The deadline to file for office is a little over a week away, and many races in Spokane County, including two county commissioner seats, appear to be uncontested.
In the last 20 years or more, every commission seat has drawn at least two candidates, and one race drew as many as five. Candidates and those considering running for office say the essentials of running a campaign, raising money and doorbelling, have become increasingly difficult as the state closes down to halt the spread of COVID-19.
So far only incumbents Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney have filed their candidacies with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. Candidates who have publicly announced their intention to run or have raised money for a campaign must file paperwork with the PDC. Next week, candidates must file with the county auditor’s office in order for their names to appear on the ballot.
Kuney, who represents southeastern Spokane County, and Kerns, who represents northern Spokane County, said they’ve done little campaigning or fundraising since the beginning of the year, spending most of their time on local efforts to manage the impacts of the coronavirus.
“There’s a lot of uncontested races at this point, and I think what’s the one thing that’s different this year than any other year, and that’s the coronavirus,” Kerns said, “Folks just aren’t focused on politics right now.”
County commissioners oversee the second largest local government budget in the region, nearly $700 million, and also oversee many of the grants and programs that support infrastructure, homelessness and social services in the area. Each commissioner is paid about $117,000 a year.
The board will grow from three to five commissioners in the 2022 election unless a lawsuit filed by the current commissioners overturns the Legislature’s decision to expand it.
Kuney said she normally would have a fundraiser around this time and would have put together a schedule to knock on doors, but has done neither due to COVID-19 and the lack of declared opponents. She said she’ll have to find other ways to campaign and said some of those decisions she’ll make after 4 p.m. on May 15, the deadline for candidates to file to have their name on the ballot.
“There’s been a lot of races in the past where people chose right at the end to do it,” she said. “I can’t speculate what’s going through other peoples’ thoughts. All I can focus on is being a great commissioner and hope everyone sees that.”
Neither of Kern’s last opponents, Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm and Nancy McLaughlin, a former county commissioner, have expressed interest in running for county commissioner anytime soon. In February, Mumm said she did not plan to run this year.
Kuney’s last opponent, Rob Chase, the former county treasurer, is running for Congress against incumbent Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democrat Chris Armitage.
He said he was surprised that more candidates haven’t expressed interest. Even if they have a low chance of winning, it’s a way to build up political experience and it could prepare a candidate to win a seat once the Board of County Commissioners expands from three to five members.
“You kind of have to build a political résumé before you’re really accepted,” Chase said. “This would be a good opportunity for someone to do that.”
Former Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins was considering a run against Kuney, but said the coronavirus pandemic had shut down his ambition to run for office for now.
“The money and the door knocking countywide were two steep hills to climb, and they were just made a lot steeper by the virus,” Higgins said.
Higgins said besides the difficulty of campaigning door-to-door, it would be hard to ask constituents for contributions when many are facing difficult times themselves.
He wouldn’t totally shut down the possibility of running, but said it was unlikely this year.
“I won’t definitely close the door, but let’s say it’s three-quarters of the way closed,” he said.
Both Higgins and Chase are among a far more conservative anti-establishment wing of the local Republican Party that has been a prominent force in Spokane Valley politics in recent years. Both men have supported controversial state Rep. Matt Shea, who is one of the few incumbents in the area who is facing challengers this year.
Shea recently was kicked out of the Republican Party caucus after the release of a report that found he participated in domestic terrorism.
Three people have filed to run against him: nurse practitioner Lori Feagan, a Democrat; former Republican Rep. Leonard Christian; and Ann Marie Danimus, a former Miss Spokane who leads a non-profit she founded and who is running as an independent.
Republican Bob McCaslin Jr., R-Spokane Valley, is facing one challenger, Democrat Lance Gurel, who ran for Spokane Valley City Council last fall and is an accountant.
Gurel, who has criticized Shea and McCaslin for divisive rhetoric, said he takes issue with McCaslin’s decision to support Shea’s proposal for Eastern Washington to secede from Washington.
McCaslin did not respond to a request for comment.
Gurel, who decided to run against McCaslin before the COVID-19 pandemic, said he understands why it may be a barrier for some.
“The changing landscape because of the virus is definitely going to change my campaign, but it hasn’t discouraged me from running,” Gurel said. “Maybe there are other people who looked at it this year, and thought ‘this isn’t my year.’ ”
He said he’s been focusing his efforts on his YouTube channel as well as social media and has been trying to attend events over Zoom that he would have attended in person during a normal campaign season.
State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, has not yet attracted a challenger.
No challengers have filed with the PDC to run against Democratic representing central Spokane, Rep. Marcus Riccelli and Rep. Timm Ormsby. Dave Lucas, a retired Marine veteran has filed to run against Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig in the same legislative district.
Rep. Jenny Graham, a Republican who represents the West Plains, has attracted an opponent, Democrat Tom McGarry, but her seat mate, Republican Rep. Mike Volz, has not.
While the county commission has been dominated by Republicans for the last decade, there is usually at least one Democrat who runs when a commission seat is open.
Spokane County Democratic Party Chair Ed Wood said he was concerned by the many uncontested races, but said the party was talking to people about running and hopes more will consider it during filing week.
He said he also hopes campaigns that go forward refrain from trying to do business as normal and avoid doorbelling, because it could put people in danger of getting sick.
“One of the things that campaigns love to do is canvas door-to-door. We can’t do it,” he said. “Even if somebody tries to do it, I would hope people wouldn’t open the door for them because that isn’t something we should be doing right now.”
Spokane County Republican Party Chair Brian Steele did not respond to a request for comment.
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said COVID-19 has added a new set of challenges for potential candidates. They can’t walk in parades, attend events or throw fundraising parties as they normally would. She said even with the new difficulties many candidates face, it’s possible there could be a flood of filings at the end of the week.
“There have been Fridays where we have had people showing up late in the afternoon that earlier in the week never intended to run at all,” she said.
Dalton encouraged all potential candidates to file online. The filing fee is 1% of what the candidate will make in the position if elected. It costs $1,174 to run for county commissioner and $527 to run for a position in the state Legislature. State law allows candidates to collect signatures instead of paying the fee, but Gov. Jay Inslee this year has waived the fee and signature requirement for those who sign a sworn statement that they cannot afford the fee.
Filing opens on Monday and closes on May 15.
This story was updated on May 8, 2020 to include the 3rd District Senate Race candidates.
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