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Soaring gas prices, crime rates and homelessness: How will parties position themselves locally headed into primaries?

As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Early returns from this year’s midterm elections and public opinion polls point to the rising costs of goods, public safety and homelessness dominating political discussion headed into the primaries.

The outlook in Spokane mirrors that seen in urban areas across the nation, with soaring prices at the pump, rising rates of crime and a greater number of people seeking shelter on the streets. Those issues, combined with the usual disadvantage the political party in power experiences in midterm elections, signify an uphill battle for Democrats, political observers say.

“You go in with that sort of bad potential – a bad economy – and you add heightened concern about public safety, that’s an issue Republicans seem to own,” said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University and a member of the Whatcom County Council.

But in Spokane County, where Republicans dominate the offices up for election in November, any dissatisfaction with the way things are going should actually benefit Democrats, said Carmela Conroy, the chair of the local party.

“That ought to mean, with respect to the county commissioner races, that voters would be looking to the Democratic candidates for new ideas,” Conroy said.

Nationally, Democrats are pushing back on the narrative of being weaker on crime with efforts to increase restrictions on gun sales after high-profile mass shootings in Texas and New York, touting the measures as ways to make public areas safer.

Lawmakers also made the case during last week’s first of several hearings on the attack at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that public safety concerns should also include future attempts to undermine American democracy, even as some Congressional Republicans derided the hearing as a way to deflect attention from higher prices and crime rates.

The disagreement between the root causes of a problem on a national level isn’t new, said Kevin Pirch, a professor of political science at Eastern Washington University, and is a consequence of the increasing ideological divide among the American public.

“We’re looking at that problem from completely different viewpoints,” Pirch said. “As we get more polarized, it’s harder and harder for us to just have conversations across the aisle.”

That national conversation is likely to have an effect this fall closer to home.

Spokane residents are paying roughly $2 more for a gallon of gas than they were a year ago, witnessing a 34% citywide annual increase in property crime and live in a community where the number of homeless people has increased from 541 in 2020 to 823 during a point-in-time count earlier this year.

Those conditions are occurring even as Spokane County sees the greatest number of Democratic candidates for elected office in recent memory, as changes to the way Spokane County Commissioners are elected have spurred competitive elections in all five of the county’s new commissioner districts, including Democratic candidates in three.

But seats on the Spokane City Council, the office of the mayor and other local elected positions aren’t up for another year, indicating any losses for progressive candidates are unlikely to affect policymaking at the local level. That’s where much of the discussion of crime rates and homelessness take place, said H. Stuart Elway, a longtime political pollster in Washington.

“Is it going to play in the legislative race? It’s hard to see how that does, except as a symbolic issue,” Elway said.

But he said he believed anecdotal evidence showed that voters are “getting kind of impatient, at the least” with increasing numbers of people living on the streets.

The successful recall of a Democratic San Francisco district attorney seen as weak on crime, and the ascendancy of a Republican-turned-Democrat in the race for Los Angeles mayor who made a pledge to clean up the city’s streets, had The New York Times warning last week that public safety would be an issue Democrats would have to take seriously in November.

Dennis Dellwo, a former Democratic state legislator and current precinct committee officer with the party, said local Democrats needed to campaign on the issue.

“It doesn’t surprise me that people are demanding that,” said Dellwo, pointing to the 2019 nonpartisan mayoral contest between Nadine Woodward and Ben Stuckart in which housing and crime policies dominated debates and public forums. “Democrats need to identify that as one of the problems they’re going to address.”

Beva Miles, chairwoman of the group Republicans of Spokane County and a district leader with the local GOP, said in recent polling that public safety and rising costs were among the biggest issues identified by local members headed into the 2022 midterms. But she believes inflation is what’s going to turn out the vote.

“What people see is one thing,” Miles said. “What they feel in their pocketbook is another.”

“When it hits you in a pocketbook, that’s when you wake up.”

Recent statewide polling supports that argument. Elway found in January that the economy topped voters’ concerns for the first time in eight years.

Meanwhile, public safety, broadly, was identified by just 12% of respondents. That may be due to the nature of the response to rising crime rates, said Elway, which is seen more as a local problem than a statewide one.

While Republicans, like Miles, seek to tie the issue of homelessness to public safety, Democrats, too, diverge on that point. The focus for conservatives is on rising rates of crime downtown, governed by the council.

“There’s just a lot of people that don’t go downtown,” Miles said. “That has affected the business community.”

Tying the issue of crime and homelessness together confuses the issue, Conroy said.

“It’s a discomfort issue,” she said. “People are uncomfortable with the sight of people visibly in suffering. That doesn’t make it a crime issue.”

Other observers have seen issues such as the Legislature’s action on police reform brought to bear in local races, often suggesting that support for changes in the way officers perform their jobs are linked with the political buzzword phrase of “defund the police.”

Those appeals are emotionally powerful, Donovan said, even if the logical link between reforms and increased crime are suspect.

“It’s kind of like the Legislature threw them a softball,” he said. “Whether or not the crime increasing is associated with those bills is highly contestable. But that’s what the message has been.”

Donovan pointed to examples in news releases from law enforcement about crime investigations making reference to changes in state law, evidence that he has seen in Western Washington that has been seen in Spokane. In December, Spokane Valley police issued one of many news releases announcing an investigation into burglaries that said a pursuit of a suspect in the area had been terminated “due to the recent state legislative reform laws.” The truck was later found abandoned nearby, and an arrest was made.

Miles specifically mentioned the Spokane City Council and what she believes are lenient judges at the courthouse as the reasons for increased crime and suggested that argument would bring out Republican voters in November.

“We’ll see some turnover and maybe some movement, but they’re still going to be at the mercy of the policies of the left,” she said.

Michael Baumgartner, the Republican county treasurer and former state legislator, also predicted a backlash at the local level.

“I think (the Democrats) are going to have a very tough time living down their embrace of increased crime and lawlessness,” Baumgartner said, later referencing high-profile incidents in San Francisco and Seattle. “I do think it will be significant in our local elections.”

But City Councilman Zack Zappone, who was subject to campaign attacks centered around his position on funding for police agencies, said the simple narrative that may spur people to vote doesn’t reflect the more complicated community discussion.

“The fact is that Democrats are not defunding police,” said Zappone, who signed a pledge in 2020 to “redirect police department funding to community-based alternatives.”

“We are investing and improving public safety.”

Zappone said any argument about funding for police would be “misinformation,” as the City Council voted last year to increase the department’s budget by 6%.

Conroy said the slate of candidates for county commission should give voters more choice, and that those who’ve put their names in will have new ideas that are needed to address crime, living conditions and the cost of goods. Attacks against Democrats, writ large, by local Republicans indicate that they don’t have a clear argument to make to voters based on what they’ve done, Conroy said.

“I think they don’t want to run on their own record,” she said.

Faced with problems that are complicated, data shows voters often act based on emotion, Pirch said. The simplest explanation for this fall’s election outcomes could be exasperation and trying to vote out those responsible. The question is who voters will blame when they fill out their ballot.

“I just feel like, another explanation that people haven’t discussed, is a general frustration with the state of the world, with the state of society,” he said.

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