by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ffective elected leaders, as distinct from those who just manage to get themselves elected, are critics before they're boosters. Criticism goes to the question of change and priorities; boosterism is just cheerleading. Without a critical perspective, politicians can merely drum up support for agendas that were either set by others or else reflect civic inertia. Our local candidates are no exception to this genre of political malaise.
For example, here in Spokane, we like to tell ourselves that ours is a city of "friends and neighbors." But what does "friends and neighbors" mean? (Ah-ha, a critical question.) But since serious exploration may lead to answers that might offend those friends and neighbors -- well, better just mumble the socially approved line like everyone else. Or take our favorite community mantra: "Spokane, a great place to raise a family." Well, why? Even this assertion could be challenged. Our kids leave and never come home -- what does that say about Spokane? Problem is, cities that run on unchallenged civic mantras are cities that lack critical perspective and don't get anything accomplished. It remains to public leadership to deconstruct the pap, the shibboleths and mantras.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & ll of which brings me to the upcoming mayoral primary and campaign. My vote will go to the candidate who isn't afraid to challenge our preferred self-image. With this in mind, I watched with interest the Spokesman-Review editorial board's interviews with the three main candidates. The clear winner was Al French, and it wasn't even close. Mayor Hession, as is his style, came across as thoughtful, understated, thorough and -- for want of a better word -- uninspiring. Hession never quite gets beyond tedious explanations of processes. His "vision" for the city was that it be -- what did he say? -- "best in class." Or words to the effect. What did he mean? Who could tell? Except for claiming to make the "tough decisions" (none of which he discussed or explained), he came across as a nice man who believes that he works hard in a tough job, and that dignity alone will solve the city's problems -- whatever they might be, which he doesn't explain -- well, not exactly, anyway; maybe later.
Neither did Mary Verner do all that well. No doubt still a work in progress, she didn't have much to offer in the way of specifics -- nor, for that matter, generalities either. What would she do? And why? What needs to be changed? And why? What's wrong? And why? While Verner doesn't have a record to defend as Hession does -- a record that he defends mostly by assertions rather than by argument -- she failed to offer much by way of a strategic view. She lacked a critical perspective.
Of the three, only French answered the questions asked by the S-R editors with critically thought out answers. He showed that he understands the importance of context, history and bureaucratic culture. More important, he sees the connections among all three factors of governance, and he can relate these connected parts to a strategic whole. Not bad.
Take, for example, his response to questions about policing. Whereas Hession talked "budget" and "transparency," French talked program needs. Specifically, he related program needs to our rising crime rates, which he then discussed with reference to comparable problems in other cities. Central to his insights regarding policing, French wants the police to have the resources necessary to stay on top of the gang problems before the gang problems get on top of the city. He then elaborated his answer through references to similar problems in other cities. French pointed out that Tacoma failed to stay ahead of the gang problem and that it is now paying a very, very high price. French made the "pay now or pay later" argument and did so quite convincingly. Hession, in contrast, never managed to get much beyond accountability and the dry minutiae of contract negotiations over health benefits. French applied critical thinking of strategic import; Hession's answers, while always thoughtful, were more clerical than they were critical, more tedious than provocative.
French, in developing his lines of criticism -- whether directed at policing or fire fighting or land use or low-income housing -- never flirted with ad hominems, nor could he be accused of political carping (he deftly moved from criticism to solution). More impressively than any candidate who has run for strong mayor thus far, French displayed political sensitivity to the problems of administrative complexity.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ack to shibboleths and mantras: While the editors' questions didn't offer any real openings, we heard nothing from any of the candidates, including French, that might offend all the "friends and neighbors," especially those who have some weight to throw around in our lightweight city. While French didn't play the role of the booster, neither did he instruct them. Leaders do that. We need a candidate to critically assess our often inflated and sometimes misdirected and self-defeating civic self-images. In responding to the questions asked by the S-R editors, French showed some serious and refreshing critical thinking. He set the bar high.