After declaring victory on election night, mayor-elect Nadine Woodward pledged to “represent the change that voters wanted.”
“They want a voice, and they want to be listened to,” Woodward said.
But her success could just as easily be said to illustrate the change that voters didn’t want.
Woodward’s platform was centered on taking a tough approach on homelessness, the most visible side effect of the city’s continued growth and urbanization, and she warned of a Spokane that could one day look like Seattle. She promised to focus on reducing crime downtown, where she said many Spokanites no longer feel safe.
It was a message that appeared to resonate with a majority of voters outside the city’s core, in areas where residents are less likely to be impacted by homelessness and downtown crime on a regular basis than their counterparts in the city’s densest neighborhoods, who overwhelmingly backed Ben Stuckart.
On the day she announced her candidacy in April, Woodward proclaimed, “We are not Seattle. We are Spokane and we’re proud of it.”
An independent advertisement funded by the Spokane Good Government Alliance PAC, which spent more than $54,000 in support of Woodward’s campaign, warned that “without strong leadership from our next mayor, and a new city council, our Spokane will look more and more like Seattle.”
On the other hand, Woodward’s promise of change continued to highlight the paradoxical positioning of a political newcomer as a departure from current city leadership, when she was in fact endorsed by outgoing Mayor David Condon.
“Even though newly elect Woodward was speaking of how the citizens were looking for change, I actually think they want a continuance of some of the direction the city has been heading,” said Rob Crow, a former part-term Spokane councilman.
Crow added that some voters “probably fear that there would be a pretty radical shift in how things were working” if Stuckart was elected.
For Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, part of the council’s liberal majority and the only city incumbent to cruise to victory on Tuesday, the mayoral results are a reflection of the city’s “growing pains.”
“People who have been here for a long time have expectations that the Spokane they knew needs to stay that way. When change occurs, I think it frightens them, and they feel a loss of control,” Kinnear said.
But people – and money – are flowing in from outside Spokane, and “you’re never going to return to the 1950s or ’60s,” Kinnear said.
“It’s going to change the landscape here, and you can’t build a wall around Spokane,” Kinnear said.
But one change Woodward offered was by contrasting herself with Stuckart’s controversial leadership style. She frequently attacked him, and at one debate referred to him as reactionary, impulsive and vindictive.
Former Spokane City Councilman and current County Commissioner Al French, who backed Woodward, said voters rejected the City Council’s “willingness to stray off into national politics and other agendas that don’t have anything to do with city politics,” as he said has been the case in recent years under Stuckart’s leadership. French said that during his tenure on the City Council from 2001 to 2009, it was the council’s policy not to delve into national matters.
“The voters want their electeds to deal with the issues they have to deal with day in and day out,” French said.
Woodward, meanwhile, deftly dodged controversial social issues. Though clearly backed by conservatives and self-described as “right of center,” Woodward did not seek an endorsement from the Republican Party. In a candidate survey conducted by We Believe We Vote, Woodward declined to answer questions about gay marriage, gun rights and abortion.
On the local level, it’s unlikely Woodward will offer a substantial departure from Condon’s policies. Still, she criticized much of the city’s efforts under his tenure – particularly in regard to mitigating homelessness – and successfully laid the blame for the city’s failures on Stuckart.
If he was to blame for the city’s shortcomings, Stuckart argued, he could also take credit for its successes. They include record private investment in the city, a renovated Riverfront Park and paved city corridors.
Councilwoman Kate Burke – a progressive who has at times sparred with Stuckart in her two years on the council – was not asked for an endorsement from Stuckart. She said he did not have a strong campaign presence in her district and that it was an error on Stuckart’s part to allow himself to represent the political establishment.
“He should have been the candidate for change. I think it was a messaging faux pas when you look at how they ran their campaigns,” Burke said. “If a voter didn’t really know her policies, she sounded like a good breath of fresh air.”
Stuckart called for the city to incentivize development along the city’s centers and corridors, and championed increased housing density in Spokane. Woodward supported dense development downtown, but said the city should encourage housing of all types and suggested connecting city infrastructure to development outside Spokane’s borders if it was a “win-win.”
“Everybody talks about how great density is, but ‘not in my backyard,’ ” French said. “If everybody is saying ‘It’s a great idea but not in my backyard,’ guess what doesn’t happen? Density.”
Stuckart contended Woodward’s approach to homelessness – which included holding off on building any new emergency shelters – would actually increase its visibility. But Woodward successfully tied Stuckart to the problem, arguing the city’s current approach amounts to “warehousing” people.
Crow, who now works at WorkSource Spokane, previously was the city’s director of Community, Housing and Human Services. He was not surprised to see homelessness dominate the election conversation, noting it’s a national issue.
“The better the economy does, the higher the prices of housing and the more impactful that is on people. It captures more and more folks into this vicious cycle and then that raises issues of how do we, what’s the best approach for making housing affordable, one of the basic needs?” Crow asked.
It might be folly to interpret Tuesday’s election results as a mandate or clear declaration from voters. As of the latest results on Friday, Woodward leads Stuckart with 51% of the vote. If just 1,000 voters of the more than 60,000 to cast a ballot felt differently, the subsequent media coverage would carry a different tone.
Much of the speculation following Tuesday’s election probably has merit, but observers should hesitate before drawing concrete inferences from anecdotal evidence, according to Blaine Garvin, a political science professor at Gonzaga University who supported Stuckart, his former student.
“The problem with doing that is, in the absence of poll data, it’s all conjecture,” Garvin said. “Thousands of people voted, and those thousands of people each had their own motive.”
Garvin said it would also be plausible that more voters simply recognized Woodward, who spent nearly 30 years as a TV news anchor in Spokane, than Stuckart. The familiarity voters had with Woodward may have benefited her as much as the issues she focused on.
“That’s not about homelessness, that’s ‘Vote for me because you know me and you like me,’ ” Garvin said.
Stuckart was treated like an incumbent, and has been in the public eye for eight years. But, as far as exposure, he was lucky if he made the evening news. Woodward literally read it on a nightly basis.
Woodward did not suffer the deficit in name recognition other political newcomers might, leaning on the familiarity garnered through her tenure as a TV news anchor while she door-belled throughout city neighborhoods. She repeatedly said the election was about trust – trust she felt she had earned in Spokane during her career.
“That’s really where the race is won,” Woodward said on Tuesday night.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.