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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kerfuffle at the courthouse: Campaign event for county commissioner devolves into chaos

The Democratic candidate seeking to unseat County Commissioner Al French in November presented her plan to address contaminated water on the West Plains during a campaign speech outside the Spokane County Courthouse Wednesday. But before Molly Marshall could get to the specifics of her plan, the event devolved into chaos as her supporters attempted to forcibly remove a provocateur from the audience.

In her speech, Marshall lamented what she views as inaction by the Spokane County Commission and the governing board of Spokane International Airport to properly communicate and address the issue since Fairchild Air Force Base first disclosed its knowledge of it in 2017.

Before a group of Marshall supporters attempted to physically corral John Estey, a former campaign manager for Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers who remains active in local politics, the event began relatively calmly. Community members milled about the east lawn of the courthouse, chatted and then fell silent as Marshall began her prepared remarks.

“I’m stepping forward today asking all current county commissioners to take action now because the West Plains Commissioner Al French has not,” Marshall said.

She all but alleged French, a Republican who represents the West Plains and serves on the airport board, intentionally kept the public in the dark for years.

Marshall questioned the “efficacy” and “reality” of French’s recently proposed plan to bring fresh water to every affected residence and presented her own plan for immediate relief in response.

“Why is this plan filled with big promises and speculative agreements with groups he has not yet met with?” Marshall said. “But most importantly, what is he doing to get residents clean water now, today?”

Estey interrupted Marshall as she prepared to outline her plans regarding how to address PFAS contamination on the West Plains.

He loudly asked Marshall whether she regretted being endorsed by individuals and elected officials who support defunding the police, and whether Marshall planned on raising taxes.

“I’ll answer questions after this,” Marshall responded, as her supporters and a member of her campaign staff went to confront Estey in the crowd.

Estey persisted, repeating his questions multiple times and asking Marshall why she did not want to answer. A group of roughly a half-dozen men, some wearing Marshall campaign shirts, surrounded Estey.

“Your behavior is extremely disrespectful to the people standing with me,” Marshall said, gesturing to affected West Plains residents located behind her as she spoke. “I would ask that you just take a step to the back.”

The group of Marshall supporters who surrounded Estey then began getting physical as Marshall carried on with her prepared remarks. Some put their hands on Estey, stepped on his feet and tried to shepherd him away from the courthouse lawn by leaning their bodies into him.

“Don’t touch me; don’t put your hands on me,” Estey repeated numerous times.

Estey backed up, attempting to avoid the group as they proceeded to slowly chase him around the east lawn of the courthouse while the news conference continued in the background. The Marshall supporters obstructed Estey whenever he attempted to walk or back away, with some throwing their shoulders into him and then telling Estey not to bump into them.

The group questioned what organization Estey was with, who he was and why he had come down. Estey declined to identify himself to the crowd, saying in an interview later Wednesday he was worried for his safety.

A handful of comments from the group of Marshall supporters could be heard by members of the press as they followed Estey, including “I’m going to beat you,” “I ought to stick this up your ass” in reference to a nearby bicycle, as well as other threats of violence and requests for him to leave.

Multiple people remained in Estey’s face as he continued to backpedal around the lawn to avoid them, including Don Hamilton, a noted photographer, videographer and owner of Hamilton Studio and the Hamilton Studio Listening Room.

Hamilton kept a camera with a long lens trained on Estey, sometimes within a couple inches of his face, as the zigzagging, slow-moving chase continued.

Hamilton has spent decades producing campaign content for Democratic candidates around the region, often as in-kind donations to those he supports. He said he was doing just that at the event Wednesday, and that he had never seen such a disruption at the many campaign events he’s photographed over the years.

Hamilton said he was “following the action” with his camera as the confrontation continued and attributed the proximity of his camera to Estey’s face to the “very close quarters” the group was in. At one point, the tip of Hamilton’s camera lens clattered to the ground after Estey bumped into it while trying to evade the group.

Hamilton said he understands why individuals in the crowd attempted to put themselves between Estey and the event, because they are passionate about the issues affecting their areas and were there to support a candidate they believe can help. Hamilton did not condone the threats that were made and said he did not make any threats himself.

He also takes issue with what he viewed as a lack of civility from Estey and did not think the way he voiced his dissent was appropriate. He said most rational people who witnessed the ordeal would say Estey came looking for a fight and found one.

“I think all of it was way out of line,” Hamilton said.

The whole exchange ended after courthouse security  intervened, around the same time Marshall finished speaking. Estey did not identify himself to the security force  and decided to walk away after refusing to field questions from members of the media and the Marshall supporters who confronted him.

Spokane County spokesman Pat Bell said Estey was within his rights, as any member of the public would be, to attend the event. It was held in a public space where protests and other free speech events have occurred over the years, and no one has the right to forcibly remove another individual from a public space, he said.

Bell, who is running to represent the 7th Legislative District as a Republican in the state House and former senior staff member for McMorris Rodgers, said the county did not receive advance notice of the event from the Marshall campaign.

In an interview late Wednesday afternoon, Estey said he attended the event to get Marshall to speak on the record about her position on what he feels are important issues. He has been frustrated that he has not seen Marshall touch on public safety, taxation or homelessness in her campaign thus far.

Estey said he was not asked to attend by anyone and was not there as a representative of an organization. He called the ordeal a “travesty,” and said he “didn’t have words for the insanity that occurred.”

“I think it’s egregious that I was there to express dissent and ask questions, and her supporters, her campaign team, acted like a violent mob,” Estey said. “They put their hands on me. They pushed me. They threatened me.”

Hamilton rebuked Estey’s description that there was “a violent mob,” adding that many of the attendees were senior citizens and longtime community activists, not individuals who are associated with violence.

Estey said he voiced his dissent in the middle of the conference, rather than waiting till the end, because he wanted to “force the issue for her.”

“I didn’t believe that she was going to answer my questions one way or the other,” Estey said. “I don’t believe I was going to be given the opportunity to ask questions at the end regardless, so I felt it was important to voice my perspective early on.”

Estey said he planned to file a police report. The report will, at the very least, record his perspective on the ordeal, he said.

“I don’t know any of these actors,” Estey said. “I don’t know who the people touching me and pushing me were. I just want to document it, that I was assaulted.”

Almost lost in the fracas was Marshall’s plan to address PFAS groundwater contamination on the West Plains.

While cleanup planning has begun at Fairchild and Spokane International Airport, making water west of Spokane safe is still years away.

Known as “forever chemicals,” perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a set of man-made chemicals used in thousands of products over the decades, including firefighting foam used at the airport and Air Force base. High levels of the chemicals have since been linked to cancers, heart disease, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weight and other diseases.

The first point of Marshall’s plan would be to use any of the county’s remaining funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to set up a countywide PFAS victim fund aimed at bolstering testing efforts and providing filtration options. The second would be to join a class-action lawsuit that already includes the city of Spokane aimed at holding PFAS manufacturers accountable.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the lawsuit against 3M, Dupont and 18 other manufacturers a little more than a year ago, alleging the companies knew for decades the chemicals posed a serious risk to the environment and an individual’s health. Cities and counties across the country have filed similar lawsuits, all of which have been grouped together under a federal judge in South Carolina.

The remaining steps would be to hire a toxicology expert for the Spokane Regional Health District, assemble a county task force aimed at securing federal and state funding and to apply for, accept and prepare to host as many grants as possible to help fund mediation efforts.

Marshall said securing funding to properly address the contamination is a major step toward any solution and that identified funding is what French’s proposal is missing.

“It will be critical for long-term success,” Marshall said.

More details on Marshall’s plan can be found on her campaign website.

The fallout

Estey and Hamilton said the hostile exchange shows a lack of decorum that’s pervaded all levels of the political realm.

Hamilton said Estey was acting in bad faith and was unwilling to engage in open dialogue.

Estey said it’s “deeply concerning” the group who confronted him did not try to speak with him, and instead “resorted to violence.”

“Their response to me was absolutely astounding: physically pushing me, shoving me, putting their hands on me and trying to forcefully remove me from the public space,” he added. “It’s just deeply troubling that we’re in a place that that is the acceptable response.”

After the event, Marshall called Estey’s disruption “disrespectful.” In an evening interview, she said she doubted any members of her campaign were involved, as they are all women.

“I’m disappointed, because we are talking about a health crisis,” Marshall said. “We have people here that have had their lives affected, and it’s disappointing that somebody would choose that opportunity to make a statement and take away from something that has really been neglected.”

Marshall said she could not see what transpired as she finished her remarks, and therefore could not comment on what occurred. When asked if her campaign and supporters could have handled the disruption differently, Marshall said she “has no idea.”

“I’m not sure,” Marshall said. “We’re all – I’m new to politics. You just don’t know how to handle that stuff. So I guess we’ll come up with a solution for that. It’s just unfortunate that that has to happen.”

This story has been corrected to describe Estey’s interruption of Marshall’s speech and the courthouse security members who intervened.

Spokesman-Review reporter Amanda Sullender contributed to this article.