Two familiar names are facing off in November to represent Spokane County Commission District 2.
Democrat Amber Waldref spent eight years on the Spokane City Council from 2010 to 2017. Republican Michael Cathcart started serving on the council in 2020.
District 2 is primarily urban, covering all of east Spokane and three chunks of unincorporated county outside the city limits. It leans Democratic overall, but ranges from deep red on its northern end to deep blue in the south.
This year marks the first time Spokane County voters will elect five commissioners instead of three.
The county had to transition to five commissioners due to a law the Washington Legislature passed in 2018. The change will fundamentally alter the county commission, the board that sets county policy and manages the county budget.
Under the new setup, each commissioner will represent one 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.
Waldref, 45, has a good chance at being one of those Democrats. She heads into November as the favorite after taking 55% of the vote during the August primary election. Cathcart took 33% of the vote, although the trio of Republicans on the ballot combined for 45%.
The former city councilwoman has the financial upper hand on Cathcart, too. She’s raised $105,000, nearly double the $56,000 donors have given the incumbent city councilman.
Waldref has spent much of her adult life working for local youth and environmental advocacy groups, including The Lands Council and Priority Spokane. She leads The Zone, a northeast Spokane organization that strives to reduce health, education and economic disparities for kids.
Cathcart, 36, is a longtime advocate for businesses and developers. He spent five years as executive director of Better Spokane, a pro-business organization. Before that, he was the Spokane Home Builders Association’s government affairs director.
Waldref describes herself as a “practical” politician who focuses on making data-driven decisions.
“I have a big vision for where I think our community can be and I go about that pretty pragmatically,” she said.
The Democrat said improving economic opportunities for all county residents is one of her top two priorities, along with public safety.
“I want to make sure that we’re making decisions that remove barriers, so everyone can stay financially stable, safe and healthy,” Waldref said. “That means understanding which households are struggling and making sure we are making investments in the community to support those households.”
Cathcart describes himself as a fiscal conservative and said he’d be responsive to constituents if elected.
On the campaign trail, the Republican is stressing his commitment to government transparency and public safety.
“We have a right to live in a safe community, and I feel like that has really kind of been put on the back burner,” Cathcart said. “We have to get back to focusing on that.”
Public safety may be the topic the two candidates differ on most. For instance, they disagree on whether Spokane County should build a new jail.
Politicians have argued about the Spokane County Jail for more than a decade .
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.
Waldref opposes building a new jail. She said she believes a new facility would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Taxpayer money should go toward efforts that address the root causes of crime, Waldref said.
She said investing in after-school programs, job training, community policing, mental health treatment and addiction treatment would be more effective.
Cathcart supports building a new jail, although he said he’d insist the facility include mental health and drug addiction resources for inmates.
Spokane County’s criminal justice system must hold offenders accountable, Cathcart said.
He said he’d lobby the state Legislature to change Washington law to ensure the courts aren’t being too lenient.
“Those that deserve to be off the streets need to be,” he said. “We do not want to continue to be in a situation where we see people with multiple felonies, several convictions, and they’re still on the street victimizing the community.”
Even though they have different ideas on how to improve public safety, the two east Spokane politicians have similar views on a handful of other county issues.
For example, they agree the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health should include a medical doctor.
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.
Waldref and Cathcart also make similar points when talking about the county’s homelessness response. Both want the county to take a leadership role in a regional effort to address homelessness. They say the county should help set policy, instead of simply sending money to Spokane.
“Homelessness has tended to be a city of Spokane issue, when it is in fact a regional issue and requires regional solutions,” Cathcart said.
“The county needs to be at the table, playing a major role in supporting the development, the funding and the implementation of a regional strategy that reduces homelessness,” she said.
Cathcart and Waldref also want to help out the Spokane County Superior Court judiciary by adding a 13th Superior Court judge.
The Legislature in 1997 authorized Spokane County to add a 12th and 13th Superior Court judge, but even though the county’s population has grown by roughly 140,000 in the past quarter century, the number of judges on the bench hasn’t changed.
Adding a 13th judge to help handle more cases would come with a cost. The state pays half of the judge’s salary while the county pays the rest and the salaries of judicial staff.
The two candidates said they think the cost is worthwhile.
“Yes, there’s a cost of supporting that judge’s office, so to speak,” Waldref said. “But the return on that investment would be moving more cases quickly through the system.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.