As I reflect on the Mayor's continuing political travails, some comparisons with our most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner come to mind. Jimmy Carter failed as a president because he sought always to do what he thought was right but proved to be politically inept in doing it. Sure, history is kind to him, but his stay in the White House was cut short due to those very flaws.
From his politically correct but peremptory assault on pork barrel projects, to his unwillingness to work hand in glove with a willing Congress -- his Chief of Staff often didn't even return the Speaker's calls -- to his moralizing, Carter's best intentions mostly all went down the drain.
Whatever one thinks of John Powers, by this time it's obvious that to have taken the road he has determined to take on the River Park Square controversy has required real strength of character. Likewise, his dogged determination to put the city on sound financial footing has resulted in little political gain and a whole lot of flak from city workers. Nor should his sometimes-naive "attack" on poverty draw cynical response.
Like Carter, Powers means well. Also like Carter, his administration is in real trouble.
While campaigning for his strong mayor proposal a few years back, then-citizen Steve Eugster asked me to stand in for him in two debates on the issue. My opponent in one of these debates was former Mayor David Rodgers. He strongly favored continuing with the council-manager system. I defended Eugster's strong-mayor model. Following the event, retired police chief Bob Panther, approached me and took a few moments to voice his thoughts. While he could agree in theory with Eugster's proposal, he expressed doubts that we could find the talent necessary for the job here in Spokane.
I've been haunted by his warning ever since.
We didn't have much time to discuss the specifics of his concerns, but upon reflection I can make a guess as to what the chief had in mind. By adopting a strong-mayor model, the voters accepted the idea that the business of city government was political rather than merely administrative; as such, it demanded strong political leadership. By establishing linkage of accountability through elections, the voters would be assured of responsible government. So far so good. Panther, however, drew attention to the level of political apathy, even cynicism, that has pervaded the city for generations. He worried that such an entrenched culture could not produce the leadership necessary for the new system to thrive.
The council-manager model ducked the issue altogether, for it presumed that cities were not political entities; but just another form of a business.
So how, out of what might be described an
apolitical culture, could we produce the leader-
ship necessary? Maybe we couldn't.
If so, shouldn't we just be content with an administrative CEO -- a city manager -- whose experience would at least be linked to a job description? That was Panther's implied suggestion. To the contrary, what Eugster understood was that to cling to the belief that government in Spokane was just another form of business was to believe elephants could fly. And if Eugster was right, then somehow the leadership that Panther worried might not exist, had to be developed.
EWU Professor of Government Shane Mahoney argues that such leadership only emerges out of strong political parties. But here again we face an obstacle. First, parties in the state of Washington have always been weak. Indeed, since the early days when the Progressive reformers wrote our state constitution, we have done about everything we could to diminish parties. Our blanket primary can be offered as the case in point: We don't want parties even to control their own nominations.
And if our anti-party tradition isn't a high enough hurdle for parties to clear, at least at the local level, then the Revised Code of Washington surely must be. RCW 29.21.070, with reference to local elections, reads: "All city, town and special purpose district elective offices shall be nonpartisan and the candidates shall be nominated and elected as such."
Our apolitical culture adds to the problem, because it is biased towards "personality politics" that rely largely on marketing and wholesaling a name and face. This is no way to choose candidates if definition and reliability are important to you, and if, after being elected, you expect the winner to take on serious issues and challenges, as Powers has done. Parties, to the contrary, do a rather effective job of recruiting, socializing, promoting and defining candidates. Most important, political organization produces foot soldiers -- loyal troops, both elected and unelected, who can help deliver the agenda.
Jimmy Carter disdained politics and political organization; as a result, he had no troops, and for that reason alone he failed. Powers faces even deeper issues -- some systemic, some cultural and some personal. The systemic and cultural will yield only slowly -- perhaps over decades, not years. As to problems of his own making? Like Carter, whose style hampered his effectiveness, Powers is free to address these issues. But he's running out of time.