat two years ago, it was voters choosing candidates who were focused on city issues.
“We’re starting to streamline back into what’s in the city’s purview,” she said. “Those issues are still important, but we need to focus on what the City Council can do.”
Rasmussen said city issues can be Republican and Democratic, such as voting for fewer regulations and running the city in a fiscally responsible way. She said she also does see a change in Spokane Valley’s politics, but not necessarily a change in demographics.
“I’m seeing that the Republican Party that used to be very conservative isn’t so conservative anymore,” she said. “As a whole, that’s changing the city.”
She said the voting base of Spokane Valley is likely still the same, but believes candidates are representing themselves as Republicans but don’t believe in those values.
The only staunchly conservative Spokane Valley City Council candidate to have a strong lead in early results is Woodard, an incumbent who is about to finish his ninth year on the council. Woodard had more than a 10-point lead on Friday against his opponent Gurel.
Woodard said he’s gained about 2% in support each election. His success is a sign that Spokane Valley hasn’t completely cast off its conservative roots, he said, but he declined to comment on specifics, or declare victory, until more results are in.
His opponent, Gurel, said he was disappointed that voters did not choose him but anticipates that Hattenburg’s victory and a potential Peetz win will change the power dynamic in City Hall.
Former Mayor Diana Wilhite, who has been critical of Higgins and is Peetz’s campaign manager, said voters have likely been frustrated with a shortened public comment period at council meetings and said the current majority had a “my way or the highway” approach when it came to policy.
She said this election likely doesn’t mean that Spokane Valley will be rejecting conservationism anytime soon, but that it may be embracing change.
“We’re still conservative out here in the Valley,” she said, “but we want to be reasonable.”
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