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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Beggs will play crucial role after supposed change election idles

Breean Beggs, who holds the lead in the race for Spokane City Council president, speaks before the Rotary 21 gathering Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 at the Spokane Club. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Breean Beggs, who holds the lead in the race for Spokane City Council president, speaks before the Rotary 21 gathering Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 at the Spokane Club. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

And so … as Breean Beggs climbs past Cindy Wendle in the vote-counting for City Council president … and as Nadine Woodward begins tweeting pretty pictures of Riverfront Park from her temporary office at City Hall … it appears more and more that the voters who the mayor-elect says voted for change … have produced a city government that is … balanced precisely as it was before the election.

The change election?

More like electoral idling.

A couple of results could still change. But after all that time, all that argument and all that Realtor money, the landscape at City Hall will be strikingly similar to the one we’ve had for eight years.

A conservative mayor who strives to act like they’re not. A liberal City Council that is stacked so steeply on the other side that the mayor’s veto power is rendered symbolic. The state of that relationship will set the tone for how things get done – or don’t – at City Hall.

Given that, it’s quite possible that the single most consequential elected official – the strongest one, you might say – will be the one sitting in the council president’s chair.

If the current trend holds, Beggs will sit at the intersection of power at City Hall. Right between a mayor who will want to do things the council won’t, and a council that will want to do things the mayor won’t.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in Spokane’s public life who’s better suited for the job. Beggs is smart, experienced and deeply conversant with the context of important issues facing the city. His work on the Otto Zehm case and subsequent criminal justice reforms have been landmark efforts in the way we dispense justice in this city.

And, crucially, he is temperamentally perfect for the position. Beggs has a calm, informed demeanor, an openness to the ideas of others and a willingness to listen, a productive way of arguing for his own views and a style of disagreement that is more productive than inflammatory.

The ways in which he differs from his predecessor, Ben Stuckart, who could be passionate and rash in ways that set conservatives’ teeth on edge, will be at center stage.

Wendle, a newcomer whose inexperience and knowledge of city issues was striking by comparison with Beggs, led in the ballot-counting on election night, but Beggs crawled back, day by day, to a lead of more than 500 votes. The trend led to Wendle conceding the race on Thursday evening. It’s close enough that we could have a recount.

Beggs, who already is serving as a City Council member, will shift to the president’s chair and the council will replace him, presumably with someone in alignment with their views. Et voila – virtually the same 6-1 supermajority that Mayor David Condon faced in recent years.

This is bad news if you’re eager for Nadine Woodward to have a strong hand on redirecting city policies, especially with regard to homelessness. It’s good news if you’re hoping that her half-baked notions will be thwarted. It’s bad news if you got the mistaken impression – sold with great vigor by the special interests who worked so hard to purchase her seat – that Woodward will bring great change to the city.

What we’ll have is another divided government, another conflict dynamic.

How she responds to that will go a long ways toward defining her time as mayor. She’s already taking up space at City Hall informally and working on her transition team, whom she so far won’t name. That’s a bad sign on the openness-in-government front – as are her various skirmishes with the local news media and attempts to unsay controversial things she was recorded saying – but for all her time in the journalism world, Woodward has so far been much more of a polished, stage-managed politician than a transparent public servant.

Whether she evolves will be interesting to see. How she handles conflict with the council will as well. She’ll need a bit of hand-holding if she’s open to it – from her team, yes, but also from others who know how the sausage factory works if she wants to avoid the Cold War of the past couple of years in City Hall.

The new council president, it seems, won’t be the one she hoped for. But he’s the right one for the job.

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