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Religious Convsersion 

by Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & ayor Dennis Hession's process-laden, bloodless report to the City Council on the state of the city and his plans for the future calls to mind an article written years back by the late Senator Patrick Moynihan titled "When the Irish Ran New York." Moynihan referred to the time after the Irish (aka Catholics) wrested control of Tammany Hall from the Protestant dominated Tweed Ring, which writer Martin Shefter associated with what he termed "rapacious individualism."





The Irish Catholics, wrote Moynihan, were up to something very different. Not necessarily more respectable by WASP standards, but very different. When the Irish Tammany "pol" George Plunkett died in 1924, he was eulogized, writes David Wiles, this way: "[Plunkett] understood that in politics honesty doesn't matter, efficiency doesn't matter, progressive vision doesn't matter. What matters is the chance for a better job, a better price of wheat, better business conditions. Plunkett's legacy is to that practicality."





The post-Protestant Tammany machine, under the Irish Catholics, according to Moynihan, actually moved a far ways from rapacious individualism. In pursuit of the practical, they relied on imported Irish-Catholic village culture -- long on political organization, loyalty, process and discipline, but, as it turned out, very short on vision and direction.





An interesting turn of events has set the stage for a sequel to Moynihan's article. We might call it, "When the Catholics Ran Spokane."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & orty years ago, even maybe as recently as 25 years ago, all Park Board members and Plan Commission members lived within a 10-square block area through which ran Rockwood Boulevard. Almost all members of the City Council lived on the South Hill. Downtown business leaders -- all men, of course -- gathered in the stuffy confines of the Empire Club. The Junior League was regularly in the news; O.J. Parsons, in her Spokesman-Review society column, saw to that. And, oh yes, no one at the Spokane Club imagined that one day the organization would add the word "Athletic" to its name so it could compete with the hoi polloi likes of 24-Hour Fitness and Gold's Gym





Most importantly though, on any given Sunday, you could find most of Spokane's civic and government leaders -- all Republicans, of course -- attending church at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral or First Presbyterian or maybe Manito Presbyterian. A few, if they had the time, made their way out to worship with the Whitworth Presbyterian community.





Catholics began to find their way into this inner sanctum during and after Expo '74. After all, the World's Fair was the brainchild of King Cole, who was not only Catholic -- he wasn't even from Spokane, having been recruited from the Bay Area by local business leaders. Cole, we do recall, was unceremoniously and, I dare say, symbolically, dumped late in the run-up to his fair by these same local "worthies."





One of the first, if not the first, Catholic to actually be elected to the Council was Jack O'Brien, who served during the Expo run-up years. Later, Rob Higgins would have an unmatched run on the City Council. A fixture at St. Aloysius, Rob was born and raised in the Logan neighborhood. He served two terms in the '80s and another two in the late '90s, culminating his council career with a term as president.





Even in business, the Catholics' emergence invites a caveat. William Youngs, in his book, The Fair and the Falls, found it useful to quote King Cole, who said of Jim Brennan, "a devout Catholic," and the founder of First National Bank: "He was so well loved by such a large group of the Spokane leadership -- all of whom, most of whom belonged to the Masonic right..."





That is, they were all Protestants. Monied, high-church Protestants.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & G & lt;/span & iven this history, today's look of city government is notable. Consider: Spokane's current strong mayor is Catholic; the city's first strong mayor was Catholic. The city's sitting deputy mayor is Catholic, as is the city's chief financial officer and council president. Two immediately previous council presidents (one, of course, now serves as our mayor) were Catholic. The director of the city's public works department, director of parks and fire chief are all Catholics -- and these are just the officials that I know personally. Moreover, many attend the same parishes.





As the Protestant social connections of years past no doubt had an influence, albeit informal, on Spokane politics and government, so too the present Catholic dominance of government must have some impact as well. I don't suggest in any way a cabal, nor even conscious cooperation or coordination. But when governmental actors travel in the same social orbit -- and church does provide a social orbit -- there will be an effect. Culture matters: shared sense of right and wrong, shared stories and myths and rituals. Ways of relating.





Moynihan tells us that Catholics have historically been good at taking over government, but not so good at doing something far-reaching when they succeed at taking it over. So comes the yet-to-be answered question: When the Catholics ran Spokane, did they aspire to a vision, or did they manage to do little more than govern around loyalty, jobs and practicality? Did they fall back on process as a means of maintaining their own version of the "friends and neighbors" culture that has weighted down Spokane for a century?





Mayor Hession's recent message invites reflection on just these questions.
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