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Women of the Year - Legacy: Diana Wilhite an influential force in Spokane Valley politics, business

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 21, 2020

When Spokane Valley first incorporated in 2003, and dozens of candidates for the first city council came forward, Diana Wilhite noticed a troubling trend: No women declared they would run.

While Wilhite had been a fixture in Spokane Valley politics for decades and had worked for elected officials for longer, her work had always been contained to positions within the Republican Party, or managing other candidates’ campaigns. Fearing the fledgling city could end up being governed by a council of seven men, Wilhite filed to run a day before the deadline. She said she remembered telling her husband about her concerns, and he challenged her to act on them.

“I said to my husband, ‘I know some of the guys who are going to run, but no women are going to run. We need a diverse council,’ ” she recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ”

According to The Spokesman-Review archives, she was the only female candidate out of 27 people the day she filed. When the deadline passed, four of the 49 candidates were women.

In the 17 years since her first run for office, the number of women to sit on the Spokane Valley City Council has grown substantially, and so have Wilhite’s own ambitions. She served a couple of years as Spokane Valley mayor, and sat on the council until 2009, after losing a race for re-election. She later ran against Rep. Matt Shea the first time he ran for office, and against Rep. Bob McCaslin, Jr. She lost both races and has since focused on mentoring other young leaders in both politics and business, and her own consulting business.

She said her love of politics, people and the political process was instilled into her far before she arrived in Spokane Valley.

Wilhite grew up in Cambridge, Idaho, working in her parents’ lumberyard. Her parents voted and encouraged her to do the same, and her mother urged her to get the education she never had the chance to pursue.

Wilhite met her husband, Rick, while they were in college at University of Idaho. After they married and he joined the Navy, they traveled the country together for his career. Her college degree stretched over 10 schools, and she eventually completed a degree in history at the University of Maryland.

She said her love of American history and government inspired her to seek work on Capitol Hill, which was challenging at first. As an outsider, she struggled to find employment and worked as a temporary employee until she was hired to work in the office of Robert A Roe, a newly elected congressman from New Jersey who won a seat in the U.S House of Representatives in 1969.

With the help of more senior workers in the office who were willing to take her under their wing, Wilhite said she soaked in the experience, which helped her gain the insight and political savvy she needed to assist other campaigns and elected officials in the future.

Her stint in Washington, D.C., only lasted two years, and her family continued moving around the country for her husband’s career in the Navy, and later public relations. She tried to work at satellite congressional offices, but eventually had to take a job as a high school history teacher. She stayed involved in local Republican politics wherever the family ended up moving.

She said gender defined many of the challenges she faced in both business and politics, so she sought out mentors and supporting positions in politics to prepare her for leadership.

“Though the men were in control, I listened to what was going on,” she said.

After a decade of moving around the country, the Wilhites moved to the Spokane area to be closer to family. They could have ended up in the city of Spokane, but ultimately chose Spokane Valley because of the available child care.

She said politics was a way to connect with the community. She has been a Republican precinct committee officer since she moved to the area, and served in the leadership of both the Spokane County Republican Party and more recently the Republicans of Spokane County organization, club, which consists of a group of more moderate Republicans.

Wilhite said she’s now focusing her political energy on mentoring the next generation of leaders. Last year, Wilhite was campaign manager for Brandi Peetz, who won re-election and is now deputy mayor, and she has sat down with current Mayor Ben Wick to offer advice.

“We need to give the younger generation the chance to step up to the plate and lead,” she said.

These days, she also has been more focused on her business. Wilhite and her husband previously owned a business, Safeguard Business Systems, that helped other businesses with financial forms, but they sold it in 2011. She now owns a business called Retirement Nationwide, helping people plan for their retirement. Wilhite is also chair of the Board of Directors for Vera Water and Power, which provides services for much of Spokane Valley.

Wilhite also has been involved in the business community and has mentored many women business owners through the National Association of Women Business Owners’ Inland Northwest chapter, which she founded. Wilhite, who served as the first president of the organization, has spent years connecting women-owned businesses, and has done training to teach women business owners how to get a loan, how to advertise and other skills needed to make a business successful.

Wilhite has received leadership or advocacy awards from the Small Business Administration and the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce.

She said in her career, she’s tried to do what she can to help women find opportunities in business and politics, and make sure their perspective is included.

“I always felt it was important for women’s voices to be heard,” she said.

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