Steve Salvatori is responsible for what may be Spokane City Hall’s only shark attack.
The semi-retired real estate investor-turned-politician bought a remote-controlled inflatable shark during his time as a lawmaker. He targeted the mayor and his colleagues on the City Council with the prop, but his final target was a bit more personal: a city elevator inspector whom he declined to name.
“I get inspected, annually, for the elevator, and he gives me this list of things to do,” Salvatori, 66, said from his home in Sarasota, Florida, last week. He was referring to a city inspector who’d visited one of his three downtown properties. “I have to have an electrician come out, I’ve got to have a licensing person come out. I’ve got to be there. Logistically, it’s somewhat difficult to get all this stuff done.”
The year prior, none of these issues had been raised in the inspection. Yet, when Salvatori tried to get in touch with the inspector to ask about the new requirements, he got crickets.
So he affixed a Post-it note requesting an audience with the man to the nose of his shark, and navigated the child’s toy into the man’s office.
“I swam it right through his door, and I’m hiding outside,” Salvatori said. “All of a sudden I see him come out, with this quizzical look on his face. ‘There’s a shark in my office.’”
Salvatori ended his time on City Council in 2014, just seven years after moving to Spokane on a whim with his wife in what was meant to be the couple’s retirement destination. A fiscal conservative on the panel, Salvatori also pushed for tougher laws regarding police oversight, a battle he fought alongside fellow Councilman Mike Allen.
The political allies have remained close friends, and it was Allen who sent Salvatori a collection of video well-wishes this month from Spokane. Salvatori was diagnosed last year with leukemia and placed on a clinical trial drug intended to defeat the cancer. That treatment hasn’t taken, and while Salvatori is receiving chemotherapy in Florida, a 67th birthday in July feels like an outside possibility.
“I’ve lived a whole lifetime,” Salvatori said. “I’m happy and grateful, not angry and bitter.”
Salvatori and his wife, Sami, decided quickly in summer 2007 that Northwest Spokane would be their getaway from a busy life in Los Angeles.
“I walked into this house that was being framed, and I look to my left, there’s a house. I look to my right, there’s a house. We’ve got neighbors. That was on my wife’s list,” Salvatori said. “I look out the back door, and there’s the Spokane River. That was on my list.”
The Salvatoris made an offer on that house near Spokane Falls Community College, during their first visit to the Lilac City. But Steve Salvatori’s speculation didn’t stop there that summer.
He also bought the downtown Lorraine Hotel building on foreclosure and started the Spokane Entrepreneurial Center, an incubation spot for fledgling business owners that offered cheap rent, proximity to downtown and assistance from Salvatori, who’d started his own wholesale business in the 1980s.
“I didn’t vet any of them. I didn’t do credit checks, I didn’t do background checks, we didn’t ask for a deposit,” Salvatori said. “It was a pretty open-door policy.”
Tenants included Mayor David Condon, who rented office space for his campaign, and future colleague Allen.
“He assimilated so well, but also challenged us at the same time,” said Condon.
Allen had been appointed to the council in 2007 but lost an election to keep the seat in 2009.
“I had an office in his building on one of my worst campaign days ever,” Allen said. “I had done a robocall, and made the mistake of using my own phone number.”
Salvatori followed that with his own bid for seat on the Spokane County Board of Commissioners in 2010, but faced a crowded primary field that also included current Commissioner Al French and state Sen. Jeff Holy. Salvatori finished fourth.
“I went up to him after the primary and I said, ‘If you ever want to run on City Council, let me know, we’ll run as a team,’” Allen said. “Jan. 1, he calls me, and says I filed, you need to go file.”
Salvatori said he didn’t have political aspirations when he arrived in Spokane. But he became known for his signature cardboard cutouts that were seemingly littered all over town, and prompted ribbing from Spokesman-Review political columnist Doug Clark. He ran, he said, to represent those business owners whom he said were getting ground down by government regulations, including the elevator regulations that would prompt his prank years later.
He and Allen were elected in 2011, along with a new, business-minded mayor in Condon and what was seen as a narrow conservative majority on a nonpartisan panel. The bloc included Mike Fagan and Nancy McLaughlin.
Police and toasts
Salvatori and Allen kept up the close partnership. The pair immediately began pushing for tougher rules on police oversight, including putting on the ballot in 2013 the city charter amendment calling for greater civilian oversight of the department’s actions in the wake of Otto Zehm’s death in 2006.
Voters overwhelmingly passed that charter amendment.
Putting the request in the charter, Salvatori said, was a way to “up the ante” and convince lawmakers at both the local and state level that independent oversight was demanded by the citizens. After years of discussions, the City Council, mayor and Spokane Police Guild announced Friday they’d come up with an a labor contract they believe meets the demands of the charter.
Allen and Salvatori also voted together to oppose the introduction of resolutions taking on issues they believed were beyond the scope of city business, including one in support of same-sex marriage following its approval in Washington by a law signed by the governor in 2012.
The issue was not whether they supported such marriages – they did – it was the belief that city government should be focused on tasks relative to the city, a principle that has been debated repeatedly in the years since when the council has taken on issues such as immigration enforcement. It’s a principle that Salvatori stands by.
“That wasn’t our range. We don’t have authority, no matter what we pass, we’re going to have zero effect,” Salvatori said. “All they do is divide at the city level.”
Then-City Council President Ben Stuckart said Salvatori was the kind of guy who could disagree and argue with you vehemently on a Monday night at a council meeting, then welcome you with open arms and a hug the next morning. The two consider themselves far apart ideologically on many issues and even lobbed threats of ethics complaints when they were both on council, but Salvatori’s current medical status brought the former council president nearly to tears when he spoke of their time in an interview last week.
“Some council members you would see on Monday, and that was it. Then they’d be off, and they’d go to their board meetings,” Stuckart said. “Steve was always there.”
He also started a tradition that many members kept under wraps for years. Salvatori bought the bottle of Fireball cinnamon whisky that sat upstairs in the council chambers, branded the “6-1” bottle. When a lawmaker voted against all their other colleagues on an issue, the panel would retire upstairs and toast their counterpart with what Stuckart called “that awful stuff.”
“He took the work seriously, but not himself seriously,” Condon said. “Government is sometimes very tense, he could lighten it up and make us realize that we’re all just humans trying to do the right thing.”
But that was an attempt to bring lawmakers together, even when they’d had it out in public. Salvatori said that’s a reflection of his personality, but he also learned to be generous from Councilman Jon Snyder, another elected official he considers far from him ideologically.
“He said, ‘Steve, never assume intent,’” Salvatori said. “You can disagree with someone, we’ll have deep arguments, blah, blah, blah. But don’t just assume you know why.”
It’s a lesson Salvatori said he took to heart during his three years on the council, departing again for work in Texas in the middle of 2014 and, by virtue of the council appointing a new member, establishing what is now seen as the 6-1 progressive, veto-proof majority that has existed for nearly seven years. It’s also one that he laments many in politics haven’t apparently learned.
“I guess the bottom line is that I sort of miss the discourse that we used to have, collectively, in America,” he said. “I think it’s gotten a little scarcer. Hopefully, we’re moving back to that.”
A lasting effect
Salvatori was last in Spokane for a golf outing with Allen and others two years ago. That was before the completed construction of the Amazon building on the West Plains. It was also before the gates had come down to permit visitors into the new U.S. Pavilion in Riverfront Park, an attraction Salvatori himself had some say in the design of, after taking a stint on the appointed Park Board for a period beginning in 2017.
“Spokane is really the first downtown where I went for everything,” said Salvatori, who in addition to living in L.A. also lived in Chicago. “That’s where I went for my coffee, where I went to see a movie, where I went shopping.”
It’s a downtown that’s grown since Salvatori purchased his buildings more than a decade ago. His colleagues give Salvatori credit for that, despite his relatively short stint in Spokane.
“Steve’s a remarkable human,” Allen said. “I am literally a better person for having him in my life.”
“He was a hugger, he was just a giver of himself,” Stuckart said.
“His passion for Spokane is unmatched by people born and raised here,” Condon said. “He often was the person that made us realize what we have.”
Salvatori said he just hoped people remembered his time in Spokane as well-spent.
“I did feel like, when I was in Spokane, I gave it my best,” he said. “God-willing, I can come back and visit and see how it’s changed.”
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