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Shawn Vestal: Bulldozer politics aren’t well-suited for the new County Commission

The Spokane County Commission, now a five-member body, meets for the first time Jan. 10, electing Mary Kuney, seen on the large screen TV at upper right, as the new chair. The commissioners are, from left, Amber Waldref (newly elected), Josh Kerns, Chris Jordan (newly elected), Al French and Mary Kuney (on the screen).  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

“If you could tee up the PowerPoint for me, I’d appreciate it.”

–County Commissioner Al French, at last week’s County Commission meeting

If you thought that the departure of Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich meant the end of vindictive, score-settling slideshow presentations in county government, then think again.

Commissioner Al French is bringing out a reboot.

French, who seems to be loudly mourning the erosion of his authority under the new five-member commission, uncorked a doozy of a slideshow at the last County Commission meeting – and accompanied it with a long, detailed, confusing, and petty detailing of airport board politics in which he dragged the former airport board chairman and the current County Commission chairwoman, Mary Kuney, through the mud.

In the end, it was hard to tell what French thought was such a big deal – a little blip over Kuney asking about some language that had been changed in a resolution, stacked on top of some old bad blood. You might have suspected he was trying to bore the other commissioners to death.

The real fuel for the grievance seems to be that Kuney had dared to offer up a potential candidate for the airport board, when French, who is the commission’s representative on the airport board, had his own candidate in mind.

The gall!

You can already tell: This new era is going to be very difficult for French.

Bulldozing people just isn’t going to work.

You had the sense that French understood this from the very first – vocally opposing the proposal by Rep. Marcus Riccelli in 2018 to expand the commission from three members elected on a countywide ballot to five members elected by district. The former system all but guaranteed a GOP-lockstep commission; the new lineup retains a 3-2 Republican majority, which does a much better job of reflecting the population of the county and representing the whole community.

French won a nail-biter for re-election in his first election in the district system, but the first month of this new regime has been a tough one for a leader widely known – particularly but not only among his political opponents – as a bully and a bridge-burner, and someone with an almost royal sense of his own authority.

An Inlander profile of French in 2014, detailing his history of clashes from the City Council to the County Commission, was titled “The Bulldozer.” It included praise for his ability to get things done alongside some of the harshest criticisms you’ll ever see in local politics. Former City Council President Joe Shogan called him “the worst individual I ever met.”

For all intents and purposes, the Bulldozer drove the agenda of the County Commission for years. Even when he wasn’t holding the chairman’s gavel, you had the sense he was holding the reins.

Well, the reins have been yanked from his hands, and he doesn’t like it one bit. One of the first decisions made by the new commission was the selection of a chair. The two new Democrats on the board, Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan, voted with Kuney to select Kuney for the role – to howls of outrage from French and Josh Kerns.

“She sided with the Democrats,” French said. Kerns complained that Kuney missed or Zoomed in to too many meetings. Both claimed, absurdly, that Kuney had ushered in a new Democratic majority.

If that’s a stretch, though, it’s not hard to imagine a new alliance that might arise on French’s scorched earth. Because what you see in the accumulation of slights lobbed against Kuney is the strategic dead end of bulldozer politics.

When you try to run people over, after all, you either get your way or you make enemies.

Make big enough enemies, and pretty soon they buddy up with your other enemies.

French simply hasn’t had to worry about this much, but now he does. His slideshow and half-hour lament about the airport board – over a matter that seemed blatantly minor – was a stark reminder of the way that Knezovich had increasingly deployed PowerPoints during his last couple of years in office.

These public displays by the sheriff – at public forums, in YouTube videos, during news conferences – were marked by his thin-skinned frustrations at anyone who didn’t see things through Ozzie-colored glasses. He tried to bully citizens, critics, activists, Democratic politicians, reporters, judges, lawmakers …

The PowerPoints were always an odd element of this authoritarian stagecraft, given that PowerPoints are weapons of intense dullness, hallmarks of sleepy conference presentations and boring lectures. Deploying them in an effort to quash dissent, silence critics and prove your unchallengeable correctness in all things just seemed bizarre.

But the slideshow itself isn’t really the issue as much as the spirit of these demonstrations – the spirit of one speaking at people, not with them.

That spirit seems unlikely to work on a five-member board. Which doesn’t mean The Bulldozer won’t keep trying.

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