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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘I realized that I was the problem’: Spokane City Council Member Kate Burke reflects on time in office

City Council members Mike Fagan and Kate Burke listen as Alfredo LLamedo gives an emotional goodbye to the Spokane City Council during a meeting in July 2019.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
City Council members Mike Fagan and Kate Burke listen as Alfredo LLamedo gives an emotional goodbye to the Spokane City Council during a meeting in July 2019. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Kate Burke figures it took about six months into her first term to start receiving smiles from other people in the Spokane City Council office.

But upon reflecting on the tumultuous start to her one and only term, Burke doesn’t heap all of the blame on others.

“They didn’t want to meet with me, they didn’t want to grow a relationship with me, and I sure didn’t think I needed to grow a relationship with anybody else,” Burke said.

Burke came into office four years ago as an uncompromising, emotions-on-the-sleeve advocate for progressive policies. She decided not to seek a second term earlier this year.

She still champions many of the same policies and priorities, but is leaving office with a new outlook and radically different approach to legislating.

“I was definitely ignorant to a lot of things when I wanted to jump in, but what I was most ignorant about was how city government touches your everyday life. I can’t believe all of the things that we can do at a local level,” Burke said.

Burke’s journey to politics began as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at Second Harvest, where she encouraged gardeners and farmers to plant extra food so it could be harvested and brought to food banks.

Burke wondered why this hadn’t been a longstanding practice and learned there was previously a statewide law that placed liability for foodborne illness on the farmers – making them naturally reluctant to donate .

“That’s when it clicked to me that policy is where I wanted to spend my time,” Burke said.

Burke landed a job in state Sen. Andy Billig’s office, where experiencing how politics worked at the state level sparked an interest in running for elected office herself. Former City Councilwoman Amber Waldref’s seat was open the next year, and Burke decided to jump into the race.

“It is probably the most isolating experience that you can go through, putting yourself out in front of people to be judged wholly, and you literally just have to take it. That is our culture,” Burke said. “If you’re going to get into politics, you have to have thick skin. I didn’t, and I still don’t.”

But despite early disillusionment with the grind of politics, Burke found joy in meeting with voters at their front doors. She handily won the seat to represent northeast Spokane in November, but there was friction with other council members before she ever stepped into office. That year, she had criticized then-Council President Ben Stuckart for failing to take her allegations of sexual harassment against a former City Council member seriously.

Tension clouded her early months in office, and Burke struggled to find her footing.

Burke was the youngest member of the council when she joined, noted Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.

“Making the transition between candidate and council member, and making the transition from activist to advocate – that’s a hard thing for a lot of people, and it took her a little bit to do that. I felt like I should have been more patient, and allowed her that transition time, and I was impatient because I’d been there for so long.”

That year, Burke chose to get sober and enter Alcoholics Anonymous.

It helped Burke “understand what was driving me nuts and mad was that I had my own thoughts about how you were supposed to navigate the world and if you didn’t do it, you were bad, and if you weren’t on my team you were on their team and that’s bad,” Burke said.

When she realized “I was making those rules up, all of that stress and tension dissipated.”

And as she developed relationships with other council members, Burke learned where their values align.

“I realized that I was the problem in the council office. Now, it’s like ‘oh it’s really easy.’ All I needed to do was get to know people,” Burke said.

Candace Mumm will often agree with her on city planning, while she and Kinnear generally see eye to eye on environmental policies. Karen Stratton backs labor unions and employees, while Breean Beggs matches up with Burke on most criminal justice issues. Michael Cathcart shares her passion about open government and supports bike lanes on city streets.

Now, Stratton considers Burke a friend.

“All of us have learned you work better as a group and it’s in your best interest to try every single day to make change and move people along with you,” Stratton said.

Like many people, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Burke to step back and evaluate her life – and how much of it she spent working. She worked to the point of making herself sick, relying on cold medicine to get through the day.

“It showed me that there was actually life to live. I could still work and try to make an impact, but it wasn’t all on my shoulders,” Burke said.

When Burke looks back on her tenure, it’s less about legislation or policy she directly developed – like leading the process to create a new city flag and a ban on the use of high-frequency noise emitters to disperse the young and homeless from downtown businesses – but about the morals and values she discussed at every meeting.

In recent months, Burke has spoken less during City Council meetings. That’s not an accident. She still sits and listens and does background work, maybe shooting off a text to get information. But she figures “people know my opinion,” and when she did talk, it had more of an impact.

Though quieter during council meetings, Burke remains outspoken. She’s been vocal about her experience getting sober and as a person diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful disease in which tissue lining the uterus grows outside the organ.

Now, she’s accepted a job with the state Department of Commerce helping to distribute COVID-19 relief and will remain in Spokane. But she also plans to “take some time for myself, rebuild, live some life.”

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