A month after Spokane adopted the strong mayor form of government in 1999, David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., advised us to expect changes in the kind of people who run for city council.
In an article for The Inlander, Rusk described what happened when Albuquerque made the change to strong mayor and district representation. Before the change, Rusk wrote, "Albuquerque's establishment (successful businessmen, attorneys and other professionals) dominated the part-time, unpaid city commission. They have since disappeared from elected office."
In their place, he said, appeared people who were usually unknown beyond their own neighborhoods. They got elected not because of their civic prominence but by knocking on thousands of voters' doors and introducing themselves.
The three new council members elected to the Spokane City Council earlier this month appear to bear Rusk out. The only one who looks much like old-style council members is Joe Shogan. A 54-year-old lawyer and Vietnam veteran who won awards for doing pro-bono legal work, Shogan resembles the "pillar of the community" candidate that filled out councils in the past.
Even here, though, there is one difference: Shogan gained his public service credits not by serving on committees and commissions of city government, as used to be the pattern, but by serving as chairman of the Northwest Neighborhood Association. It is likely to make some difference in a council member's perspective when he learns to think about city government through the talk of neighborhood members rather than through briefings by an assistant city manager.
Brad Stark's departure from the mold is clear from one statistic: He is 24 years old. It is difficult to say what a youthful point of view can contribute to debates on pothole policy. But one thing that can be said about Stark is that his life and ambitions in Spokane are ahead of him, not behind him, as is the case when a member of the council is elected on the basis of life achievements.
The new council member who especially caught my eye was Bob Apple, who joins the council as the owner of a bar and restaurant in Hillyard.
Barkeeps played a significant role in Spokane's early political history. To prevent anti-saloon types from closing them down, early 20th-century bar owners organized the votes of the city's outcasts -- property-less laborers, blackballed union oragnizers, radical thinkers, lonely miners, and the like. The saloonkeeper met them all across his bar and became their spokesman. I wondered if the election of Apple signaled a return to that tradition.
Bob Apple's Comet Bar and Restaurant at the corner of Market and Queen is an old-style neighborhood tavern -- low ceiling, long bar, frayed rugs, thumping jukebox. Apple, with his dark brown eyes, allows that bartending is a good way to stay in touch with public opinion. "When you're a bartender, you listen to people. You get a great feel for what's going on in your community. That goes for the restaurant, too -- any place where you're talking to people. They're sitting here eating breakfast and talking about any issue in the world."
But it turns out Apple's involvement in local politics had little to do with owning a bar or any other business interest. For some reason even he cannot fathom, he has been interested in local politics since he was a teenager. He volunteered to campaign against a county tax increase when he was in high school -- before he even paid taxes.
Ever since then, he has volunteered to help in campaigns (including for Democrat Bill Day and Republican Jim West) and scrutinized local issues. He's worked on neighborhood committees for 20 years.
His most serious involvement in local politics came in the 1980s, when he became one of the leaders of the unsuccessful campaign to defeat construction of Spokane's waste-to-energy plant: "You could see the numbers didn't add up. Anybody could see it." He helped found Citizens for Clean Air and ran for the council on the issue in 1989, but was narrowly defeated.
"We're suffering because of that to this day. We're paying $100 a ton to dispose of our garbage. Seattle is paying $50 a ton," Apple says. A decade later, he opposed the construction of the Lincoln Street Bridge, "a bridge nobody really wanted, but they tried to make it look like everybody was for it." He opposed River Park Square and testified against it. "They ignored me like they ignore everyone," he says.
In brief, Apple is the prototypical "naysayer" Spokane's establishment has lazily blamed for Spokane's problems. But there is this one significant difference from the previous so-called "naysayer council" of John Talbott, Steve Eugster, Steve Corker and Cherie Rodgers. Apple's view of River Park Square was never central to his election. He was not elected to oppose. He was elected to propose a future.
The success of that future won't be known for five or even 10 years, but there's one thing we can count on already: Apple, Stark and Shogan do not owe their election to the donations of downtown law firms, to the grapevine solidarity of South Side voters or to the support of the Spokesman-Review. They owe their election to the people who they looked in the face while knocking on doors. Spokane voters will no longer be able to blame its failures on a "downtown establishment" or to "naysayers" who stand in the way. It will finally have to take responsibility for its problems.
William Stimson is a journalism professor at Eastern Washington University and the author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.
Publication date: 11/20/03