They’re both conservatives, but in a lot of ways Josh Kerns and “Wild Bill” Schreiner are political opposites.
The former has name recognition, more than $40,000 in campaign donations and nearly six years of experience as a Spokane County commissioner. The latter is virtually unknown, has less than $1,000 in his war chest and has never held office.
Voters will decide this November if they want the political veteran or the outsider to represent Spokane County Commission District 3.
District 3 is largely rural, comprising the northern part of the county and Spokane Valley’s northern half. It’s one of five county commission districts created during last fall’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, which makes policy decisions and decides how to spend taxpayer dollars.
Under the new setup, each commissioner will represent an individual district, not the entire county. The end of the countywide general election will also, in all likelihood, allow the Democratic Party to win at least one commission seat for the first time in over a decade.
Democrats won’t win District 3, though. Not a single Democrat entered the race and even if one had, their odds of victory would have been slim. Northern Spokane County is deep red, with more than 60% of voters typically preferring Republicans.
Kerns, the de facto incumbent, heads into the general election as the heavy favorite. The Republican, who first won election to the county commission in 2016, took home 78% of the vote in the August primary election.
Schreiner, who got 21% of the vote in a contest that was largely symbolic because he and Kerns were the only two on the ballot, will have to win over thousands of Kerns supporters if he’s going to gain office. He’s unofficially running as a Republican but will appear on the ballot without a party affiliation. Schreiner said he wanted to file as a GOP candidate but decided against it because he didn’t have the Spokane County Republican Party’s backing.
Kerns, 37, got into politics 14 years ago after closely following the run-up to the 2008 election and deciding to attend the Republican Party’s local presidential caucus.
A Spokane County Republican Party leader at the gathering asked him if he wanted to be a precinct committee officer, or PCO.
“I was like, ‘Sure. What’s a PCO?’ ” Kerns said, chuckling.
Soon after, Kerns started working for state-level legislators, both as a campaign manager and aide. At different times he worked for Kevin Parker, John Ahern and Jeff Holy, all Republican lawmakers for the 6th Legislative District.
Kerns said he believes in low taxes and limited government. On the campaign trail he’s emphasizing his commitment to economic development, public safety and budgetary transparency.
Schreiner, 60, works in Spokane’s code enforcement department.
He’s spent much of his life in construction, building houses, roads and other infrastructure projects. At one point, Schreiner had a business that staffed and supplied casinos in Arizona. He earned the “Wild Bill” moniker during his time as a cargo plane pilot.
Schreiner said he couldn’t define where his views fall on the political spectrum but said he will be responsive to constituents if elected and supports fiscal conservatism.
“I’m going to go through that budget like a fine-toothed comb,” he said. “I’m going to make sure we’re not getting Tonka trucks.”
Schreiner said his background in blue-collar jobs has given him valuable life experience other county commissioners lack.
“It’s different when you walk the coals,” he said.
Policywise, Schreiner mentioned a few priorities, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest: Roads.
County roads are poorly maintained and need greater investment, Schreiner said.
Despite their differences, Kerns and Schreiner’s views align in a few ways.
They both say the county should bargain in public with its unions, as opposed to negotiating behind closed doors. The county remains at an impasse with its largest union over that issue.
The two conservatives also share broadly similar views on how the county should address racial disparities within its criminal justice system.
According to a 2017 analysis by the JFA Institute, Black people in Spokane County are 13 times more likely to be jailed than white people, and Native Americans are 6.5 times more likely to be jailed.
Kerns and Schreiner said they believe the county’s criminal justice system should treat everyone equally, regardless of skin color.
“That’s the basis of our legal system in this country,” Kerns said, emphasizing that the county commissioners only have budgetary power and lack authority over judges and prosecutors.
Schreiner said he doesn’t think the issue is complicated.
“Be colorblind,” he said.
Both candidates said dangerous people need to be locked up in order to keep the community safe, but they have different thoughts on whether the county should build a new jail.
Politicians have argued about the Spokane County Jail for more than a decade as inmates have repeatedly died at the facility. Elected officials from both major parties agree the facility is dangerous and overcrowded, but they propose different solutions.
Many conservatives say building a new jail with more cells would be better for inmates and improve public safety. Many liberals say adding jail capacity won’t improve public safety, and taxpayer dollars would be better spent on addiction and mental health treatment resources.
Kerns supports building a new jail. It could provide more space for in-jail programming that would help reduce recidivism, he said.
“I think we’ve moved beyond the question of, ‘Do we need one?’ ” Kerns said. “Yes, we do, now the question has shifted to, ‘How big does it need to be?’ and ‘What services need to be available in the facility?’ ”
Schreiner said he doesn’t know if the county should build a new jail.
The two candidates have different takes on Superior Court judiciary staffing levels.
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 last 25 years, Spokane County has gained an additional 140,000 residents, but the number of Superior Court judges hasn’t changed .
Schreiner adamantly opposes adding another judge. He said judges don’t handle as many cases as they should.
“I’ve never seen a brow of sweat on them,” he said. “They’re not hard-worked. They are freaking slow.”
Kerns said he doesn’t yet know if he supports adding a 13th judge. Adding one more might not significantly speed up the criminal justice system, he said.
“It’s going to come down to what the overall, all-in cost is,” he said. “I want to make sure we can afford it long-term.”
Kerns and Schreiner’s homelessness talking points don’t overlap at all.
Schreiner said he wants the county to offer homeless individuals a patch of undeveloped ground where they can safely camp. He said the county should also provide the homeless with cellphones and internet access so long as they “earn it” by cleaning up their “mess.”
Kerns said he believes the county already does a lot to address homelessness. He noted the county sends funding it receives through the state and federal government to Spokane. He also pointed out that the county paid for the Salvation Army’s Way Out shelter and helps fund the city’s Cannon Street shelter.
Schreiner and Kerns have diverging opinions on the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health roster.
The county commissioners last fall reorganized the health board, in response to a law the Legislature passed in 2021. The new board had to include an equal number of elected and unelected representatives.
Two of the commissioners’ decisions caused controversy. First, they removed Spokane and Spokane Valley’s dedicated seats. Second, they appointed a naturopathic doctor to serve as the board’s lone medical provider and public health representative. Multiple medical doctors applied for the position.
Schreiner said the board should include a medical doctor.
Kerns defended his vote for a naturopathic doctor.
“The naturopaths interviewed better. They came off that they would be much more engaged board members,” he said. “I’m not opposed to appointing an M.D. to the board if they’re the best candidate.”
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