The needs of Spokane’s communities of color took center stage Saturday at the East Central Community Center where candidates for Spokane City Council and City Council president gathered for a candidate forum hosted by the Spokane Coalition of Color.
The coalition, which was founded three years ago by the Spokane NAACP, the Hispanic Business Professionals Association and the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Spokane, presented information about racial demographics in Spokane before asking a series of questions about how the council and council president candidates would address the needs of minority populations in the city if they are elected.
Incumbents Lori Kinnear and Karen Stratton were in attendance, along with their opponents, Tony Kiepe and Andy Rathbun.
Tim Benn and Michael Cathcart, both seeking to replace Mike Fagan, were present. However, Benn spoke for less than a minute to introduce himself and said he had another engagement. He left before the first question.
The council incumbents and Breean Beggs, who is running for council president, touted their work with communities of color in Spokane. All three spoke of their support for an office of civil rights in City Hall.
Stratton also spoke about her childhood, when she spent her weekends and summer vacations on the Spokane Indian Reservation with her grandmother. She said she didn’t want to tell her classmates where she went every weekend because she didn’t want to be seen as different.
“I always carry that with me,” she said. “I’ve never forgotten what that felt like.”
Beggs touched on his multicultural background and his attempts to increase the diversity of the student body at the University of Washington when he was a law school student there.
The candidates were asked how they would address structural racism in Spokane city government and most said they wanted to improve recruitment.
“We press the police department and the fire department to recruit outside our community,” Kinnear said. “It’s getting better, but it’s just not fast enough.”
Stratton said she’s concerned most of the city’s boards and commissions lack diversity.
“We really need to focus on that,” she said. “We need to go to communities of color and recruit there.”
Cathcart agreed with Stratton.
“I think our hiring in city hall should be more reflective of the community,” he said.
The discussion about how to help the homeless population has been a focus during the campaign for many candidates, but some mentioned other issues that need attention as well.
“Housing obviously is a big one, especially in the Northeast district,” Cathcart said. “We really need to recruit more jobs to lift my district out of poverty.”
Beggs said public safety is an important issue, particularly how it disproportionately affects minorities.
“Our criminal justice system impacts so many and is so broken,” he said.
“All our minority groups are below median income,” said Cindy Wendle, who is running against Beggs. “To me, that’s problem number one.”
Kiepe said the city needs to improve it’s infrastructure, particularly roads.
“We need better jobs, we also need to work on that,” he said. “We’re not managing our growth.”
Audience members were able to submit written questions.
One asked if the candidates supported Initiative 1000 and Referendum 88. The statewide referendum, on the ballot in November, would approve I-1000 and allow the state to implement certain types of affirmative action plans in education, employment and contracting.
Cathcart said hiring African Americans should be a priority and the referendum should increase diversity in city hiring.
“My one concern about this measure is that it excludes veterans,” he said.
Wendle said she was not in favor of it.
“It’s very complicated,” Wendle said. “It’s pitting people against each other, and I don’t think that’s the right way to go.”
Beggs took the opposite view.
“I’m a strong proponent of I-1000,” he said. “It’s a huge tool. If we pass this, this will help us grow our diversity in our city hiring.”
Kinnear and Stratton also indicated their support for the referendum.
“I think it will really present opportunities for the city to increase diversity,” Kinnear said.
Kiepe appeared skeptical of the measure.
“My biggest concern if it passes is are we getting the right candidate,” he said. “Are they qualified?”
Rathbun said he needed to research the issue more, an answer he gave a few times during the forum. He said he was out of his element speaking in front of people. He also referenced his experience as a longtime board member at the West Central Community Center.
“We worked and listened and made things happen,” he said.
The candidates were also asked if they supported an independent police ombudsman, something that has been debated for years as the city attempts to work out a contract with the Spokane Police Guild. Most said yes.
“The end goal is transparency,” Wendle said. “This community deserves to have trust in its police department.”
Stratton said the citizens support an independent ombudsman.
“As citizens, we should be very, very concerned that the police guild has a problem with the ombudsman,” she said.
Rathbun said he supports the police having body cameras, but not the public dissemination of the videos.
“They need to be kept private,” he said. “The system is working. We just need to keep politics out of it.”
Wendle said several times during the forum that she was inexperienced but open to learning what she needs to know.
“I’m honest,” she said. “I’m open. I seek help when I need it.”
Beggs said he was committed to continuing his work to stop institutional racism.
“Once I was a lawyer, I had the tools to help marginalized communities,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 to correct the quote from Cindy Wendle: “This community deserves to have trust in its police department.”
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