Woodward aims to use trust amassed over broadcast career to bring about change if elected Spokane mayor
Sun., Oct. 13, 2019
An early hint at Nadine Woodward’s mayoral candidacy was refracted through a glass of champagne.
In a tweet while aboard a flight to Hawaii, Woodward’s mile-high reading material was barely visible under the complimentary bubbly: a report detailing homelessness in Spokane.
It was on that trip, taken to celebrate her retirement as a TV news anchor, that she solidified her decision to transition from broadcast journalism to politics.
It’s fitting, given her March 2 tweet, that homelessness has become the defining issue of Woodward’s candidacy, which she made official a month later. At candidate forums, in media interviews, and at campaign events, Woodward has repeated the call: Whatever the city is doing now to reduce homelessness isn’t working, and it needs to get better.
Over the course of the past six months, Woodward and her opponent, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, have drawn a stark contrast in their viewpoints on homelessness.
Beyond just a difference in policy, the question of how the city should address its rising number of unsheltered homeless people has boiled down to an ethical one. Should the city prioritize providing shelter and housing to stabilize the homeless before directing them to social services, or should it require them to participate in programs and be held personally accountable before they’re given a roof over their heads?
Stuckart’s approach is firmly in the former, while Woodward has advocated for the latter.
Although voters undoubtedly know her best as an anchor on the evening news, Woodward’s political perspective also is painted by her family’s businesses downtown, Memories by Design. Woodward and her husband, Bruce Felt, took over the business, which produces memorial videos for wakes and funerals, nearly six years ago.
Located at Lincoln Street and First Avenue, Woodward said the businesses provided a window into the problems facing downtown Spokane and helped lead her to a point of “becoming so frustrated with a lack of any answers.”
“I decided to stop complaining to family and friends and do something impactful,” Woodward said.
Aesthetically, Woodward acknowledges downtown has never been more vibrant, with a revitalized Riverfront Park and bustling social scene. But homelessness and public safety downtown have worsened, she said. It’s a perception she said is shared by the city residents whose doorbells she rings. Even her own daughter, she said, returned home from the University of Washington to a different city.
“Our homeless issue and the drug addiction is something that needs to be addressed,” Woodward said.
But identifying the problem and solving it are two different things.
Woodward pledged to listen to experts before detailing a solution. She’s met with leaders of service providers such as Frontier Behavioral Health and Catholic Charities, and introduced a seven-point plan to reduce homelessness and its impacts in Spokane.
That plan includes moving a police precinct back to the heart of downtown and enhancing the partnership with Frontier Behavioral Health.
Her proposals have been one of Stuckart’s top criticisms on the campaign trail.
“She doesn’t have any solutions,” Stuckart said.
After six months, Woodward still doesn’t claim to have all the answers to end homelessness, but she’s promoted “effective compassion.” To her, that starts with drawing a line between those who have run into bad luck – a rapid rent increase or serious medical issue, for example – versus those who have embraced a lifestyle of vagrancy or addiction.
For those who fall in the vagrant category and are accused of breaking laws, Woodward has called for a stronger, enforcement-based approach. At its simplest, the choice given to these people would be a jail sentence or treatment.
“My question is at what point are we obligated to take care of people who don’t want help and just want to live out in the street passed out in their addiction? That’s the question; I just don’t know,” Woodward said.
She has also stressed “accountability” from those who are receiving services, and pledged not to purchase a new low-barrier shelter like the one the city currently plans to open and that her opponent, Stuckart, supports. Those, she believes, are costly and ineffective at lifting people out of homelessness.
Woodward is aware that her platform has been criticized as lacking compassion, with her detractors saying her interest in the issue is born out of a desire to not have to look at homeless people. But what’s callous, she argues, is looking at the homeless and walking past them without acting.
“I want to get them help,” she said, adding that the city’s approach should be that “we’re going to get you help, but we need to see some accountability on your end.”
Although she’s pledged to build an approach to homelessness based on the advice of experts, Woodward has done so selectively. She has eschewed much of the data available on homelessness, instead opting to build her opinions on anecdotes and stories of the people she’s interacted with on the campaign trail.
She questions the usefulness of the region’s annual point-in-time count, which provides a snapshot census of the homeless population and surveys them on their reasons for being homeless.
Proponents of Housing First – the approach to homelessness wherein homeless individuals are first given supportive housing before their other needs, like mental health treatment, are addressed – argue it’s deeply effective at lifting people out of homelessness, and they cite a swath of research backing up that assertion. Woodward favors an alternate approach.
She criticized Stuckart’s support for Housing First in an op-ed in The Spokesman-Review on Sept. 22.
“Mr. Stuckart believes an impulsive push for a city-owned shelter will solve our problem, but it will simply establish another unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy that will become a long-term burden,” she wrote.
And despite surveys showing other factors that contribute to homelessness, Woodward unequivocally connects homelessness and drug addiction and mental health and calls for forced intervention and treatment before a person receives housing services.
But Woodward has avoided detailing exactly where that line should be drawn, and what “accountability” means in real terms. It depends on the program, she argues. The Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission, Truth Ministries, all have different definitions of accountability for the people they serve, she notes.
But when should someone be cut off from services? Evicted? Kicked out of a shelter?
“I can’t draw a definitive line for you on what that’s going to be,” Woodward said.
On a cold night, when temperatures plunge below freezing, a man who is intoxicated might not be admitted into a shelter that demands sobriety. But Woodward dismisses the notion that her policies would leave him to freeze to death. Instead, she suggests the city open temporary warming centers during the winter, and even consider erecting temporary “tent cities.”
One day last week, she brought homemade cookies and handed out meals to dozens of overnight guests at the Truth Ministries shelter on East Sprague Avenue. Though it doesn’t receive the same level of attention as larger facilities like House of Charity or Union Gospel Mission, Truth Ministries is an example of the kind of shelter Woodward values and that has “accountability.”
“I think that’s where true dignity comes from: being able to help yourself as well as lift yourself out of your situation and improve your circumstances,” Woodward said.
Guests, all adult men, are not allowed to be intoxicated when they enter the shelter, though the rules can be relaxed in extenuating circumstances. They pay a small fee to stay overnight, or perform chores to earn their keep – a free dinner and a warm bed. The whole shelter, owner Marty McKinney says, operates on a $50,000 per year budget.
After dishing out plates of hot tater tot casserole, Woodward sat and heard the stories of the men who would be staying the night there. One man was well-educated, but felt like he was stuck in a dead end and couldn’t find the right job. Another described the frustration of being given a phone by a social service provider to help maintain appointments, only to have it taken away when funding ran out.
Earlier in the day, she met with Aaron, who is graduating the Salvation Army’s Stepping Stones transitional housing program and is in the process of moving into his own apartment.
“It’s important to find out the good programs we have that are moving people forward, but also where the problems are and the needs are. You only find that out by talking to the stakeholders, the nonprofits, but also from the people who are going through all of this. You need both perspectives,” Woodward said.
Had it not been for the campaign staff surrounding her, Woodward’s interactions would have been hard to distinguish from those of a journalist. She asked questions. She listened.
Woodward promises that her television persona, political persona and authentic self are all one and the same. Those moments with colleagues between segments, those bits of life she shared during pauses, are all a reflection of who she is, not manufactured for the broadcast. You can’t fake that, she said. People would see right through it.
Woodward is a Washington native but didn’t land east of the Cascades until adulthood. She was born to teenage parents on the West Side and raised in Vancouver. Her dad quit college and got a job, spending his career mostly in sales and instilling in her a work ethic that she holds to this day.
“He worked nonstop,” Woodward said.
Woodward’s parents initially sent her and her brother to a private Catholic school, like the one her mother had attended, but couldn’t make ends meet. She was enrolled in public school in seventh grade.
Raised in a Catholic family, faith remains a part of Woodward’s life. Woodward’s family has attended a couple of Spokane churches, and lately has attended Summit Spokane on the South Hill when a busy campaign schedule allows her to make services.
“Faith is an important part of my life, absolutely. I’ve been reliant on it during the campaign to get me through some of the stressful aspects of it,” Woodward said.
Among her accomplishments, Woodward is most proud of graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Portland in 1985. She worked her way through college in multiple jobs, and completed her degree in 5 ½ years.
She had originally attended Clark Junior College to become a dental hygienist. Woodward’s life took a turn when she took a communications class. That led to her joining, and finding success with, a debate team that she participated in for about two years.
“That completely changed my life,” Woodward said.
Woodward managed to escape college having only taken out $2,500 in student loans. (Yes, they are paid off.)
She began her broadcast journalism career at KLEW in Lewiston. With a handful of people in the newsroom, it was up to each journalist to pull together all the pieces of a story, a workload that included hauling around camera equipment that was quite a bit heavier in the 1980s than it is today.
She worked for a stint at KIDK in Idaho Falls – which ranks a modest 161st in TV market size in the country – before landing in Spokane at KREM in 1990.
When she arrived with Felt in Spokane, their plan wasn’t to stay here. In the TV news industry, smaller markets like Spokane are often seen as a launching pad to bigger cities like Seattle and Portland.
But within a year and a half, Woodward and Felt had bought their first house together. (They later sold that house to her parents, who still live there.) Not long after, they had their son, Connor.
“We started putting down roots and realized, why would we leave a community like this?” Woodward said. “This is where we found family.”
In 2010, Woodward left KREM under tumultuous circumstances and sued the station for gender and age discrimination. At the time, Woodward said she was asked to take a 15% pay cut that her male co-workers were not, among other accusations of imbalance in the way she and her peers were treated.
The lawsuit was eventually settled. She declined to comment on the case, stating that she signed a nondisclosure agreement.
Though she didn’t see herself as a future politician, Woodward always had an interest in politics as a journalist. Election nights, she said, were like the Super Bowl for the newsroom.
While awaiting the expiration of her six-month noncompete clause – a standard in contracts for TV news journalists that KREM enforced – Woodward had people approach her about entering politics.
“That was the first time I ever really thought about it,” she said.
Ultimately, she decided to stick to news and joined KXLY, where she anchored the evening news until her retirement earlier this year. In 2013, she was awarded with the Silver Circle for the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, becoming the first Spokane broadcaster to win the honor in more than two decades.
Earlier this year, after 29 years in journalism, Woodward made the leap.
It’s been a tumultuous six months since Woodward announced her candidacy. She’s seen turnover in her campaign staff, received strong pushback in response to social media posts about the safety of the city’s libraries, and sparred with Stuckart on the debate stage. But none of that has appeared to slow down Woodward, and she bested Stuckart by more than 1,000 votes in the primary election.
“This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Woodward said.
But she added this campaign “affirms every reason why I stayed” in Spokane
As a female entering the political fray, Woodward lamented the amount of misogyny she’s faced as a candidate, nearly a full century after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. In particular, she’s noticed comments about her work in journalism that reduce her to little more than a friendly face on the nightly news.
“My entire career now is just a ‘teleprompter reader,’” she said.
Those who worked with her know she was anything but hands-off, regularly rewriting scripts and double-checking facts before reading them on air, she said.
“I set the standard for the newsroom,” she said. “This is my reputation, this is my livelihood.”
Woodward has been hesitant to bring her political views into the nonpartisan race, declining to seek the endorsement of either political party. Instead, she’s argued that the election is about trust – trust she’s earned over more than 25 years beamed into the living rooms of Spokane families.
“It’s really hard to run nonpartisan and only discuss issues that affect the city,” Woodward said.
In response to a candidate survey from We Believe We Vote, Woodward declined to answer if “marriage should be defined in law as a relationship between one man and one woman” and “human life begins at conception and should receive legal protection until natural death.”
She has received the endorsement of Mayor David Condon, who she has been sure to credit with leaving the city on stable financial footing as he is set to leave office. And while she’s pointed most of her criticism toward a City Council Stuckart has helmed for nearly two terms, she’s also questioned much of what has happened to the city under Condon’s leadership.
“He and I are different people,” she acknowledges.
Woodward sees herself and Condon as having different strengths: he as an administrator, and she as a communicator and advocate for the city.
Woodward believes her willingness to collaborate explains why she has won endorsements from officials across the region, such as Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
Woodward said her skill set as a journalist will translate well to the mayor’s office – researching, engaging and, most important, listening.
In 2011, Woodward was doing just that – listening – to the man she now hopes to replace. The election was just a few weeks away, and then-challenger Condon was in the midst of an unbelievable comeback after finishing more than 25 points behind incumbent Mayor Mary Verner in the primary election.
Condon told Woodward, then an anchor at KXLY, that his message was starting to resonate as the election neared.
Almost exactly eight years later, Woodward has switched seats and is now answering the questions. But, like Condon, she plans to ride a wave of momentum and take down a politically experienced candidate by offering voters change.
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