The incumbent in the Spokane City Council's South district, Brad Stark, may have his hands full this fall as he runs for a second four-year term. Stark has been an active, sometimes outspoken, and not always consistent, councilmember.
Stark is opposed by a popular bicycle and land-use advocate, a persistent critic of City Hall and a political novice who's starting to get the civic itch.
Here's a brief look at each of the candidates in the race:
Watching Brad Stark operate during Spokane City Council meetings is like watching how former City Manager Terry Novak worked council meetings back in the 1980s. One minute he's speaking from his spot on the dais, the next he's sliding his chair over to a colleague for a short chat, the next he's squatted next to the assistant city attorney, asking a question.
You can see Stark enjoys politics and the process of making laws. "I'm an ideas guy," he says. "I like the collaborative process. I've worked hard to keep the lines of communication open with my colleagues. I know you need four or five votes to get something passed, and I have strong relationships with five or six of them [council members]."
Stark's political career goes back to his college days at Gonzaga University; he graduated six years ago with a political science degree, then worked as a legislative aide to Senator Lisa Brown in Olympia before becoming the youngest person ever elected to the Spokane City Council in 2003 at age 24.
Now, as he seeks a second term, he cites a long list of accomplishments, not all of them sexy. For example, "I'm proud of our environmental stewardship: getting an agreement to limit phosphorus into the Spokane River," says Stark. "Annexing the city into the Spokane County Conservation District. The city reducing its professional water use." He's also happy that the city has updated its development regulations for the first time since the late 1950s, encouraging growth within existing neighborhoods. And he says the city has made progress in stabilizing its budgeting process and in working to enlarge its reserve fund.
Recently, Stark publicly supported Mayor Dennis Hession's plan to hire 24 new police officers plus additional firefighters during the next two years, a change from earlier this year when Stark blistered the mayor after Hession refused the council's requests to hire four new cops, even though the council had allocated money for them. "The mayor has been effective in working with the police chief to redefine the way police officers are deployed," he says now. Stark also praises the mayor as a principled man with whom he has a good working relationship.
Perhaps that softening has repaired a relationship that was frayed by other Stark outbursts earlier this year. When the council voted to work with the county to satisfy the city's animal control needs, Stark told The Inlander in February, "Three days later we found out the mayor was meeting with the city of Spokane Valley to explore the idea [of creating an animal control system]. He flagrantly ignored the council's policy-setting decision." Stark also angered the administration when he called for the city to build a new fire station in the rapidly developing Latah Valley.
Now South Hill voters will decide whether Stark has been an effective councilmember worthy of another four years in office or an erratic legislator who should go back to private life.
When an Inlander reporter met Richard Rush in the South Perry Business District for an interview two weeks ago, Rush and his daughter arrived on bicycle. He was wearing a helmet and a bright yellow-green "Elect Richard Rush" T-shirt.
"I forgot that I have to take my daughter to a piano lesson," he apologized. "Follow me. We can talk over there."
Bicycling in the urban core has been one of Rush's civic interests. That, and the city's comprehensive plan, adopted a few years ago to satisfy the state's Growth Management Act. Rush, as a volunteer, was active in helping the city develop that plan. "We spent 12 years and $8 million, worked hard to involve citizens and wrote a plan that now sits on a shelf. I have a lot of myself invested in that," he says. "I feel like a covenant with the people has been broken."
Rush and his wife moved from his native Alabama 13 years ago after she took a job here. They started a family; he's been a stay-at-home father. That has allowed him time to volunteer in civic affairs. Rush was also a leading opposition voice to the city's plans to cut down trees during a street renovation project on Bernard Street, and he's been vocal in his calls for more bicycle lanes. He and his fellow bike advocates have had some success. Last week the council agreed to spend $50,000 to add bike lanes while it renovates Southeast Boulevard.
When candidate-filing time came around in June, "my wife sat me down and reminded me of all the time I had spent working on issues for free," Rush recalls. "She said perhaps I could be more effective if I was working on the council." And so Rush filed.
He vows to push the city to fully implement the concepts in the comp plan: to establish neighborhood business centers and to make the city a place where two-legged and two-wheeled transportation becomes more important. That makes him a darling of alternative transportation advocates. One, on the Metro Spokane blog, gushed: "Richard Rush is a comp plan GOD! Who you vote for matters."
That kind of endorsement might just get Rush enough votes to push him into the fall general election.
It was a week ago Monday night and George McGrath was in a familiar place, at the City Council dais, testifying on the Park Board's proposed $78.4 million bond issue.
"I haven't heard of anything this ridiculous in years," McGrath chastised councilmembers. "Doesn't $78 million scare you people a little bit? It scares me. And $5 million for a swimming pool? Are they fur-lined with mink?"
The white-haired McGrath is the self-appointed fiscal conscience of the council, a regular attendee at Monday night sessions.
"I don't relish my role," he says. "Years ago I was like most people. It took something that would hit my pocketbook for me to go down and speak."
For McGrath, the event that turned him into a civic critic came in the late 1980s: the city put up a barricade to block traffic at 29th and Pittsburg. He says residents of the area who wanted it removed presented then-Mayor Sheri Barnard with a petition containing more than a thousand signatures. He says it was ignored. Since then, McGrath's been a thorn in the side of city politicians. And he was prepared to continue to play that role until his daughter made a phone call one late Friday afternoon in early June, about a half-hour before the close of the candidate-filing period. "She called and asked if I would run for the council," says McGrath. "She's very persuasive. I said no, no, no, no. Ten minutes later I'm driving down to the courthouse to file my papers."
Now McGrath is looking forward to a new career. He'll retire at the end of April from his job selling inmate-made wares for the Washington Department of Corrections, and he hopes to throw himself full time into council work, emulating a political hero of his. "Cherie Rodgers was the best councilmember I've seen [during his 40 years in Spokane]," says McGrath. "She was always prepared and knowledgeable. I was hoping she'd run for mayor, but she said there was no way."
If elected, the long-time council critic will find himself on the other side of the dais, continuing his crusade for fiscal sanity. And even though his campaign is a low-budget affair, McGrath thinks he has a chance to win: "My name recognition is as high or higher than anyone in the race, including Mr. Stark."
Karen Cannon is getting a crash course in civic education. As a candidate for the city council, the Spokane native is learning quickly about the issues of the day. And she's learning what happens when you stick your neck out and become a candidate/target. She says she has taken some abuse while campaigning and recently received a less-than-enthusiastic reception when she spoke at a meeting of businesspeople.
Although she's still in the "campaign overload" phase common to first-timers, Cannon isn't starting her political career at Ground Zero. She earned a degree in government from Eastern Washington University and served an internship in Olympia with Tri-Cities Senator Valoria Loveland. And her political radar about the proposed city parks bond issue was pretty accurate when The Inlander interviewed her last week, one day before the Park Board voted to significantly scale back the measure -- dropping the indoor aquatics center and the Riverfront Park "promenade" -- that would be presented to voters.
"The Joe Albi project is a 'go'," she predicted. "It's had public meetings. It's been itemized. And the replacement of the pools is a 'go', but the indoor center needs more time. There are no concrete plans for it. And the promenade sounds great but people don't have a good idea about it."
Cannon has a soft spot for the parks; she thinks the city is neglecting them. She also has strong feelings about the recent cases that involve the use of force by police officers.
"People are getting an eerie feeling about this. They're questioning what's going on," says Cannon. "We need more accountability. An ombudsman (an investigator within the police department who focuses on officer conduct) is a good idea. Or a citizens' board. Anything that gives people more access to information."
Cannon, who holds two jobs -- working with disabled adults at Catholic Charities and at Domini's sandwich shop -- is also calling for "fiscal integrity." She's skeptical about claims that the city has enough money to hire new police officers and firefighters and she believes city officials need to work harder to bring good-paying jobs to town.
Cannon is positioning herself in the way that many first-time candidates have: I've lived here most of my life. I know Spokane. I'm independent. I don't have any affiliations. I'm an ordinary person who voters can identify with.
She'll find out Aug. 21 whether that's enough to get her through the primary and into the November general election.