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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seeing opportunity, some quietly push for quick backing of sole Democratic candidate for seat vacated by McMorris Rodgers

Dr. Bernadine Bank, Carmela Conroy, Ann Marie Danimus  (Courtesy photos)

Nervous that Democrats might struggle to get through a crowded top-two primary for a congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, some Democrats are quietly signaling that county parties and other party leaders should quickly coalesce behind a single candidate, according to two campaigns worried by the discussions.

This would be a break in practice for at least the Spokane County Democratic Party, which has in recent years often endorsed all Democrats in a given race rather than throwing its support behind a single candidate.

In 2023, for example, the county party endorsed Paul Dillon and Cyndi Donahue, who ran for the same Spokane City Council seat. Dillon won in November.

Newly elected county party chair Naida Spencer reportedly took aside the three current Democratic candidates – Bernadine Bank, Carmela Conroy and Ann Marie Danimus – to tell them that there has been pressure for county parties throughout the 5th Congressional District to endorse early, potentially before filing week in May.

“There was talk among different Democrats that maybe a different strategy for our endorsement should happen,” Spencer acknowledged in a Friday interview. “It’s just talk, but I thought, because (the candidates) are such respected members of our organization and community, that they deserved to know what some people were talking about.”

Bank and Danimus called this effort rushed and undemocratic.

“An endorsement from the Spokane County Democrats should be an endorsement from the Spokane County Democrats, not from state party leaders,” Danimus wrote in an email in response to a request for comment. “I will be in this race, regardless of endorsements, until the good people of the fifth district decide they want me to be their Congresswoman or they don’t want me to be their Congresswoman.”

Bank noted that the 6th Legislative District Democratic Party, which she chairs, had previously opted to not endorse any candidates before the primary, and that she thought the county party at least intended to wait until after filing week to make a decision.

“It’s most unusual, most unprecedented, and this feels undemocratic, quite frankly,” Bank said. “My understanding is, you always wait until after filing week, at least, because there might be a surprise candidate who pops up, a wonderful candidate some of the (precinct committee officers) would prefer.”

State Democratic Party Chair Shasti Conrad said in a Friday interview that neither she nor other state party leaders were involved in these discussions with county parties and were unaware they were reportedly taking place.

“We recognize that the local party organizations have their own timelines, their own rules, and we respect their autonomy,” Conrad said. “I think it’s important that we are supporting our strongest candidates, for sure. I think we want to be strategic, but we also want to give the voters the opportunity to make those choices.”

Spencer, who was elected as chair Thursday evening, said the Spokane County Democrats had not yet made a decision on who to endorse, nor what the timeline for endorsement would be. However, she noted that the county party has the right to decide for itself how and when to make endorsements.

“I understand that they might have hurt feelings, but the county party has the right to make endorsements,” Spencer added. “This isn’t out of the ordinary, it just usually isn’t public.”

Conroy interpreted the conversation with Spencer differently than did Bank or Danimus, she said in an interview.

“I think it’s important that we exercise our interest and weigh in behind candidates as soon as possible, so we don’t run the risk of two Republicans making it through to the general election,” Conroy said. “I wasn’t surprised to learn there are people at the state party making the same calculation.

“But I didn’t interpret it as pressure, I interpreted it as ‘this is a common concern.’ ”

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown, who came closer in 2018 to defeating McMorris Rodgers than any Democrat before or since, said she doubted that a crowded field could mean two Republicans get the most votes in the primary, preventing a Democrat from making it to the general election ballot.

She acknowledged that there could be a real advantage for a Democratic contender to quickly have the full weight of the party behind them. While she and a team of volunteers could knock on the doors of a significant portion of the electorate when she ran for mayor in 2023, that’s not feasible with a congressional district that spans from Canada to Oregon, she said.

“It ends up being a lot about how much money is raised and how much media you can buy, and so to mount a meaningful campaign, it’s great if you have that unity,” Brown said.

Two other Democratic candidates for the seat in 2018, former Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and Matthew Sutherland, a veteran who was still enrolled at WSU at the time, both left the race after Brown entered. But there was no party pressure for them to leave, Brown said.

“I personally met with (Sutherland) a few times, and we just talked it over, and he told me he was going to pull out,” she said. “And I met with Ben, too, so just good communication is part of that.”

“In the Democratic Party, there’s no ‘decider,’ ” she added. “It’s a grassroots process, and among those of us who are elected or previously elected, we’re all making our decisions independently.”

Brown added that she expects to be able to publicly support a Democratic candidate soon.