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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Support for police takes centerstage in race for Spokane City Council president

City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson faces retired businesswoman Kim Plese in the race for Spokane City Council president in the November 2023 election.

Outside of the Spokane mayoral race, no local election on the November ballot has attracted as much attention and cash as has the contest for Spokane City Council president.

While most of this year’s races have been characterized by the candidates’ proposals for addressing homelessness and crime, much of the race to lead the City Council has been focused on which candidate would be a better supporter of police.

Former small business owner Kim Plese has said her opponent, Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, and other liberal members of the City Council don’t support the police department, pointing to Wilkerson’s opposition to converting the former East Side Library into a police precinct. Wilkerson, who has said she believes Mayor Nadine Woodward unilaterally decided to move the police precinct without sufficient community consultation, argues her voting record shows clear support for police.

On the campaign trail, Wilkerson has called herself the most qualified candidate for the job, pointing to her time on the council dais and the support of most of her fellow council members.

Wilkerson, a progressive and the chosen successor of former Council President Breean Beggs and current Council President Lori Kinnear, has represented south Spokane on the City Council since 2020 and has owned and operated Moore’s Assisted Living, a residential care facility for the mentally ill, since 1993.

Wilkerson is deeply rooted in the local nonprofit world, serving as president of the board at the Carl Maxey Center in the East Central Neighborhood and previously as a member of the board at the Innovia Foundation. In June, she was elected president of the Association of Washington Cities, which lobbies on behalf of 281 cities and towns.

She has frequently campaigned alongside Lisa Brown, who is running to replace Woodward.

Plese ran unsuccessfully last year for a seat on the Spokane County Commission as a Republican, though she is now billing herself as a nonpartisan who believes the left-leaning City Council majority isn’t collaborative enough with the police department, local businesses or Woodward.

Plese was the owner and operator for 32 years of Plese Printing and Marketing, which was regularly commissioned to produce materials for local political campaigns, before selling the business last year to focus on her run for the county commission.

Plese has campaigned alongside Woodward and is largely financially supported by the same businesses and organizations.

She is endorsed by the Spokane Police Guild and Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels, among others.

With nearly $250,000, Plese’s campaign is closing in on the fundraising record set in 2019 by Cynthia Wendle, who ran unsuccessfully against Beggs. Though Wilkerson has not quite crossed the $200,000 threshold, her $192,000 is still the third-largest sum raised by a candidate for Spokane City Council president.

But spending in the race is even more heavily tilted in Plese’s favor, given the additional $276,000 spent to buoy Plese’s campaign and sink Wilkerson’s by the National Association of Realtors and the Spokane Good Government Alliance, an organization that has spent significantly to support conservative candidates for local office since 2019.

While Plese has occasionally criticized Wilkerson by name, primarily attacking her as anti-police, she has largely avoided the same kind of disparaging remarks that characterized the campaign of primary challenger Andy Rathbun, who had said he ran in part to make Wilkerson “squirm a bit.”

Plese said she has tried to avoid escalating attacks against Wilkerson because the two would have to work together if Plese is elected. Instead, many of the attacks against Wilkerson have been by proxy through the Spokane Good Government Alliance.

“Can We Trust Betsy Wilkerson To Do The Right Thing for Spokane?” that organization asked in an Oct. 3 news release and subsequent attack ads that attempted to paint Wilkerson as a radical who wanted to defund police. Wilkerson and others in the left-leaning supermajority on the City Council have bristled at this criticism, noting that they have consistently voted to increase funding for the police department and recently approved unanimously a contract for officers that includes significant yearly raises.

“Please, look at my voting record,” Wilkerson said in an interview. “That has not been my position, to defund the police, and I’ve done everything I can to promote them.”

In June, shortly before the council unanimously voted to approve a four-year contract with the Spokane Police Guild that included significant raises and hiring incentives, guild President Detective Dave Dunkin praised council members’ willingness to provide additional resources amid budget concerns.

“I’ve tried hard over the last year to change the narrative that the council doesn’t support its police, because that’s just not true,” Dunkin said. “Getting us into contract in what historically now is going to be a record time is credit to the city saying it supports its police.”

Plese has questioned whether the contract approval was timed for the election. The guild contract was set to be renewed this year, but past renewals have stalled during negotiations.

The Spokane Good Government Alliance pointed to a specific case last year when the City Council voted to increase oversight over how the department used money seized during drug investigations, which that political organization called a vote to “defund police drug investigations.”

The ordinance in question required that the City Council sign off on how the department used those civil asset forfeiture funds, and dedicated half to youth drug prevention programming.

Woodward vetoed that ordinance, arguing that the department needed those funds to pay for confidential informants, undercover vehicles and more.

Plese has recently pointed to an email exchange between Wilkerson and Kinnear, in which the two council members expressed frustration at the criticism they received from community members who felt that police response times were insufficient. The two joked that they should pick up a baseball bat and respond themselves. Plese argued they were mocking officers.

“How embarrassing,” she said. “You call that leadership? And what does that do for officers right now?”

Plese has pointed to few concrete policy positions she would take that would better support the police department than the current City Council, but has said that she would create an environment at the top of local government that vocally supported police, arguing this would in effect substantially change the working conditions for officers.

Wilkerson acknowledged that the conversation was “flippant” and “maybe wasn’t appropriate,” but argued the comments had been taken out of context. The City Council can fund the police department, but executive level decisions about how officers are organized and deployed are out of the body’s purview, she noted.

“My comment wasn’t meant to degrade them,” she said. “We were commenting on the frustrations we were hearing, and we’re the legislative body – I cannot supervise them or make them show up at your house or the crime scene.”

Wilkerson does regularly express concern about police bias and misconduct, saying after the murder of George Floyd that unarmed people of color are disproportionately killed by police. She has advocated for greater police oversight and, in some instances, limits on police powers.

In June, Wilkerson, along with Beggs and Councilman Zack Zappone, voted against an ordinance that grants police broad authority to arrest people in city parks after they close, arguing that it was overbroad and that biases could creep into enforcement. The trio instead supported an alternative law that would have only allowed arrests of large groups, which police officials had said were the root of an uptick of violence in parks after dark, and only after they were initially warned to leave.

Wilkerson has never faced an opponent on the ballot in her past bids for a seat on the City Council.

Shortly after Beggs was sworn in as council president in 2020, Wilkerson was chosen from 32 applicants and unanimously appointed to take Beggs’ former seat representing south Spokane. The first Black member on the council in nearly 20 years, Wilkerson offered to bring a “different perspective” to the dais, she said at the time.

During her re-election campaign in 2021, Wilkerson’s only opponent, Tyler LeMasters, was disqualified for not meeting residency requirements. While she sailed through that campaign unopposed, she continued to face many of the attacks likely to characterize the race for council president, including by framing her as anti-police.

Wilkerson has spent much of the campaign season addressing attacks from those who oppose her candidacy, but has almost entirely avoided firing back, saying little about Plese on the campaign trail.

She has said she does not plan to take the City Council in a significantly different policy direction than the past four years, though she said she would bring a different leadership style to the dais than either Beggs or Kinnear.

Beggs has a “brilliant legal mind” but wasn’t great at communicating with council members, while Kinnear tries to determine how a vote will go beforehand rather than hash it out in public, Wilkerson said.

“I think there’s some value in that, but I am a collaborator, and I want to have everything out there in public,” she said. “I’d like to see us really work hard to bring in other voices to the council. I’m a bottom-up kind of person.”