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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Over the dinner table, Kiantha Duncan works to see the person behind the politician

Kiantha Duncan, second from upper left, listens to the discussion with a table full of friends and Spokane mayoral candidate Lisa Brown (far right) Saturday, July 8, 2023 at her Spokane Valley home, part of a series of discussions she wants to have with candidates running for local office.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The personal is political, but politics can often be quite impersonal. Between rehearsed speeches, well-polled talking points and a fear of being a bit too human – think Howard Dean’s infamous scream on the 2004 campaign trail – it can often be difficult to see the person behind the politician.

Kiantha Duncan’s Pasta and Politics are an unusual break in that pattern, not just for the politicians and candidates for public office that break bread around her table, but also for the small handful of other guests who aren’t used to talking freely about their own political views over dinner.

On a recent sweltering July evening, Spokane mayoral candidate Lisa Brown may have been the primary focus of attention, but she wasn’t the guest of honor – everyone at the table is, Duncan noted before dinner began.

“When people come and then they realize there’s not a particular person that we need to impress, all of us are the special guests, then that kind of relaxes people in a way where they’re able to really talk about the things that are important to them, and maybe laugh together or cry together,” she said in a later interview.

Some are old friends, some acquaintances, and some are complete strangers who had heard about the dinners and asked to take part.

“There’s only two rules,” she said, addressing everyone at the table. “One is that you have to be truthful. And the second is that you have an open heart and that you’re willing to get to know the other people that are at the table.”

Duncan, an activist, volunteer and former president of the Spokane NAACP, grew up in Milwaukee, one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. She became a mother at a young age and wanted to find a new environment to raise her child. She came to Spokane nine years ago but struggled to find a community.

“What I decided to do all those years ago was to be a guest,” she said. “I would learn about the people, learn what they do, who they are, what they like. And that’s literally all I like to do, bring people together.”

Dinner parties proved to be a productive way to get people to lower their guards, inviting them to reveal more about themselves and learn about others they would have otherwise likely never shared a meal with. Those dinners began to incorporate people who were entering or leaving public office, who might not have been able to openly express their personal hopes or fears heading into their term, or how frustrating or exhausting the job had really been in retrospect.

“I wanted to help people see, this is what politics in this city really looks like,” Duncan said. “It’s not just standing with the photo ops and taking the pictures, you know, cutting the ribbon – this is what you’re really going to experience.”

After a while, the dinners began to include candidates for office who hoped to one day have that job. Duncan invited both Mayor Nadine Woodward, who is running for re-election, and Brown to separate dinners. Woodward had to reschedule due to a family emergency and said Tuesday that she still planned to do so.

The dinners were also an opportunity for those politicians to hear from people in the community, not in a setting where promises were being demanded or frustrations were being relayed in anger, but where they could take their time to express their troubles and their love for their community in a personal but respectful way, Duncan said.

For the vast majority of Duncan’s guests, it’s an alien experience, she noted.

Anna Marie Martin, a grant writer and project coordinator who had never met Duncan before arriving at her home for dinner, said that she grew up believing it was impolite to talk about certain topics around the dinner table.

“But religion and politics both have this sphere of, how do we live together, what do we value, how do we take care of each other, what matters and doesn’t matter?” she said. “And if you grow up with this whole supposition where we don’t talk about that, then we’re not talking about what matters the most.”

Few tend to have more difficulty opening up than the politicians themselves, Duncan noted.

“They typically operate from a place of having talking points, having a really tight and concise campaign strategy,” she said. “And what I have learned is, sometimes those campaign strategies, while they may help you to take a district or a city, they don’t necessarily help you in one-on-one conversation.”

One candidate who Duncan didn’t name had stopped in the middle of his sentence during a previous dinner, seemingly weighing his response against how he wanted to be seen by others. After a moment, he admitted that running for office had been harder than he expected, and that he felt like he had to change who he was to be a viable candidate and juggle the demands of voters and moneyed interests.

“That was a level of vulnerability that would have never happened in a town hall style meeting,” Duncan said. “It would have never happened in an interview with press.”

There weren’t any ground shaking moments where it seemed like Brown revealed something about herself that was incongruent with how she presented herself in public, though her dinner was somewhat atypical in that a reporter was present. Early questions got answers much like what could be expected from a candidate’s website, though they included the kind of details that would be scrubbed for brevity: memorizing the Baltimore Catechism as a girl; driving west in her ’65 Chevy Impala gifted by her father to visit a boyfriend in Spokane; her early dim view of both Democrats and Republicans in her days as an activist; the difficulty of being a single mom in the Legislature.

One question from Brown in particular was one that wouldn’t be likely at a candidate forum or a debate.

“What happens if you lose?” she asked Brown.

Brown paused very briefly before saying she’d turn to her family, mentioning her grandchild and saying she has a great partner, something she hasn’t always had.

“I mean, it would hurt my ego, and it would make me sad about my city,” she said, before going on to note her qualifications and her concerns about the hostility now common in electoral politics.

The dinners have taught Duncan a lot of politics and politicians, she said a couple days later. It’s taught her to distrust people who say they have all the answers and aren’t concerned about the challenges they face, and she believes she’s gotten better at recognizing when someone wants to be in a position of power for its own sake.

But she said she’s also gotten better at seeing politicians as people, with all of the human flaws that come with that, and hopes her other dinner guests have learned to see that as well.

“If you pull back from that and saw them as a vulnerable human that are a part of your community, who have taken on a big responsibility, who are willing to lead, who don’t have all the answers and won’t always get it right … then you will either offer to help them, or you’ll shut your (dang) mouth.”