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Longtime Coeur d’Alene Councilman Ron Edinger says goodbye after 50 years in office

Ron Edinger is greeted during his retirement party at the Hagadone Event Center in Coeur d'Alene on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. He has spent nearly 50 years in Coeur d'Alene city government both as councilman and as mayor. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Ron Edinger is greeted during his retirement party at the Hagadone Event Center in Coeur d'Alene on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. He has spent nearly 50 years in Coeur d'Alene city government both as councilman and as mayor. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The only problem with the most controversial hole longtime Coeur d’Alene politician Ron Edinger ever dug may have been that he didn’t dig another.

As Edinger, a 12-time incumbent member of the Coeur d’Alene City Council and former mayor tells it, it was an astute letter carrier who tipped the city to his installation of an unauthorized stop sign in July 1993.

“The only thing that I think went haywire with that was that the mailman talked to one of the city employees and said, ‘How come you didn’t put a stop sign on the other side?’ ” Edinger, the octogenarian lawmaker, said in an interview this week.

The incident prompted some hand-wringing at City Hall in the Lake City, but Edinger and his many supporters in town say it’s an example of his attempts to listen to the concerns of his constituency.

A crowd of friends, family and colleagues totaling about 150 people filled the Hagadone Event Center at the Coeur d’Alene Resort on Thursday evening, welcomed by campaign signs that will no longer dot the streets of the Lake City. Edinger’s long political career is scheduled to end in January when Councilwoman-elect Christie Wood assumes his seat on the Coeur d’Alene City Council.

It will mark the first time in four decades Edinger is not a member of the panel. But the school bus-driving, Little League-umpiring, self-avowed common man of the Lake City’s career in politics goes back even further, before the resort that now dominates Coeur d’Alene’s skyline, Spokane’s Expo ’74 and even the birth of some of his later political rivals and colleagues.

“I have always joked Ron took his office before I was born,” said former Councilman Mike Kennedy, who served with Edinger from 2006 to 2014. “I routinely would give him good-natured grief about how long he’d served.”

It was a political career that was almost derailed in the late 1970s as Coeur d’Alene grappled with rising taxes and a controversy surrounding fired firefighters that booted Edinger from the mayor’s office.

A California native, Edinger moved to the Lake City after high school and was responsible for building fences for the hydroplane races on Lake Coeur d’Alene. As a city lawmaker, Edinger would lobby for the return of the high-speed boating contests, often putting him at odds with colleagues concerned about the public safety consequences of hosting the races once again.

Edinger was first elected to the City Council in 1967 and six years later had been elected mayor. But a complicated budget process heading into his first re-election, and opposition from business interests in town, doomed his campaign, said political ally Dixie Reid.

“I supported him and was told if I supported him, I would lose,” said Reid, who became the first woman to serve in Lake City politics when she was appointed to office in 1975. “Well, I did, and I did.”

Reid remembered sitting in Edinger’s basement on election night in 1977, tracking votes via radio and writing them down on a chalkboard. At the end of the night, both he and Reid had fallen to challengers.

“I can go to bed tonight feeling I have accomplished much for Coeur d’Alene as mayor,” Edinger told the Spokane Chronicle at the time, in later years attributing the loss to Don Johnston on his handling of the firing of firemen who had gone on strike earlier that year.

Edinger has said his handling of the issue was one of the stumbling points of his career. But, he noted in an interview this week, the firefighters have supported him in subsequent campaigns, and “they do a hell of a good job for the city.”

Neither Edinger nor Reid called it quits after their defeat in 1977. Edinger returned two years later, and Reid followed in 1983 with a victory of her own.

The two found themselves on the other side of a majority, Reid said. That included a dispute in 1984 over whether to bring in a consultant to discuss potential reorganization of the Lake City’s government as its tax base and population continued to grow. Edinger and Reid were the only two votes against the idea, with Edinger suggesting the speaker would “brainwash” the council.

“It was a very difficult time to serve,” Reid said. “They had the majority on the council, three councilmen and the mayor. They would meet before a council meeting and decide how they were going to vote.”

“There were times that it was hard, it was hard,” Edinger agreed.

Throughout the decade, Edinger, who was part of the city government that purchased Tubbs Hill natural area, developed a reputation for defending downtown businesses in spats over street vendors and paid parking. He sharply questioned attempts to expand city borders but also took a noteworthy vote in 1990 to ban the sale of phosphate-laden laundry detergents in town over concerns about runoff into the Spokane River.

In each of these votes, Edinger cited conversations with constituents as forming his political opinion. It’s a trait his political allies and adversaries both credit Edinger with, and a reputation he attempted to build upon in his attempts to retain his seat every four years.

In an October 1987 debate against a City Council challenger who’d been billing himself as a “common man” of Coeur d’Alene, Edinger asked the candidate, Chuck Sheroke, to describe one.

Sheroke, according to an account of the debate in The Spokesman-Review, said it was a blue-collar worker and a union employee who is the backbone of the city’s economy.

“Thank you,” Edinger responded. “You just described me.”

Amid the trophies, plaques and other honors on a banquet table at the Coeur d’Alene Resort on Thursday night, there sat on an easel a book of handwritten “Thank you” messages from fourth-grade students at Sorensen Elementary, where Edinger served as a janitor for some time in the 1990s.

“You always got the soccer balls off the roof for me all of the time,” wrote one student, in stilted cursive.

His concern for children was partly what prompted the stop sign spat. Edinger got fed up after repeated requests for the city to do something about speeders and installed a stop sign without city approval. It was torn down by the Street Department a week later.

“I was going by what some people in that area thought should be there,” Edinger says now. “I just did it myself.”

Later that year, he made headlines again for throwing a piece of wood at a speeding motorist who then got out of his car and threw punches at the councilman.

“This car came down the street like a bat out of hell,” Edinger said at the time. “So I picked up a piece of bark and threw it at the side of the car.”

Sandi Bloem, who served as mayor of Coeur d’Alene from 2001 to 2013, said Edinger’s long tenure in office is a testament to his family, his willingness to listen to his constituents and his enjoyment of the job.

“That’s where his heart was. He truly had a passion to serve,” Bloem said. “I don’t know of a lot of people that would have run that many times, but he did it just because it was in his blood.”

Some of his convictions put him at odds with other council members and sometimes with the public. Edinger had long been critical of plans for improvements at McEuen Park, opposing at times the construction of the new library and clearing the American Legion ballfields where he’d umpired for many years. Edinger questioned the price tag of the projects, even as subsequent generations of city officials – and longtime ally Reid – supported renewal.

“His position was to support the people who didn’t want the development, for whatever reason,” Reid said. “Some people just don’t want anything to change.”

The issue reared its head in Edinger’s 2011 contest to hold his seat, his 10th time appearing on the City Council ballot. Challenger Adam Graves came out in support of the McEuen Park development park plans, which eventually led to the $20 million project’s completion in 2014.

Yet Graves, who traded some campaign barbs with Edinger over charges of nepotism, fell well short of Edinger on election night. Graves said this week that Edinger’s service should be celebrated, and that the contest taught him a lesson about running up against a well-liked and long-tenured politician.

“I think he did a great job, all in all,” Graves said. “I really didn’t run against Ron. I did, but I wasn’t running against Ron. I was a young guy and a little bit naïve in the political world.”

Kennedy said Edinger would take those younger politicians elected onto the City Council, like himself, and act as a mentor. Bloem said Edinger took that role seriously, no matter the newcomer’s political outlook.

“Anyone on the council, whether you disagreed or agreed with him, he was someone you could go to for advice and ask, ‘How does this work?’ ” Bloem said. “He’s always been there for that.”

He’s always been there, in spite of rumors of departure in the late 1990s. Supporters say it’s the end of an era in Coeur d’Alene politics, and it’s unlikely the city – or any other – will see a run like Edinger’s in the future.

“There’ll never be another person that serves that long on the council, I’m sure,” Reid said.

Edinger said his decision not to run this year was driven by health concerns, and that he’d miss the job. But he was proud of those times he listened to his city, even if it involved digging a hole he wasn’t supposed to.

“I can still go up there, and I can sit and listen,” he said. “If there’s something going on that I don’t think is right, I can tell them. But I’m sure I’ll miss it.”

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