As much as we talk about the importance of issues, even competing political philosophies, election campaigns are mostly about symbolism and slogans these days. Our mayoral election is no exception.
Mayor John Talbott refers to "open government" and "change," words that symbolize independence from traditional dominating downtown interests. The challenger, John Powers, speaks of "consensus" and "inclusiveness," words meant to portray Powers as a person who will calm the troubled City Council waters, and who will seek solutions rather than polarization.
Non-partisan campaigns push candidates further and further into symbols and slogans because, lacking party identification to provide the voter with at least some kind of road map, candidates have nowhere to go but to personality, which can most efficiently be packaged through symbols and slogans. So we're left with, "Vote for Old Jim, He Cares" -- as opposed, we presume, to not caring.
Back in the old days of partisan local elections, the candidate could go with "Vote for Old Jim, Democrat," and that offered the shorthand necessary for the voter to make a judgment. No more. Now we are into caring. The trouble is we so often end up were we began, with symbols and slogans leaving us with elected officials who care, but who can't govern effectively.
Which brings me back to our current mayoral campaign. What we know is that whoever wins the November election will face a number of very difficult problems, none of which can be fully resolved by either "open government," or, I might add, by "inclusiveness." I offer the following list:
Implementation of the Comprehensive Plan. More than likely, the City Council will adopt a version of the plan mandated by the Growth Management Act before the end of the year, but adoption will be the easy part. Implementation will require organization, skill, will and resources. And it won't be without controversy. What form will densification take? Are we really serious about enforcement? What about the various stakeholders, many of whom haven't even bothered to weigh in? These and other problems await.
City finances. They are a mess, and only in part because of the mistakes the city made, most specifically the error in pursuing the Lincoln Street Bridge, more recently in getting out of the project without seeing to it that the city wasn't going to lose even more money. And then, of course, there is the parking garage problem. What to do about these drains? Even if the next mayor can figure his way out of these nagging problems, there remains the Initiative 695 shortfalls that are affecting a range of services, perhaps most significantly the public libraries. What to do about all of this?
Annexation. This needs be on the table as a corollary problem. In a rare moment of bi-bickering consensus, Rob Higgins and Steve Eugster, months ago, joined to urge that the city take a more aggressive stance toward those Spokane County areas that benefit from city services but find shelter in the county's tax base. There was an immediate cry from many quarters, and the idea left the table. It has to come back. While the county sits on a pile of loot, the city starves and all because of arcane annexation laws. The city needs its boundaries to expand in a reasonable way, and the new mayor, as he seeks new revenue, must figure out a way to make it happen.
Deferred maintenance. Potholes and other evidences of the built infrastructure, including the Monroe Street Bridge restoration, present urgent problems that further exacerbate the financial situation.
Poverty. As Powers has stated, this remains the city's chronic problem. It isn't clear just what the city might do, other than improve the business climate through streamlining, incentives, better services and carefully selected public-private partnerships. But all this will need to be fleshed out, and will no doubt require an organizational cultural change or two. Moreover, the mayor will have to both involve himself and demand from his various constituencies, including prospective private partners, some quid pro quos that, heretofore, have never been required.
Education. Here's another issue area that begs attention from the incoming mayor. In his parting remarks before the Ad Club audience last spring, Shaun O' L. Higgins, in his final and very well presented state-of-the-city speech, urged that our schools seek excellence, not merely improvement above the average. In other cities -- Chicago and Oakland most notably -- aggressive mayors have broken into that closed world we call public schools and carried just that kind of political message.
The new mayor should also have something to say about higher education. The health sciences building now under construction will likely be the next to last building constructed on the Riverpoint campus for some time. WSU, faced with problems in Pullman, may be under pressure to retrench. Eastern's role in Spokane, while now ensured, remains circumscribed. The matter of limited doctoral granting authority for both Eastern and WSU-Spokane may be placed on the legislative table this upcoming session. If the city is serious about all its higher education rhetoric, then it follows that the new mayor will have to get just a whole lot more involved than has been the case until now.
Finally, we come to a matter of overriding importance: Leadership. One can have the best of ideas, the clearest agenda, but, lacking the ability to lead, will nonetheless fail. In that famous old book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt concludes that presidential power is the power to persuade. How do our two candidates stack up on that count?
Critics say Mayor Talbott's leadership these past nine months consists of raising his hand and saying, "I will agree with Mr. Eugster." Indeed, it would seem, excepting the mayor's proposal for an independent auditor, that the new majority's entire agenda for change has originated in Eugster's laptop.
To win three years ago, Mayor Talbott knitted together a coalition that included the conservative populists from across the North Side, neighborhood activists and more than a fair smattering of upper-middle class folks who were angry about a lot of things, but most specifically the Lincoln Street Bridge issue. Talbott can't be pleased with the primary results. His margins on the North Side show serious erosion, and he was literally blown away in many districts on the South Hill that he ran credibly in against Jack Geraghty.
As for Powers? Well, he faces his own need to convince the voter of his leadership abilities. To no one's surprise, he makes continual reference to his success in the private sector, which puts me in mind of a line attributed to the much quoted scholar and writer, Wallace Sayer: "Public administration and business administration have about two things in common, both trivial." Powers clearly has benefited from being the blank slate in voters' eyes (just as Talbott was three years ago), but the truth is he's untested in public service. But that hasn't stopped the fairly fickle Spokane electorate before (the last mayor to be reelected was Jim Chase) in their quest for the leader the title seems to promise.
So how do our two respective finalists intend to confront this range of very real problems? And how do they establish themselves as the leader the city needs?
Hopefully in the weeks to come, both will take the campaign sufficiently beyond symbols and slogans to give the voters at least some idea of what they are prepared to do, and why they believe they are best able to deliver.