Laughter is not always the best medicine; in fact, it lately has made roughly eight out of 10 Spokane residents feel downright queasy. In our recent poll, conducted by The Inlander and KXLY, 78 percent of respondents said the scandal surrounding Mayor Jim West has damaged the reputation of the city. The international media attention and the jokes on late-night TV have hurt Spokane a lot, say 37 percent of the respondents. Another 41 percent say the city's reputation has been damaged a little.
"It can't look too good on the old national register. They screwed our public relations," says a poll respondent, 26-year-old Kenneth from Hillyard. "I might as well go a couple miles up the road and build again."
But is there any escape? After the national media went away after May TV sweeps ended, West booked a slot on The Today Show to equate elected officials with housepainters (just doing what the customer tells me) and to reveal that he was bisexual even when promoting anti-gay legislation.
At Auntie's Bookstore on June 22, a reading by author Andrew Vachss suddenly turned into a group discussion about the mayor.
As people react to the omnipresent story, the mayor becomes more isolated. His calendar shows one public appearance this week; business leaders, Republican Party officials and the city council have all asked him to resign, and the Ronald McDonald House has quietly removed West from stationery listing dignitaries supporting the Bear Necessities fund-raising project.
Nobody wants to be seen as a laughingstock.
Jon Keeve, a local orthopedic surgeon, recently traveled to conduct a workshop in the Midwest and was greeted with "heh-heh-heh" laughter when he introduced himself as being from Spokane.
"It didn't have pleasant overtones," Keeve says.
Many locals who travel on business seem to have stories similar to Keeve's.
This worries people like Rich Hadley, president and CEO of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Late last month, Hadley and leaders of other business groups, after meeting in private several times with West, made a joint statement that they believe the mayor should resign for the good of the city.
The chamber, Hadley says, is working on seven appropriations requests at the federal level. These range from keeping Fairchild Air Force Base open, to finding money for aquifer studies and the Bridging the Valley proposal to remove all street-level railroad crossings in Spokane and Kootenai counties.
"Everybody wants funding for these types of projects in every part of the country," Hadley says. "We are in competition."
And it hurts, he says, that when Spokane delegations visit, the first topic congressional staffers want to discuss is West.
"The appropriations process won't be over for another four or five months, so we won't know until then if we are getting less than we expected or if there has been any impact from this," Hadley says. "It dilutes our message if we have to defend the city. We are concerned."
"He's an embarrassment to the city," says Jackie Ogden, a 65-year-old poll respondent and West Central resident. "The first thing I ever heard about the case I heard about it when I was in Arlington, Virginia. I was with my daughter. And she said, `Oh, look! That's your city.' It was on CNN. He used the city office for immoral conduct."
So far the fallout seems to be limited to talk.
Harry Sladich, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, says no gatherings have been lost because of West, but adds three convention organizers are considering cancellations. CVB staffers have been discussing the issue as recently as Monday, Sladich says.
Nicole Hillman-Stewart, director of marketing for the Chamber of Commerce, says the group has received about a thousand Web hits or other inquiries about relocation in the last month.
"I can honestly say not one of those individuals has asked anything about the allegations on the mayor," Hillman-Stewart says. Typically, she says, people asking the chamber about Spokane seek information on jobs, housing markets and schools.
Officials at the Convention and Visitors Bureau were unavailable for comment early this week, but have previously said the West allegations have not hurt the convention business.
Some convention organizers have sought reassurance, but none have pulled up stakes.
Poll respondent Joey Paulson, 19, also believes there will be little fallout. For evidence, he points to events calendars: "I believe that nothing has been cancelled coming to Spokane because of the accusations. There are still a bunch of good concerts coming to the city."
Kenneth, the 26-year-old from Hillyard, speaks for some when he says any civic damage is the fault of the daily newspaper.
"I believe the Spokesman-Review is the sole propagator of the damage to the city. If they hadn't said word one, no one would ever know," Kenneth says. Asked if he was saying allegations of sexual abuse wasn't newsworthy, he adds: "Allegations! They have yet to prove any of it. It sounded like they've already convicted him."
Betty, a 75-year-old North Sider, is a poll respondent who said some people aren't waiting for proof. "I have a 19-year-old granddaughter, and she sees it on TV and says, 'That's awful, I'm moving to Portland.' And she is!" Betty says. "I've lived here all my life, and we're a little hick town to everybody. It hurts when you get on national news."