Usually politicians call a press conference to deliver news, but standing next to the barrel-chested county sheriff, with his badge and sidearm, Mary Verner wanted to do the exact opposite.
As cameras rolled and reporters jotted down notes in their skinny notepads, Verner assured everyone that a recent TV story about the city opening its own jail was way off. Her jaw set, she told the reporters to unsound the alarms. Everyone go home. Nothing to see here.
But, really, there was something to see here — namely, an actual press conference held by the mayor of Spokane. It was April 8, and it was Verner’s first official press briefing of 2010.
Through her first three years in office, Verner has mostly shunned the spotlight. Unlike past mayors who wanted to broadcast accomplishments or assure the public they were hard at work, Verner isn’t one to hold many press events or have off-the-cuff conversations with reporters.
She wasn’t always like this. Verner stormed into city politics six years ago as a no-name outsider appointed to fill a vacant City Council seat. When the city roiled with the allegations of then-Mayor Jim West using his office to court potential gay lovers, Verner loudly and forcefully spoke out against him, calling his actions unethical and hypocritical. She fired into the sky, a leader with clear, bright ideas illuminating what was wrong in City Hall.
Two years later, she was mayor.
Now, as Verner looks toward her re-election campaign next year, many are wondering what happened. Where is the leader who called for openness and transparency in the city’s business? Where is the calm firebrand who defeated two big political heavies to become mayor? And where is the city’s top official when it comes to setting the agenda for Spokane?
Her supporters say she’s still here, if overtaken by events out of her control — specifically, the recession.
Her detractors agree, to a point. They also agree she’s been overwhelmed and out of sight at critical moments. For example, in January 2008, when major winter storms prompted the governors of Washington and Idaho to declare emergencies, Verner announced at a press conference, “Folks, it’s just snow.”
“As a mayor, she doesn’t want to admit that the city has any problems,” says Councilman Bob Apple, whom Verner considers her closest political cohort.
“I was her ally back when she was on the council and I was her ally when she first became mayor — I can’t say she’s been a great mayor. I can’t even say she’s been a good mayor,” Apple continues. “I think she is probably in over her head. I think she doesn’t want to take charge. Everything is status quo, and nothing is getting better.”
Over the past month, The Inlander sat down with the mayor for three separate interviews, and spoke with dozens of other people about her tenure in office.
What becomes strikingly evident is that both her supporters and detractors point to the same thing: her unassuming nature and desire for consensus — which has allowed her to broker some important compromises, but has also meant that she sometimes appears ineffectual and adrift.
And to hear Verner tell it, that’s the way she likes it. Consensus and collaboration will be at the center of her campaign, as she tries to be the first mayor in nearly 40 years to be re-elected.
“To find ways to meet other people in the middle, to find compromise, to try to find common ground, that to me is what politics is all about,” she says. “I’m trying to build a legacy of good working relationships, where the expectation is we’re going to work together to solve common problems.”
The Jim West Moment
It’s hard to have a conversation about Mary Verner without someone dropping Jim West’s name.
Without him and his graceless fall from power, after all, Verner might never have been mayor.
On May 5, 2005, the Spokesman launched its first in a string of stories detailing aspects of West’s personal life — most importantly, that he had used the city’s computers to “entice and influence” young men.
“You had a lot of our council members, they would rather live in a cave than come out and say something,” former city councilwoman Cherie Rodgers says of the initial reaction. “Kind of the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil kind of thing.”
Events progressed rapidly, as most Spokanites know: West fought to stay in power, was recalled by the voters and then succumbed to cancer, all in just over a year. But with her unequivocal call for righteousness in City Hall, Verner found her political star rising.
“I certainly wasn’t thinking of it at the time as something associated with political ascendancy,” Verner says. “I was serving in my capacity as a council person, expressing my perspective about what we should demand and expect from a mayor.”
Separate from his downfall, West stands in contrast to Verner’s own leadership style. As a former state Senate majority leader, West had governance and politics down, and it’s often said that his ability to guide, direct and influence people was perfectly fit for Spokane’s strong mayor system.
“His strength was taking the organization such as it was and engaging it very effectively,” says Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief finance officer, who is very supportive of Verner’s re-election hopes. “He knew where he was and what he wanted to do with the institution.”
Cooley remembers West enforcing a cabinet meeting every morning at 8 am, which every department head was expected to attend.
“If you were a minute late, he’d charge you one dollar. Two minutes late, two dollars,” he says. At each meeting, West would go around the table asking every cabinet member to describe what his or her department was working on.
“On the third or fourth day, somebody repeated themselves. And Jim said, ‘You said that Monday. Maybe we don’t need your position,’” Cooley says.
Todd Mielke, a Spokane county commissioner, first met West in high school, and West remained his mentor from then on.
“I still believe Jim West was one of the most politically astute people who came out of this community,” Mielke says. “He knew policy like no other. He could build alliances like no other. "Very few people had the insight or ability to move policy forward like he could.”
Mielke is quick to point out his personal affection for Verner, which wasn’t easy for her to earn.
“She and I have a lot of discussion on regionalism and collaboration,” Mielke says. “She and I have been able to have some really frank, honest discussions. We’ve been able to talk without being defensive.”
But Mielke’s equally eager to say that Verner has her priorities backwards. Before promoting collaboration, he says, she needs to define her goals and objectives. At heart, Mielke says, Verner appears to lack one of the most basic political abilities: the capacity to articulate a vision and push through a principled idea, no matter the opposition.
“It’s the issue of decisive leadership,” he says. “Who owns that? I don’t see anybody driving the [city’s] policy.”
When it’s suggested that running a campaign based on her ability to compromise may be hard, Verner says, “What’s hard for me is taking credit for things. But if you want me to take credit for things, I can take credit for things.”
She rattles off her list: Hiring the police ombudsman, negotiations with the city’s labor unions, annexation of the West Plains, the creation of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the move toward a Complete Streets program, building an urban forestry program.
“It’s happened under my administration, it’s happened at my direction and my leadership, but I don’t for a moment want to say that I went out and did it,” she says. “I directed that it be done. I am honor-bound, morally bound, to give credit where it’s due, to the people who actually get the work done.”
The Early Years
With a smile on her face, Verner drives her four-year old Toyota Prius north across the Monroe Street Bridge, apologizing for the smell of “dog and kid” in her car. Her teenage son, Daniel, has left his drumsticks on the floor, and her bicycle is jammed in the back half of the hybrid.
“I’d like to go car-less more often,” she says, before adding that her schedule as mayor doesn’t permit it. Some days, like today, her back-to-back meetings are miles apart. “But that feels like a lame excuse, doesn’t it?”
Conversation turns to the Republicans’ big local and national win the night before and — though the country is lurching rightward, for the time being — how she’s still proud to identify as a progressive, an ideology that began forming around the family dinner table.
Next Page: Hurricane Hugo leaves Verner with nothing. Plus, the mayor struggles with Southgate.