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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Race for Spokane County Commission District 2 a battle between familiar faces. Here’s where they stand on crime, homelessness and more

Experience is a theme in the race for Spokane County Commission District 2.

Two candidates served the maximum eight years on the Spokane City Council. Another is a City Councilman now. The fourth is a consistent campaigner, although he’s never been elected.

District 2 covers east Spokane, along with three pieces of unincorporated county around the edges. The district’s politically diverse, ranging from deep red in the north to deep blue in the south, but leans Democratic overall based on past election results. It’s one of five new districts drawn during last year’s redistricting process.

For the first time, Spokane County this year will elect five commissioners instead of three. Each commissioner will represent one district, not the county as a whole.

Amber Waldref is the lone Democratic candidate for District 2.

Waldref served on the Spokane City Council from 2010 to 2017 and has worked for a handful of advocacy groups in the past 20 years.

She leads The Zone, a northeast Spokane organization that works to improve educational opportunities and end poverty. Her younger sister is Vanessa Waldref, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington.

Republican Michael Cathcart is a sitting Spokane City Councilman who won election in 2019.

Cathcart was involved in local politics long before taking office.

He’s the former executive director of Better Spokane, a pro-business group; former government affairs director for the Spokane Homebuilders Association and a one-time legislative aide to former state Sen. Michael Baumgartner.

Bob Apple was a Spokane City Councilman from 2003 to 2011. A Republican, Apple has had a handful of jobs over the years, including turns as a bar owner and contractor. He’s run for state office numerous times since the 1980s, both as a Republican and Democrat. Apple describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Glen Stockwell is another frequent candidate for office and, like Apple, has run for both major parties. He was appointed to the Ritzville City Council in the 1980s and has unsuccessfully campaigned for local, state and federal seats. Stockwell owned a trucking company before retiring and has an eclectic resumé that includes stints with International Harvester, the Coast Guard and the commercial fishing industry.

In October, Stockwell was arrested after trying to punch state Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. He was convicted of fourth-degree assault this spring and said he “accepted responsibility” for his actions.

Stockwell has one campaign priority: He wants to finish the Columbia Basin Project and irrigate an additional 400,000 acres of farmland in Eastern Washington.

While none of that farmland would be in Spokane County, Stockwell said the multibillion-dollar effort would create thousands of ancillary jobs for county residents.

Here’s a look at where the candidates stand on a variety of issues.

Should Spokane County build a new jail?

Politicians have been arguing about the Spokane County Jail for more than a decade. Repeated inmate suicides and deaths have plagued the facility in recent years.

Elected officials across the political spectrum agree the status quo at the overcrowded jail can’t continue. But not everyone agrees on the solution.

Some, especially conservatives, say the county needs to build a new jail to handle more inmates. Others, mainly progressives, say the county should focus on providing people with more mental health and addiction assistance rather than creating more cells.

“I am not in favor of a new jail,” Waldref said.

Public safety is critical and criminals must be held accountable, she said. But she added that a new jail would be incredibly expensive and wouldn’t necessarily make the community safer.

“For that kind of money, we could really put into place some innovative programming that invests in kids and adults early in our community and prevents criminal activity,” Waldref said.

Waldref touted the Spokane Regional Stabilization Center. That diversion facility, which opened this fall, provides mental health and drug addiction treatment to individuals who would otherwise go to jail.

Cathcart said a new jail is a necessity.

“The current jail is entirely unsafe. It’s unsafe for staff, it’s unsafe for those that we have locked up,” he said. “We have to have a bigger jail.”

Cathcart said he won’t support a new jail unless it includes mental health and drug treatment services. He said he’d also want those services to be accessible to the general public, not exclusively inmates.

Apple said he’s unsure if the county needs a new jail, and he would want to have a more thorough understanding of the jail population before committing.

“Do we need a new jail or do we need to fix the one we got?” he asked. “We have a lot of things to look over.”

The county shouldn’t consider a new facility unless it has state and federal funding to build it, Apple said.

Stockwell said he agrees with Cathcart, but adds a caveat.

“I don’t know that I’m ready to say ‘build,’ ” he said. “You have a lot of empty facilities in Spokane that you could purchase, probably, and remodel and probably save millions and millions of dollars.”

Racial disparities in criminal justice

Spokane County locks up people of color at far higher rates than white people.

According to a 2017 analysis by the JFA Institute, a Black person in Spokane County is 13 times more likely to be jailed than a white person, and Native Americans are 6.5 times more likely to be jailed.

Cathcart said he believes the criminal justice system should avoid incarcerating people whenever possible.

“If you’re a first-time offender, a second-time offender, I get it,” he said. “Let’s do everything in our power to keep you out of jail, because jail is going to make you a better criminal.”

But public safety can’t be sacrificed and crime can’t go unpunished, Cathcart said.

“We have a right to live in a safe community,” he said, adding that he believes many repeat offenders are treated too leniently.

Apple said the criminal justice system should treat everyone the same, regardless of race.

“If they commit an assault, they’ve got to go to jail, too,” he said, echoing Cathcart’s concern about leniency. “We need to enforce the laws equally.”

Stockwell’s response mirrored Apple’s. Everyone should be treated the same no matter their skin color, he said.

“I believe that every man and woman should have equal rights on the street to not be harmed in any nature,” he said.

“I think it’s the responsibility of the government to protect them.”

But he added that he’s not sure any racial disparities exist within the criminal justice system.

“A lot of people that I’ve seen in life cry racial disparity to get benefits,” he said.

Waldref said the county can do more to reduce racial disparities both within the criminal justice system and outside it.

She acknowledged that people of color are charged at higher rates and spend more time in jail.

“It’s not OK,” she said.

Waldref said the county could direct more funding toward education to improve opportunities for disadvantaged kids. She said assisting organizations such as the Carl Maxey Center and Latinos en Spokane would be one way.

“It’s not just in our criminal justice system, it’s in our education system,” she said.

Should a medical doctor serve on the health board?

This fall, the Spokane County commissioners reformed the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health.

They had to reform the board to comply with a law the state Legislature passed in 2021 that requires health boards to have an equal number of elected and unelected members.

The man who wrote the law, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said he wanted to depoliticize health boards, which have had authority over public health decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How the commissioners reformed the board caused controversy. They opted for fewer members, kicking off Spokane and Spokane Valley’s representatives. They also put Alycia Policani, a naturopathic doctor, on the board instead of a medical doctor. Multiple medical doctors applied for the position.

Waldref and Stockwell said the health board should definitely include a doctor. Waldref added that Spokane and Spokane Valley should have a seat at the table.

Apple said having a medical doctor “would be nice,” but isn’t a must so long as the board has a representative from the hospital industry.

Cathcart said he’d be open to appointing a medical doctor if given the opportunity.

“I think it’s really important that you have the most qualified people on there,” he said, adding that the new board complies with the law and he’s not opposed to its smaller size.

Mask mandates

Would any of the candidates support a mask mandate if the county’s hospitals again filled up with COVID-19 patients?

Three said no.

Waldref said she’d support one if it were needed to keep the community safe and recommended by the health officer.

“I would look to our health officer for advice on the best practices we can use to stop the spread,” she said. “I know that people are tired of masks. I get tired of masks. But quite frankly, they work. They do reduce the spread of disease and I hope we don’t have to go there again.”

Cathcart said he doesn’t think mask mandates are enforceable, and they don’t make sense now that vaccines are widely available.

Apple and Stockwell said they don’t think masks work.

“It’s like wearing a chain-link fence and stopping flies from getting in,” Apple said. “Unless it’s proved to me that it’ll actually work, I have to fight against it completely. They need to convince me. I need evidence.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend individuals wear masks when flying or traveling on public transit, and numerous studies show that masking reduces community spread of COVID-19.

How should the county handle homelessness?

Apple said he believes the county should focus on treating drug addiction as a means of addressing homelessness.

He said the county should lobby for a state-funded addiction treatment center that would be open to all county residents. Tax revenue from marijuana and alcohol sales should pay for the center, he said.

“The money’s there,” Apple said.

Stockwell said he empathizes with people experiencing homelessness, having briefly relied on welfare at one point.

“I think what we need to do is give them a helping hand up for employment,” he said. “I think that we can find work for them to do. I think it should be required. What we don’t need is people lying around.”

Waldref said she thinks the county should play a more active role in the regional homelessness discussion, rather than letting Spokane handle the problem largely on its own with the county’s financial backing.

Some of the $101 million the county got through the American Rescue Plan should go toward homelessness, Waldref said. She said she’d also like the region’s governments to develop a better system for tracking and sharing real-time data relevant to homelessness.

Cathcart shared Waldref’s view that the county should lead a more collaborative, regional homelessness response. Spokane shouldn’t manage homelessness on its own, Cathcart said.

He said he’d like to adopt a new approach for getting people out of homelessness.

“We need to create an incentive model that basically says, ‘Hey, if you exit a certain number of folks from homelessness, we’re going to provide you with more resources, more funding,’ ” Cathcart said. “We’re going to incentivize good outcomes.”