by Joel Smith & r & Over the last two months, the scandal surrounding Spokane Mayor Jim West has elicited a host of queasy lamentations from otherwise proud Spokanites. Our mayor is a pervert! He's a gay, anti-gay hypocrite! He's a lame duck! He's made us a laughingstock!
True or not, let's put this in context. Yes, the national media has had a field day with the West story, but it's not like Spokane is the only city in the world that's ever had this kind of trouble. The history of the mayoralty is fraught with scandals like ours -- some of them a good deal worse than what the Lilac City faces.
So we've sampled a few of history's most troubled and notorious mayors in an attempt to lighten this city's already ponderous psychological load. Buck up, Spokane. You're not alone.
The Lame Duck Mayor
The case of Philadelphia Mayor John Street sounds something like that of Jim West: indubitable progress stalled by scandal (but minus the boy-hankering). After his election in 2000, Street won over Philadelphians with ambitious plans to overhaul the school system and strengthen the city's worst neighborhoods. But the progress that won him reelection in 2004 hit the skids when the FBI wiretapped his office and discovered that an aide was using city contracts to rake in donations. There's no evidence Street himself was involved, but his close ties to all the people who were has tarnished his reputation and rendered him almost useless, according to some. With more than two years left in office, city officials are fleeing Street's administration in droves, his influence on the City Council is near nil and the town is already buzzing with talk about who will succeed him.
The Laughingstock Mayor
If Jon Stewart had been around in the 1920s, there's little doubt mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson would have been his favorite whipping boy. The three-term Chicago czar, widely considered the worst mayor in American history, stood up for Germans during World War I, staged a campaign to censor "pro-British" school texts (he threatened to punch King George "in the snoot" if His Highness ever came to Chicago) and once staged a public debate between himself and two rats. All this and he was a stooge for organized crime, too. (A picture of pal Al Capone hung in his office.) More recently, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry spawned a whole sub-genre of national jokes when police caught him on video smoking crack in a hotel room. Voters somehow laughed it off, however; like Big Bill, Barry was later reelected to office.
The Comeback Mayor
A poll published in 1999 ranks former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich (1977-79) as the seventh-worst mayor in American history. That may surprise some; after all, Kucinich was (particularly in the Northwest) a popular -- if goofy-looking -- candidate during the early stages of the 2004 presidential election. But as the youngest big-city mayor in American history, he ran a sinking ship with an intemperate, abrasive style that rubbed people the wrong way. And when his tangle with a major electric utility landed the city in financial default (a big-city first since the Depression), he was done for. The thing is, he fought back, winning a seat in the U.S. Congress and eventually making that semi-serious bid for the White House.
It's doubtful that Jim West has a future in national politics, but might Kucinich's example suggest a ray of hope for the mayor's mired career?
The Pervy Mayor
There's been a whole cloud of sex allegations surrounding Jim West lately -- the 1970s abuse claims, the jobs-for-sex offers, the naked pool party invites -- but if the only charge to stick is that he's shown a predilection for picking up young dudes on the Internet, then his scandal's got nothing on that of Waterbury, Conn., mayor Philip Giordano, who got a 37-year trip to jail in 2003 for forcing a pair of 8- and 10-year-old girls to perform oral sex on him in his City Hall office, his law office, his home. Even worse, perhaps, is Steve Christian, former mayor of Britain's tiny Pitcairn Islands, who got (only) three years in the slammer on five rape charges last October. These cases make "rightbi-guy" look like a veritable saint (so far, at least).
The Two-Faced Mayor
One of the juiciest stories to emerge from West-gate has been the weird disconnect between the ill-tempered, anti-gay state legislator everyone knew West was and the tortured bisexual he later admitted to being. But if Spokane was mildly puzzled by West's double life, Portland was utterly shocked when it was revealed in 2004 that former mayor (and Oregon Gov.) Neil Goldschmidt had repeatedly sexually abused a 14-year-old girl while in City Hall in the 1970s. Goldschmidt had won nearly godlike respect as a politician and was widely credited with almost single-handedly saving the Rose City when he was mayor, fending off a massive urban freeway and laying the blueprints for a progressive mass transit system. The news that its civic hero was a pedophile all along left Portland in stunned disbelief. The news that its moral crusader was a confused hypocrite left Spokane in bemused surprise.