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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Democrat Yates looks to unseat Republican French in race that could shift balance of power on the Spokane County Commission

Republicans have controlled the Spokane County Commission since the 21st century began.

Winning commissioner races has given conservatives power over county government. It’s allowed them to write Spokane County’s laws, decide how to spend taxpayer dollars and set the county’s more than $650 million budget.

But if Democrat Maggie Yates unseats Republican Al French in the race for Spokane County Commission District 5 during next month’s election, the balance of power in Spokane County could shift in an instant.

French, 71, has been a fixture in Spokane politics for 20 years. An architect by trade, he spent eight years on the Spokane City Council in the 2000s before winning election to the county commission in 2010. Economic development has been one of French’s priorities while in office, and he has hefty financial backing from contractors and home builders. 

Yates, 34, is a Lewis and Clark High School graduate and longtime criminal justice reform advocate. She’s worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the MacArthur Justice Center and a legal aid office in Virginia.

The Spokane County commissioners in 2018 hired Yates as the county’s regional law and justice administrator. She spent more than three years in that role, overseeing the implementation of numerous reforms, before resigning in January. While Yates has declined to elaborate on why she left, she departed after county officials had resisted several of her reform proposals.

Yates has endorsements from a slew of prominent Democrats and even a few Republicans. She says that bipartisan support demonstrates a “hunger for new leadership” at the county and shows she’s a pragmatist willing to work across the aisle.

French is highlighting his experience and track record of job creation. 

Whoever wins in November will represent a politically diverse district.

District 5 includes the West Plains as well as northwest Spokane and the South Hill above 29th Avenue. It’s one of five districts drawn during last year’s redistricting process.

Spokane County had to switch from three to five commissioners to comply with a law the Washington Legislature passed in 2018. The change will fundamentally alter the county commission.

Under the new setup, each commissioner will represent one district, not the entire county. The end of the countywide general election may also allow Democrats to win at least one commission seat for the first time since 2006.

Based on past election results, French should be the favorite. In recent years, District 5 voters have preferred Republicans by a handful of percentage points.

But Yates has mounted an unusually strong campaign for a political rookie who lacks name recognition.

She led the field during the August primary election with 44.5% of the vote. French was right on her heels with 41.1%.

On election night, French said he felt good about those numbers – and with good reason. Fellow Republican Don Harmon, a former Airway Heights mayor, had taken 11.4% of the vote.

It wasn’t unreasonable to think Harmon’s supporters would swing French’s way in the general election and carry him to victory.

But Harmon has endorsed Yates. His 3,500 voters from the primary could decide who wins District 5.

They could also decide which political party ends up winning a majority on the county commission.

Based on primary results, Democrats are favored to win districts 1 and 2, which cover most of Spokane. Republicans likely will take districts 3 and 4, which include Spokane Valley and large portions of the county’s rural areas (no Democrat is even on the ballot in those districts). District 5 appears likely to be the closest of the commissioner contests.

That gives District 5 outsized significance. The stakes are high, and campaign donors seem to realize it.

Yates has collected $177,000 from more than 800 donations, putting her on pace to raise more money than any candidate for county office in more than a decade.

French, one of the strongest fundraisers among recent local politicians, has $140,000 in his war chest from about 250 donations, although more than $20,000 of that comes from in-kind donations he’s given himself.

Where they stand

French and Yates have criticized each other on the campaign trail.

Yates says French has been in office far too long. French says Yates is unqualified to be a commissioner.

While the two don’t agree on much, their views overlap in a couple of ways.

Both say Spokane County needs more housing, and they’ve both pledged not to raise property taxes. Yates also wants to spend some of the county’s $101 million in American Rescue Plan funding on a pilot program that would expand eligibility for the senior citizen property tax exemption.

Overall, French and Yates are making significantly different pitches to voters.

French says his experience has helped give the community a major boost. He takes credit for the formation of the West Plains public development area and the new Amazon facility near Airway Heights – Amazon has donated to his campaign.

“I deliver creative results, solutions that nobody else in the state of Washington has been able to implement,” he said. “I’m not going to offer you rainbows and unicorns, I can’t deliver on that. What I tell you I can do, I have done.”

Yates is telling voters that child care will be one of her top priorities. She’s said she wants to use American Rescue Plan dollars to make child care more accessible and affordable.

The Democrat is also accusing French of prioritizing development to the detriment of taxpayers. She’s blamed the Republican for traffic congestion in the Latah Valley. Proper planning and infrastructure investment could have prevented the problem, Yates says.

French pointed out that the Latah Valley is largely within the city limits and outside of the county’s jurisdiction. He said any infrastructure shortcomings in the area are the fault of those who succeeded him on the Spokane City Council.

Homelessness is another topic on which French and Yates disagree.

Spokane County’s homeless population has risen 13% in the last two years according to the point-in-time count, an annual homelessness survey. The unsheltered population – those who don’t have a roof over their heads – has risen 52%.

French said the county does its part to address homelessness by sending Spokane the money it receives through the state and federal government. The city uses those dollars to support shelter operations.

Yates said passing money along to Spokane isn’t enough.

“I think the status quo in terms of the county’s position and approach to homelessness is an abdication of their responsibility,” Yates said. “I would prioritize a regional approach to homelessness.”

During a Tuesday commissioner meeting, French voted to sue the Washington State Department of Transportation in an effort to disband Camp Hope, a homeless encampment along Interstate 90 in east Spokane.

Public safety

Both candidates say public safety is their No. 1 priority, but they approach the issue from dramatically different perspectives.

French is presenting himself as the tough-on-crime candidate. He said he’s proud to be endorsed by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and committed to fully funding the sheriff’s office.

He’s also in favor of building a new jail.

The Spokane County Jail has been politically divisive for years. Inmate deaths and suicides have long plagued the facility. Elected officials across the political spectrum agree the jail is overcrowded and dangerous, but they can’t agree on a solution.

Many Republicans, including French, say a new jail with more cells would be safer for inmates, reduce operational costs and help keep dangerous criminals off the streets.

Many Democrats, including Yates, say a new jail would cost taxpayers millions and wouldn’t improve public safety. They say the county should instead invest in community-based resources that create economic opportunities, as well as mental health and addiction treatment to combat recidivism.

Yates said rising crime rates are a major concern, but believes the county’s current public safety approach is flawed.

She notes that the county spends more than $150 million a year on law enforcement and public safety, but 60% to 70% of offenders return to jail.

“That is a clear sign that what we’re doing right now is not working effectively to disrupt the cycle of arrest and actually increase safety and stability in the community,” she said in June. “And it’s failing at a significant cost to taxpayers.”

French says he too supports mental health and addiction treatment investments. He points to the new Spokane Regional Stabilization Center as a sign of progress. That 50-bed facility, funded by the county, city and state, serves as a detox and mental health site for people who would otherwise be sitting in jail.

The candidates have different philosophies on how to reduce racial disparities in Spokane County’s criminal justice system.

While 2% of county residents are Black, Black inmates as of Aug. 31 make up 14% of the county jail population.

French says there’s little the county commissioners can do about those disparities. The commissioners only control court budgets, he says.

“I’m the landlord in the jail,” French said in June. “I don’t sentence people to jail. It comes from our courts.”

Yates says commissioners do have the ability to address racial disparities. She said the reforms she helped implement while serving as regional law and justice administrator, such as a program that gives defendants court date reminders and another that provides people with transportation to court, are part of the solution.

French and Yates also disagree on whether Spokane County should add a 13th Superior Court judge.

The Legislature in 1997 authorized Spokane County to add a 12th and 13th Superior Court judge. The state pays half of the judge’s salary while the county pays the rest and the salaries of judicial staff.

In the past 25 years, Spokane County has gained an additional 140,000 residents, but the number of judges on the bench hasn’t changed.

Yates supports adding a 13th judge. She said it would save taxpayer dollars by decreasing the number of people who sit in jail awaiting trial.

“I think it’s an incredibly effective investment,” she said. “Adding another judge will improve case processing times, which currently lag behind state standards.”

French won’t commit to funding a 13th Superior Court judge.

He said adding the position would cost about $900,000 annually. On top of that, he said court cases have decreased since 2021 when a state Supreme Court ruling made it harder for prosecutors to charge people for drug possession. He also stressed that Superior Court has multiple court commissioners who have powers of a judge and pick up the slack.

The county doesn’t have physical space for another judge either, French said.

“Even if I had a 13th judge,” he said, “I don’t have a courtroom to put them in.”