Just before 7:45 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2015, Ben Stuckart gaveled his reputation to life.
It was the first City Council meeting of the year and the chambers, usually a calm and relatively unpopulated venue, were packed. More than 100 people had shown up, most to speak in favor of repealing a city law that said police would not ask people about their immigration status.
They were angry and flouted Stuckart’s many requests that they follow the most basic rule of the chamber and remain quiet. Those who did wait their turn to speak railed against council members, saying their actions made Spokane “a horrible, dangerous, crime-ridden city” because “terrorists are coming over our borders, especially the southern one.”
Stuckart, presiding over the meeting as council president, was in a different place. He was 43 years old, and it was his eighth day without a father, who had died after a 10-month struggle with cancer. The crowd was also touching on a foundational event in Stuckart’s life. In the mid-1980s, his family’s church, St. Ann’s Catholic Church in the East Central Neighborhood, sheltered a family of Salvadoran refugees in its basement.
After a man used his 3 minutes to suggest that council members should lose their elected offices, some in the crowd applauded, goading Stuckart and his foul mood.
“Nope. That’s it. Night’s over,” he said, pounding his gavel. He immediately stood up and calmly strode from the chambers, leaving it in confusion and chaos. More than four years later, Stuckart said the moment was one of his biggest regrets at City Hall.
“I came back to work too fast. I came back to work too soon after my dad died. I should’ve given myself a couple more weeks. They were saying horrible things, but I was already raw from my dad dying. I was emotionally raw,” Stuckart said. “They said awful, hateful, racist things and I let it get to me because of that. But I shouldn’t have gaveled the meeting.”
Like Stuckart’s detractors before her, his opponent, Nadine Woodward, says he is too belligerent and short-fused to lead the city.
“Unlike Ben, I am not reactionary, I am not impulsive and I am not vindictive,” Woodward said last week.
As Stuckart faces November’s vote, he contends with a well-documented, eight-year record at City Hall. Before he was elected to lead the council, he ran an effort called the Children’s Investment Fund that would have financed after-school mentoring and family support programs. Before then, he wrote letters to The Spokesman-Review detailing his decidedly progressive view of the world.
It’s a long record, occasionally punctuated by outrage. His attitude hasn’t changed much either, he said. Just his job and how people view him, a perception he said came from the meeting he gaveled to a close.
Making the personal political
In 2008, Stuckart was director of ticket operations at TicketsWest and the only public indication of his political future was the infrequent letter to the editor. He criticized the fair-weather patriots after Sept. 11, 2001, who couldn’t be bothered to vote. He voiced support for long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and his now mainstream Democratic positions of universal health care and free college.
Another letter, from 2005, was about the nation’s economic system that “inevitably” leaves some people behind. If we reap its benefits, Stuckart wrote, “we must also accept the responsibility to care for those that the system leaves unemployed and on the bottom rungs of the ladder.” To ignore and demean the neediest in our society, was “ignorant” and “morally reprehensible.”
Stuckart was thrust into politics in 2008 when he was hired as the executive director of the Spokane affiliate of Communities in Schools, a national business-led effort to decrease school dropout rates and better prepare students for the workforce.
In his old job, he increased sales at TicketsWest from $21 million to $34 million over six years. His new job was focused on “sounding out the needs of local businesses, and finding funding.” Within months, he had persuaded Costco to contribute $100,000 to start a program at Glover Middle School providing tutoring, family counseling and backpacks filled with groceries for children in need.
Then, in August 2008, Stuckart’s wife, Ann Pfannenstein, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She was 34 when she got diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer,” he said. “It was awful. Her chances of survival were less than 50%.”
Besides the shock and fear, Stuckart was immediately galvanized. In a long essay describing his and Pfannenstein’s experience immediately after the diagnosis, Stuckart aimed at the profit-driven heart of the American health care system.
“A medical doctor ordered tests to determine the diagnosis and treatment of my wife’s cancer. But, we are waiting for an insurance company to review the need,” he wrote. “Is it wise to put at the center of our health care system an agent whose purpose is to profit?”
Universal health care goes by a different name now, but Stuckart hasn’t moved in his support. “I’m a huge advocate for Medicare for all, because our health care system is so screwed up,” he said.
His wife’s illness gave him insight in unexpected ways, and shows his penchant to make the personal political.
Two years before she got sick, Stuckart and Pfannenstein got a dog named Bella, a gregarious husky-Labrador retriever mix, and began walking her.
“Walking, we met all our neighbors with our dog. We created a community, and when Ann got diagnosed in ’08, the neighbors we met while walking our dog were the ones who brought us all our food, kept our yard clean, mowed our lawn for us and took care of us for a full year. That’s why walkability is so important to me. It creates community,” Stuckart said. “I can’t believe some people think we should just get from point A to point B in our cars all the time. That’s not what living in a city is about. It’s about interacting with people.”
Pfannenstein has been cancer-free for more than a decade.
A work partnership
Stuckart’s first political campaign came in 2010 with the Children’s Investment Fund, an effort related to Communities in Schools that would’ve raised $5 million through a property tax levy supporting services like early childhood education. Spokane and the nation were still reeling from the Great Recession, so it’s little wonder a proposal to increase taxes through a ballot measure was crushed by voters.
“The message against new taxes was loud and clear, no matter what it is,” Stuckart said after the initiative was defeated by 65% of voters.
Still, he learned a lesson and wasn’t down long. In a guest editorial for The Spokesman, he urged readers to appreciate the intricate nature of how society cares for the poor. “We must not accept simplistic solutions to complex problems,” he wrote.
In March 2011, he announced his run for Spokane City Council president and made the argument that his relative lack of experience was a strength. He said Spokane residents “can vote for people who have been part of government” or they could vote for a “fresh, new perspective.” He also said that “leadership is not something to be gained by being in office. Leadership is a trait.”
He doesn’t disagree today, but said there’s more to it.
“You also need management and leadership experience,” he said, noting that City Hall has 2,000 employees and a $1 billion budget. “I’ve run businesses. I’ve managed budgets in those businesses. I’ve run nonprofits. I managed over 50 people at a time at TicketsWest..”
In the 2011 race, Stuckart defeated two serious candidates with City Hall experience: former Mayor Dennis Hession and longtime Councilman Steve Corker. It was the same election that brought Mayor David Condon to office – who also had never held office before, although he had worked for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Stuckart and Condon were ideological opposites, but their partnership was sound in the first years as they cooperated on a number of issues over the political divide.
It wouldn’t last.
East Sprague, apprentices and Riverfront Park
When he and Condon came to office eight years ago, Spokane was grappling with serious issues. A jury had just convicted a police officer who city leaders had long defended and who had beaten an innocent man named Otto Zehm, leading to his death days later. Water and utility rates were set to skyrocket, part of a bloated $450 million project to stop sewage from entering the river.
Under Stuckart’s leadership, the council approved a series of police reforms as well as changes in the sewage plans proposed by Condon to prevent major spikes in water rates. Stuckart doesn’t crow about these successes. Instead, he focuses on what he’s done to use the city’s power to lift people, and the city, up.
Stuckart said his three biggest accomplishments as council president were passage of the Riverfront Park bond and street levy in 2014, creation of the targeted investment program in 2013 that has remade East Sprague Avenue, and passage of an ordinance in 2014 mandating that a certain amount of work on public works construction projects be performed by apprentices.
The bond and levy were an example of what Stuckart and Condon could accomplish together. The two were hand-in-hand in championing the ballot measures, and held joint news conference extolling them. The collaboration worked, and voters approved the park bond and street levy, with 67% and 77% of the vote, respectively. Stuckart and Condon celebrated in the backroom of O’Doherty’s Irish Grille in downtown Spokane on election night.
“I spent all my free time, every single waking hour, working on that campaign. I raised a third of the money for the campaign. I wrote editorials. I went to neighborhood council meetings,” Stuckart says now. “The park turned out amazing, and I think I can take some ownership of that. And I think we found a long-term solution for arterial streets..”
Stuckart also said the targeted investment program is one of his best ideas – but he also sees it as the great unfinished business of his tenure, something he would rectify if he becomes mayor.
Stuckart pitched the idea in 2013 to gather a number of city funding streams that had been used piecemeal around town, and aim the resulting multimillion-dollar fire hose at a small section of town, rehabilitating the entire area. At the time, Theresa Sanders, the city’s administrator and Condon’s confidante, called the idea “very cool.” In the end, the city invested $18 million from 24 different sources in the area of East Sprague.
Today, Stuckart calls it the “most successful economic development, public safety thing” done by the city during his tenure.
“We’ve seen median household income rise faster than anywhere else in the city. We’ve seen property values rise,” he said. “Compared to when I was growing up and going to church right off of Sprague, that neighborhood has transformed because of this project. My regret is we haven’t picked another area and done it, but we haven’t had support from the (Condon) administration. We should already be in another neighborhood. We should be in West Central right now.”
Lastly, Stuckart said he was proud his ordinance requiring apprentices to account for 15% of the workforce on large public works projects. When he argued for its passage in December 2014, he said it was the city’s responsibility to promote worker training. The city is a “participant in the marketplace … not just a regulator.”
Stuckart said more than 18% of the work on public works projects was done by apprentices in 2018.
“All I hear about is this workforce shortage,” Stuckart says now. “We’re training the workforce for the future and addressing this huge concern. I’m totally proud of that.”
A permanent rift in trust
In the first years, Stuckart and Condon both spoke of the “great collaboration” they shared, and how their political differences made their agreements that much more meaningful for the city.
“I think with Ben, we have on major issues come to a lot of agreement for this community,” Condon said in 2015. Within months, whatever fellowship Stuckart and Condon had was gone.
In April 2015, Monique Cotton, the police department’s spokeswoman, told Condon and Sanders that Chief Frank Straub had sexually harrassed her and that she had text messages showing more examples of harassment. Condon tasked Sanders with dealing with the allegations, and soon the city announced that Cotton was getting promoted to a different department with a $10,000 pay raise.
Straub was removed as chief by Condon in September 2015. At a news conference announcing the ouster, Stuckart stood by Condon’s side. Stuckart said he asked Condon and Sanders about what was beginning to be reported and that they feigned ignorance.
It was re-election season. Stuckart and Condon were fighting to keep their jobs, and largely avoided fighting each other. Stuckart had resisted efforts to draft him to run against Condon, and both men faced relatively weak opponents. They sailed to re-election. Three weeks after election day, during Thanksgiving week, the city released a cache of records related to an Aug. 21 records request from The Spokesman-Review, confirming that Condon knew of Cotton’s allegations. Stuckart exploded.
“When did they know they had these documents and why are they being released now and not when the records request went out?” Stuckart said then of requests made by The Spokesman. “They took over three months to produce these documents, which they obviously knew they had.”
The day before Thanksgiving, Stuckart told The Spokesman-Review he recalled the September news conference announcing Straub’s termination.
“I asked her point-blank, is there anything that’s going to come out in a public records request that’s going to bite us? She said no,” Stuckart said then of Sanders.
At that news conference, Condon told reporters there were no complaints of sexual harassment lodged against Straub.
That breach of trust and truth was the end for Stuckart.
Efforts to repair the relationship between Stuckart and Condon – primarily by the city’s financial team of Gavin Cooley and Rick Romero – were unsuccessful.
“It created a permanent rift in trust,” Stuckart said last month. “They lied. They withheld public documents.”
Grief brought clarity
Stuckart regrets the 2015 meeting he closed with his gavel. Being direct, however, is just who he is.
“I’m a very direct person. I’m very passionate,” he said. “I like to get things done. Sometimes that rubs people the wrong way. Only since I’ve been in politics has that been seen as a weakness.”
It’s that directness that he takes to Woodward, who has largely focused her campaign on homelessness.
Stuckart knows homelessness is a big issue in Spokane, and he can delve into fine-grained detail about the problem. But he sees it as part of a larger issue, one that comes from the success of the city.
“We’re doing better than we were 7 1/2 years ago,” he said. “We have record private investment. Record sales tax growth. We have a really good blueprint for our neighborhood business centers. But along with all that growth comes challenges, like homelessness and affordable housing needs.”
Stuckart said Woodward was “from the 1950s” because she believed building homes on the city’s fringe would meet the housing need. Such development would saddle the city for generations, Stuckart said, with debt on water, sewer and road infrastructure.
“That’s the definition of sprawl. Sprawl should be a dead idea,” he said. “It’s a trade-off. We can choose to invest in our neighborhoods, or we can choose to invest in developments outside of the city.”
The view of homelessness shared by Woodward and her supporters, Stuckart said, is equally outdated.
“She, again, is going back to the 1950s mentality: Let’s just throw them all in jail. No other community is embracing that,” he said. “Our problems are a lot more complex. People are complex. You’ve got to get them into housing first, whether that’s a shelter with case management or long-term housing with supportive services. She has two simplistic solutions: Let’s lock them up, and let’s spread out. Those aren’t just competing with my principles. Those are old ways of thinking.”
Stuckart acknowledged that his nuanced views of complex issues may not fit the political moment of tweet-sized pronouncements and vague hot takes. But he said he wouldn’t change.
“My dad ran SNAP for 28 years. My mom was a public school teacher. I know exactly where my morals come from,” he said. “My positions are more nuanced than you just need to take care of people. We have to have case management, we got to have 24-7 shelters. We need to build more affordable housing. If I lose, I’m going to lose going down on what I know is morally right and factually right. I’m not sacrificing any of those. I could start simplifying things. I could be a jerk. I’m not going to do it.”
Though his father’s death brought grief, it also brought Stuckart clarity, about himself, his role at City Hall and his campaign for mayor.
“Thinking about my dad all the time, and how hard that was losing him, I make sure I’m true to myself because he was true to himself his entire life,” he said. “As a politician, it’s really easy to lose your way. Loss makes you, I think, understand how precious time is.”
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