The question is: Who can actually do it?
For voters in District Two -- which encompasses most of the city south of the interstate, as well as Browne's Addition -- the choice is between current City Councilwoman Mary Verner and Hawkins, an insurance agent and community volunteer. The similarities are striking. Both candidates say they want to balance the budget; both voice their disgust with the West scandal.
One difference, indicates Hawkins, is in their backgrounds. "Obviously I look at things as a small-business owner. That's one reason friends asked me to run," he says, adding, "Mary has spent most of her life in public service."
Indeed, since moving to Spokane in 1975, Hawkins has been entrenched in local business, as the owner of an electronics company in the 1980s and, for the last 12 years, as the co-owner (with his wife, Kathie) of Spokane Falls Insurance. This, he says, is exactly the kind of experience the City Council needs as it looks for ways to cut its costs and buttress its sagging revenues.
His solutions? "Drill down into the numbers," he says. Hire an efficiency expert to clean house at City Hall. Cut costs by eliminating wasted labor and consolidating redundant services. Boost revenue by increasing urban density (and the tax base) and making Spokane more business-friendly.
The insurance salesman says that he's especially concerned with the inflating cost of health insurance and benefits for city employees. "Employees get a very, very rich benefits package," he says. "There have to be some concessions there." He's suggesting concessions worth $850,000. Without such concessions, he says, he wouldn't support the Nov. 8 ballot measure to lift the lid on property tax, an effort to net the city enough cash to balance the budget for the next two years. "All the real solutions are long-term," he says. "They're not short-term."
Then there's Verner.
Currently a District Two councilwoman, Verner has been a paralegal and a small-business owner, as well as working for the U.S. Virgin Islands government. In 1992, she left the islands to accept a resource manager position with the Spokane Tribe. Today she's the executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT).
Like Hawkins, Verner wants to make Spokane more business-friendly, by cutting through the bureaucratic red tape the city requires of business owners. She says she's working with Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard and Spokane Valley City Councilman Dick Denenny to develop a workshop that would bring local governments and non-government economic partners together to chart out measurable economic outcomes over the next five years.
She's also interested in re-exploring the idea of a port district. (Don't laugh -- she knows Spokane's 300 miles from the ocean.) It's an idea she thinks voters didn't thoroughly understand when they voted it down.
Cutting costs, she says, starts with getting the cost of medical insurance under control. As a councilwoman, she proposed cafeteria-style benefits plan for city employees, which would allow employees (and the city) to save money by using and paying for only the benefits they need. (Hawkins agrees with this plan.)
Like her opponent, Verner stresses the need to go over the city budget with a fine-toothed comb, seeking out and hunting down redundancies. She says she's made an exhaustive review of the current budget and spoken with individual department heads about their proposals, to look for negotiating room and to "let them know their budget is being scrutinized line by line."
Both candidates point back to years of political floundering in Spokane. "The city is thriving," says Verner. "It's city government that's having problems right now." Hawkins says it's the city's fault if it's become unfriendly to business. "We get in the way too much," he says. "It's part of the job of government to get out of the way."
As a council member, Verner has worked to bring city water dischargers into compliance with environmental water-quality standards on the Spokane River. Hawkins has called for a ban on dumping harmful phosphates into the river.
Both candidates express their frustration with the scandal surrounding Mayor Jim West. "I'm absolutely sick about it," Hawkins says. "I think everybody is." Verner says the mayor's virtual disappearance from public life this summer, coupled with his recent binge of public appearances, has left the council baffled and hamstrung. "We have been stymied at every turn," she says. Both support the exploration of an ethics commission to deal with questions like those now surrounding the mayor (though Hawkins expressed his reservations about such a commission to the Spokesman-Review and openly wondered whether Verner's involvement in ethics commission talks was simply a campaign ploy). Neither is clear about what it will take for the City Council to work at full power if the mayor remains in office after the Dec. 6 recall election.
So if both candidates want to cut costs, improve revenues and make the city more business-friendly; if both aim to save the city's public safety services without shredding human services; if both want to protect the Spokane River; if both are freaked out by the West scandal; and if neither is sure what to do about it, then what's the difference? Can't District Two voters just flip a coin?
It comes down to personal philosophy.
Public servant Verner says she's looking for long-term budget solutions but that the city can also benefit from smaller savings -- like not letting city vehicles idle, turning off lights when they're not in use, buying plastic notebooks instead of leather ones. Businessman Hawkins, stresses the need for economic forecasting commissions and a "turnaround consultant."
Hawkins, a self-proclaimed "fiscal and social conservative" serves on the Business Advisory Council for the National Republican Party. Verner says Spokane ought to "try harder to appeal to the progressive mindset" by embracing its natural environment and promoting "smart growth." (The City Council position they're fighting for, mind you, is a non-partisan one.)
Verner calls herself "thoughtful" but wishes she would take charge more often. Hawkins says he's action- and outcome-oriented, but admits "I have a stubborn streak. I'm Irish."
As a member of the council, Verner voted to extend benefits to employees' domestic partners. Hawkins says he doesn't support the council's decision, though he stresses that it isn't a moral issue. "It sends the wrong message to voters. It's the wrong time to ask them that," he says, explaining that in dire financial straits the city should be focusing on cutting costs, not adding new ones. To the contention that extending domestic partnership benefits is simply the right thing to do, regardless of cost, he says he can appreciate that point of view, but that the decision should be up to Spokane voters.
Left, right. Business, politics. Heads, tails. You decide.