There is little doubt what Spokane candidates for mayor think the top issue is in the mind of city voters.
Candidate campaign ads, debates and news conferences have focused squarely on homelessness and have been for weeks.
And perhaps that should be no surprise given the spike in people living on Spokane’s streets, in camps and in shelters.
Mayor Nadine Woodward says she’s worked hard to make it more difficult to be homeless in the face of a federal court decision and City Council with different strategies.
Her opponent, Lisa Brown, says Woodward has made the problem worse in her nearly four years in office while wasting money on failed solutions.
Brown is leaning heavily on her decades of experience that includes state Senate majority leader, chancellor of Washington State University-Spokane, and director of the state Commerce Department, as she hopes to persuade voters that she is the better path forward for Spokane. Woodward believes voters will recognize the work she has done to fulfill her key campaign promises in 2019, namely to address public safety and visible homelessness.
Every other Spokane issue and candidate on the November ballot sits in the shadow of this year’s mayoral election and the more than $1 million being raised to buoy either candidate’s campaign and sink the other’s.
Both candidates have raised over $400,000, besting the previous record for a Spokane mayor’s race held by former Mayor David Condon, who raised $395,000 in 2015.
But Woodward has the clear campaign finance advantage, thanks to independent political campaigns criticizing Brown and boosting Woodward from the National Association of Realtors and Spokane Good Government Alliance, an organization that has spent significantly to support conservative candidates for local office since 2019. It, for instance, issued a media release Thursday asking: “Can We Trust Lisa Brown and her Radical Slate of Candidates to Support Law Enforcement?”
Candidates for City Council have, intentionally or not, clearly fallen under the auspice of either the Brown or Woodward camps.
The incumbent, who has asked voters to elect council members more likely to support her vision for the city than the liberal supermajority, closely aligns with Michael Cathcart, Earl Moore, Katey Treloar and Kim Plese. The Woodward slate has unanimously voiced support for Proposition 1, which would significantly restrict where the homeless could camp in the city, and most support Measure 1, which would impose a 0.2% sales tax to raise $1.7 billion for Spokane County and local cities to, in part, build two new jails.
The challenger has campaigned alongside Lindsey Shaw, Kitty Klitzke, Paul Dillon and Betsy Wilkerson. Brown and affiliated candidates have unanimously said they do not support Measure 1 or Proposition 1.
Whether local voters will elect the candidates as a slate or split their tickets remains to be seen. In 2019, Woodward beat opponent Ben Stuckart by fewer than 900 votes, while the Woodward-aligned Cindy Wendle lost the City Council president race to progressive candidate Breean Beggs by a nearly identical margin. Beggs and Woodward frequently clashed before Beggs left the City Council in July to serve as a Spokane County Superior Court judge.
Neither Brown nor Woodward left the August primary with an overwhelming lead. Brown received 47.5% of the vote to Woodward’s 36.6%, while conservative Tim Archer received nearly 12.9%. Archer attacked Woodward from her right, but as primary election results rolled in, the Woodward campaign immediately declared victory and stated it assumed Archer’s voters would support the mayor over Brown come November.
There were 2,390 homeless people in Spokane County in January, a 36% increase from the same time last year, according to the annual countywide point-in-time count.
Long before either candidate announced she would run in 2023, the two clashed frequently over the Camp Hope homeless encampment, once the largest in the state. Woodward and Brown repeatedly criticized the other’s response to the encampment, with Brown arguing that Woodward preferred making a political show rather that working toward a collaborative, long-term solution. Woodward claimed the encampment could have been closed far sooner if the Commerce Department, then helmed by Brown, hadn’t dragged its feet in what she said was a deliberate attempt to embarrass Woodward.
After the encampment closed in June, but as the mayoral campaigns gathered steam, Woodward took to claiming the 2021 protest that evolved into Camp Hope was deliberately engineered to tar the mayor’s administration and to help Brown get elected. Woodward has further claimed that closure was delayed so service providers like Jewels Helping Hands and its founder, Julie Garcia, could try and hurt her administration.
Brown has called this a baseless conspiracy theory meant to distract from Woodward’s failure to provide sufficient shelter for the homeless, which Brown argues was the true impetus for Camp Hope.
The challenger has further argued that the encampment could have been closed humanely and more quickly if Woodward had focused on “coordination, not litigation.”
Brown said this was a fundamental misrepresentation of Commerce’s role, saying that the agency would have only prevented Jewels from being selected as a subcontractor at the encampment if there was evidence of fraud, as was the case with the Guardians Foundation, which the city contracted with in 2022 to run the Trent Avenue shelter.
Brown and Woodward each have argued that the other has wasted millions in their approaches to reducing homelessness in the city.
Woodward has said Commerce squandered $24 million of the state’s Rights of Way Safety Initiative on various programs to house those previously living at Camp Hope, and claimed that the roughly $13 million spent on the Trent Avenue shelter, Woodward’s key initiative to provide shelter to those staying at Camp Hope, has been more successful at getting people into housing.
More than 70% of funds dedicated by Commerce went to projects proposed by Spokane city leaders, while the remaining 30% went to projects proposed by the Empire Health Foundation or the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium.
City spokesperson Brian Coddington wrote in a Thursday text that 53 people have transitioned from the Trent shelter into housing, including 41 who have been placed in permanent housing.
As of the end of June, 72 people who stayed at Camp Hope have moved into housing, including 41 who have been placed in permanent housing, according to data maintained by the Low Income Housing Consortium.
On multiple occasions, including on the 2019 campaign trail, Woodward has argued that the rise in homelessness is in large part due to services that made it “easy to be homeless,” coupled with lax government enforcement.
“We make it easy to be homeless, and I know that’s not a popular thing for some people to hear,” Woodward said in 2022 as the City Council considered adopting stricter rules for the homeless camping on city property. “These ordinances and their updates are not to push people around, but it is to push them into assistance and to the services that they need to get them off the street, out of viaducts and off of fields.”
She echoed that sentiment in recent news conferences announcing that the city will support a legal challenge against Martin v. Boise, the 2018 legal precedent that forced cities to offer shelter beds to enforce blanket bans on the homeless camping on public property, and an enforcement campaign focused on the troubled downtown at Second Avenue and Division Street. Without a strong police response to those who don’t seek services, Woodward has argued that many will continue to languish in addiction and squalor.
Brown also blames government failures in part for contributing to the sharp rise of homelessness in recent decades, but points to a deterioration of government services from Section 8 vouchers and public housing at the federal level to a deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals that started in the 1960s and progressed without a viable alternative .
She also points to changes in the real estate market that ended single-room occupancy hotels, which were once common in Spokane and provided a low-cost housing option for those with little income.
“If we don’t do structural things to address behavioral health and housing supply, there will be more homeless people,” Brown said.
Brown acknowledges that challenges leading to homelessness are complicating and not easy to resolve.
“I don’t expect that people are going to say, ‘Wow, Lisa Brown fixed homelessness,’ ” she said. “I hope and believe that we can get on a track where people see where we’re headed, and that it’s better.”
Brown believes that the Trent shelter has been an ineffective boondoggle that has put the city’s finances at risk. On Thursday, her campaign urged city officials to begin the process of winding down the facility by the end of next year, arguing that a better long-term solution would involve smaller facilities, some of which likely would be similar to the Walla Walla model of tiny home shelters that has been adopted in several communities east of the Cascades.
While this would entail placing some of the shelters in neighborhoods – Woodward has said a key reason the Trent shelter was the best option was due to sharp opposition to placing a facility in residential areas – Brown argues that residents may be willing to accept a temporary program long enough for the city to spur the development of permanent and transitional housing for the homeless.
Part of the possible proposals Brown said she is willing to consider is a controversial “safe parking” program, which would create a legal place for those living in their cars to stay overnight with some degree of presence from security and service provider personnel.
Bellevue has moved forward with a safe parking program that would allow those living in their cars to have a safe, legal place to park overnight while connecting to services to get them permanently into housing, Brown noted.
That city has dedicated up to $450,000 per year over two years for the program, but has been unable to find a service provider willing to operate the lot on city-owned property, The Seattle Times wrote in May.
Brown stated she would discuss such a program with the community if she’s elected before one would be implemented. In any case, she added, she would be likely to work with a nonprofit or find a city-owned lot if such a program were to move forward.
Woodward has seized on this, arguing at a September news conference that Brown would create “a Camp Hope in parking lots across our city” that neighborhoods would not accept.
Woodward argues that her leadership and strong relationship with the police department has contributed to a drop in crime downtown.
At the start of the year, Woodward and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl unveiled a major reorganization of the police department, placing a greater emphasis on patrol and reducing response times, particularly downtown.
In June, Woodward unveiled her plan to boost law enforcement activity in downtown ahead of the summer tourist season. Brown released her own public safety plan, saying the city under Woodward was in “freefall.”
Brown has pointed to police statistics such as response times – misleadingly, Woodward has argued – that she says show the mayor has failed to keep her promises to improve public safety.
Brown has pledged to improve response times and to regularly publish statistics on that improvement to hold herself accountable. She has called for a return to neighborhood resource officers, which Woodward scrapped in favor of increased patrols, and dedicated traffic enforcement officers.
Brown has argued that the city could reduce some of the burden borne by the police department by expanding crisis intervention programs and tackling youth gangs and crime by creating programs similar to the Walk About Yakima program.
Woodward has argued that state Democrats, with whom Brown has long been affiliated, have contributed to increased crime and difficulties recruiting officers through reforms Woodward believes weakened the capacity of law enforcement. She points to statements Brown has made supporting a stronger Office of the Police Ombudsman, which provides oversight for the department.
“With Lisa Brown as mayor, there will be a mass exodus from our police department,” Woodward said in June.
The city faces an approximately $20 million hole it needs to fill in the 2024 budget.
Woodward has blamed the pandemic, skyrocketing costs driven by inflation and a tight labor market, forces outside of her control to which she argues she responded as best as could be expected. She defended her unwillingness to discuss spending cuts with the City Council earlier in her term and criticized the growing costs of the council’s office, to which she referred as a “shadow government,” and what she saw as the council’s frivolous spending on “rainbow crosswalks,” such as the Pride flag intersection recently painted near Riverfront Park.
Brown has been quick to lay the blame for the city’s budget woes at the mayor’s feet, as have Brown’s allies on the City Council, arguing Woodward did little to correct the city’s spending or acknowledge the depth of the hole it was headed toward.
Brown acknowledged that a tight labor market and problems inherited from the Condon administration likely left Woodward with little choice but to accept generous contracts with city unions during her term, which greatly contributed to the city’s expenses growing faster than revenues.
“I do believe that that was something the Condon administration just sort of pushed forward to the next administration,” Brown said. “I’m sympathetic to that piece, but when you put those contracts forward, you should be putting forward how we’re going to pay for them.”