"One of the most effective politicians I've ever worked with," says a current city councilman.
"He likes to bully people," says the mayor of Airway Heights. "That's the impression I get."
"He is one of the brightest political brains we've ever had in the city of Spokane," a former Spokane city councilwoman says.
"He's the worst individual I ever met," a former Spokane City Council president says. "This son of a bitch caused me six years of misery."
Spokane County Commissioner Al French has been called a lot of things. Visionary. Sneaky. Honest. Liar. Tenacious. Stubborn. Passionate. Backstabber. Darth Vader. But there's one thing no one disputes: French is among the most powerful figures in the Inland Northwest.
Sitting in a noisy diner in the new Kendall Yards neighborhood, just north of downtown Spokane, French rarely hems or haws or stutters when fielding a reporter's questions. Whether right or wrong, he speaks with the same unwavering confidence. Facts, financial figures and quotes unspool effortlessly from his mouth.
Seven years ago, French had desperately wanted to be mayor of Spokane — and never made it past the primary. Today, he scoffs at ever running for mayor again. "Put that in bold print," French says over breakfast. "For me, that's a step backwards."
Asked if he has more influence as commissioner than he would as mayor, he doesn't hesitate: "Yes."
After all, in Spokane County, power is concentrated in the hands of only three commissioners, acting as both legislators and executives. French's district alone includes the Spokane airport, the Air Force base, two universities and all of downtown. He works 14-hour days, he's on at least 24 different committees — chairing five of them — never drinks coffee, and loves it.
It's a great job, if he can keep it. In the Aug. 5 primary, he faces two challengers: attorney Mary Lou Johnson, a member of Spokane's Smart Justice Campaign, running as a Democrat; and Bonnie Mager, the liberal county commissioner French narrowly defeated in a bitter campaign in 2010, now running as an independent.
Beyond his policies, French himself will be central to the election. Where admirers see French as a diligent and driven leader who accomplishes big things quickly, critics see a bully, prone to petty retaliation, who pushes his agenda through at any cost.
In many ways, French is a human bulldozer: able to move people, knock down walls and swiftly reshape entire landscapes. But a bulldozer can be destructive, too. It can run over anyone unlucky enough to be in its path.
Ambition is nothing new for French. He's always wanted to create and build. As a child, he constructed a tiny four-hutch "condo" for his rabbits. At age 12, French already was taking architecture classes through the mail.
While others were being drafted, he volunteered for the Marine Corps — though he never ended up in Vietnam. At boot camp, he became a platoon leader. Today, French says, it takes six or seven years to rise to the ranks of Sergeant E-5. He did it in two.
"Treat everybody with respect," French says he learned in the military. "Give it until they don't earn it anymore. If somebody violates a trust, or shows they're not worthy of the trust, then you change how you deal with them."
French, now 63, has been a property manager, a real-estate broker in two states, a partner in a construction company and, finally, an architect. French worked on the Eagle Ridge development, Fairview Retirement Village and the NorthTown Mall. His political career began in 1995, as president of the Nevada-Lidgerwood Neighborhood council.
Six years later, he was elected to Spokane City Council. There, French negotiated over the complicated River Park Square issue, modified development regulations and pushed for planning money for neighborhoods. He mentored Republican Nancy McLaughlin on land-use issues. His work ethic and character won him the respect of Steve Corker, a Democrat. But over his eight years on the council, the love was not universal.
"You should find records of numerous instances of his unilateral action and inconsistent positions," says Mary Verner, former mayor of Spokane. "I have forgiven and moved on, so I'll simply say that he is shrewd."
Perhaps nobody hates French more than former City Council President Joe Shogan, who, like French, is a strong-willed military veteran. (He's also the one who called French a "son of a bitch" in the beginning of this article.) On the council, the two were in a constant power struggle, fighting over land-use decisions and the role of council assistants. French wanted to appoint Shogan as a municipal court judge. Shogan believes it was an attempt to push him off the council.
Their feud boiled over on a Thursday in October 2009. French had called a meeting concerning the council president's powers while Shogan was on vacation. Shogan saw it as retaliation.
"You've lied to me," Shogan, on speakerphone from his vacation, raged at French. "You've prevaricated, acted behind my back, stabbed me in the back."
When French was elected to the Board of County Commissioners in 2010, however, he found none of that animosity. That may be because the other two commissioners share a near-identical Republican ideology.
With French on the board, neither longtime Commissioner Todd Mielke nor newcomer Shelly O'Quinn have ever cast a single dissenting vote. And in nearly four years as commissioner, French has only voted no twice — once over raceway expenditures during his second month in office and again, three years later, on an ordinance regulating events at Green Bluff.
By contrast, Mager voted "no" at least 38 times during her four-year term.
The current commissioners, however, say there is far more disagreement and compromise going on behind the scenes. "If you just watch the last touchdown scored in the football game, it doesn't show the struggle to get down the field before you can score," French says. "The drama is in the process itself."
Yet the biggest difference between the three commissioners, Mielke says, isn't politics. It's personality.
"I tease Al a little bit," Mielke says. "When he was first elected, he was very excited that he won and wanted to fix the world in a week."
In other words, French is not the sort of conservative to simply stand athwart history and yell "Stop!" He wants to get stuff done, and he wants to get it done now. French says he knows this can sometimes irritate people and he must force himself to slow down.
"Maybe that's one of the reasons I work on so many different things," French says. "So I have something to work on while I'm waiting for other people to get where I'm already at."
When everyone is aligned, Mielke says — like when the community focused on bringing a new Caterpillar plant to Spokane — French's leadership style can be incredibly effective. Yet even French's biggest fans say that his speed and intensity can be overwhelming.
"The trick for all of us is not to burn bridges," Mielke says. "There are times where people are less certain about the right direction to go in, and sometimes they feel like they got ran over, if you push unnecessarily."
French was eating lunch by the Southern California coast, in the middle of a motorcycle ride across the country, when the call came.
French hadn't applied for the American Public Transportation Association's 2008 "Outstanding Board Member of the Year" award: Yet here was E. Susan Meyer, the CEO of the Spokane Transit Authority, calling to tell him he'd won. STA staff and his fellow board members had nominated him without his knowledge.
"And that's the... " French begins, sitting at the diner in Spokane years later. He composes himself as his eyes well up. "That's what made the award so special — that my peers knew that I wouldn't go after it. I wasn't in it for the award, but they did it for me."
He's brought the brochure from the conference with him to the diner. He flips through it and points to his picture. "It's the greatest compliment I've ever had about my leadership," French says.
French was once, like many Republicans, a staunch critic of the local transit system. "Folks had a very low opinion of STA," French says. "Rightfully so. It was a horrible organization."
That was, until French remade it.
He was appointed to the Spokane Transit Board in 2002, the same year a bond issue failed. As board chair, he cleaned house. He brought in a new director to turn things around. A task force led by French polled the community and made a list of long-term promises to give riders what they wanted.
STA fulfilled those promises ahead of schedule, and its reputation and ridership skyrocketed, Meyer says. Today, Meyer says, it's the most cost-effective transit system in the state.
"He's referred to as the 'architect of change,'" Meyer says of French. "He is one of my trusted advisors. He's very politically astute." She says French sometimes counsels her in how to deal with different local leaders — how to vary her approach depending on their personalities.
Even French's critics, like City Councilwoman Amber Waldref and City Council President Ben Stuckart, praise him for his work on STA and the Airport Board.
"I know that [primary opponent] Mary Lou [Johnson] wants to say, you know, 'He just doesn't play well with others,'" French says. "That's just not supported by the facts."
Meyer says the secret to unifying such a varied group of board members behind transit was that, instead of portraying STA as a social service, French sold transit to the community as an economic development tool. After Meyer and French persuaded bus manufacturer New Flyer Industries to consider building a new trolleybus model for Spokane, Meyer says French suggested to them "a hundred local manufacturers associated with the aerospace industry that could help" with the parts.
And when Caterpillar, a Fortune 50 company, considered Spokane County as a place to locate a larger plant, French says that his developer and investor experience prepared him to answer every one of their questions.
"Instead of putting up roadblocks, Al is somebody who works hard to tear them down," says Michael Cathcart, lobbyist for the pro-growth Spokane Home Builders Association. "If you look at what Al's done, he has been very outspoken about property rights issues, small business issues. He's never been one to back down."
* * *
On one side of a chain-link fence in the West Plains, a yellow farmhouse, surrounded by towering trees and bushes, sits in the same spot it has for more than a century. On the other, the skeletal framework of a half-completed, blocky, gray WEMCO warehouse, surrounded by construction equipment, rises up from the dirt. It defines the divide between French and his critics.
Last year, the city-county Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission raised concerns that the construction of the warehouse could harm the historic farmhouse and called for additional environmental review.
WEMCO vice-president Juston Rouse praises French for speaking in defense of the business at hearings. "He was the only one who was willing to step up, saying that buildings and industry were a good thing for the economy, that we should be congratulated for trying to add jobs," says Rouse.
But French went further than just disagreeing with the Landmarks Commission's arguments. Intent on showing how displeased he was with their actions, and the performance of the city's historic preservation officer, French, acting on his own, refused to fill the commission's vacancies. It left the commission without a voting quorum, unable to operate for two months.
His tactic underscores what critics see as a theme of retaliation: Act against whatever French believes is good for economic development, and he'll punish you.
"When you hold up a committee so that they can't function, and you boast about it," Mager says, "that looks a lot like just a way for someone to exert his power."
City Councilman Jon Snyder describes French's career this way: "When [French] first got into public life, his constituency was everybody, and now it's narrowed, narrowed and narrowed to just those big land-owning developers."
As a councilman, French regularly abstained from voting on issues because of how they'd affect his architectural clients. Yet he still faced two sets of ethics complaints accusing him of giving sweetheart deals to friends or clients.
In 2009, French was accused of using his power to help Thomas Hamilton, a man well known to him. In that case, French fought to keep advertising on Spokane's bus benches, a move that directly benefited Hamilton and his bus-bench ad company — which had previously donated ads for French's 2003 council president's race. Their business connections went further: Hamilton had also hired French as architect on a project in 2004 that resulted in the illegal dredging of a 150-foot boat canal in Post Falls.
"All agencies had consented to the application and the project," French insisted at the time.
He was wrong. Multiple government agencies testified they had warned Hamilton's team not to proceed and that the permits wouldn't be granted.
A decade later, French is unapologetic. "I had bad information," he says.
Like every other councilmember ever investigated by the city's ethics committee, French was cleared in the bus-bench controversy, as well as the time he was accused of proposing an amendment to expand the multifamily tax credit boundaries to benefit another former client.
"I knew for a fact that I hadn't done anything that violated the ethics ordinance, because I helped write that ordinance," French says.
The controversy hasn't stopped French from working with Hamilton. Today, French smiles down on drivers along Maple Street from an election billboard owned by Hamilton's company.
The Garbage Man
Swallows scatter into the air as a front-end loader scrapes across the concrete floor, pushing piles of debris — a mattress, a Samsung TV box, a flimsy bookshelf — into a larger heap. A long white semi-truck pulls in, carting mountains of garbage from Colbert or Spokane Valley.
For 23 years, the entire region has been part of the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, sending their waste here, to be burned into energy and ash. At the Waste to Energy Facility, trash is treasure: The more residents send their waste here, the lower the cost per resident.
But last month, Spokane Valley voted to ditch the countywide system and hire Sunshine Disposal and Recycling to truck their garbage to landfills. So did Medical Lake. "Whether or not the cities are electing to join the county, I think it's become emotional and political, rather than financial and environmental," says Ken Gimpel, assistant utilities division director for the city of Spokane.
It means an estimated loss of 50,000 tons of garbage a year — not to mention an unknown amount of grant funding.
"He's costing the city of Spokane. It's costing our citizens. That's costing the county money, too," says Stuckart, the council president, about French. "The county commissioners totally dropped the ball. This was supposed to be the big win."
Both of French's primary challengers have used the Solid Waste negotiations as a political bludgeon against French. "People just don't trust him, because he's not trustworthy," Mager says.
After all, French was leading the effort to restructure the regional waste system. He'd campaigned on his ability to work with other municipalities. Almost immediately upon taking office, he held a summit to discuss shifting control of the Solid Waste System from the city of Spokane to a more regional governance structure. But French's early attempts to form a nonprofit municipal corporation to run the system fell through, and control of the system fell to the county.
In council meetings, Spokane Valley councilmembers decried the Valley's lack of voice in the new system's governing structure and the lack of specific rate details. One disparaged the negotiations as a "Kabuki dance," while another condemned tactics of "threats and intimidation."
"The city of the Valley very much wants to be in as much control of their own destiny as possible," French says. "But I clearly see them making short-term decisions. We'll see if it pans out."
The Valley's mayor and deputy mayor both stress that their decision was about finances and governance, not personalities. "Al French put his heart and soul into trying to put together a consortium from Day One," says Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard. "I think Al really gets it, with what's going on the Valley."
Nevertheless, the mayors of Medical Lake, Deer Park, Airway Heights and Millwood all say they were bothered at times by the county's negotiation tactics.
"Having a meeting with the county commissioners was like pulling teeth," Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing says. "We spent hours and hours and hours with the county commissioners, and they ignored anything we said."
French, by contrast, says the county spent years seeking input. "We've sent letters, we've gone out to meetings, we've done a whole series of outreach endeavors," he says.
He believes many of the smaller cities were frustrated over the county spending $9.9 million to purchase two transfer stations from the city of Spokane — but he says it was the best deal the city would offer.
Negotiating with 13 other jurisdictions, Commissioner Mielke adds, is tough, especially when elections bring in a whole new slate of elected officials with entirely different views.
French is still negotiating. Millwood, Liberty Lake and Airway Heights haven't decided yet whether to exit the county's coalition. French faces big hurdles, especially with Airway Heights. "I'm not a fan of Mr. French, and he knows it," Rushing says. "He's completely backwards on the direction of the county."
The animosity between French and Rushing, Mielke says, means that he or O'Quinn usually negotiate with Rushing instead.
"Mayor Rushing has what appears to be a very personal difficulty with Al," Mielke says. "But I also think that Al has been brutally honest over where [the county and Airway Heights] differ on Fairchild."
Both French and Rushing are former military men, yet both fervently hold opposing beliefs on the impact that the Spokane Tribe's proposed hotel and casino could have on Fairchild Air Force Base. French is absolutely certain that the casino's proximity to the base's flight path could cause it to close. Rushing is absolutely certain it wouldn't.
For French, it's a war worth waging.
"We're protecting $1.3 billion of economic activity a year," French says of Fairchild. "That seems like a good investment."
The Land Warrior
French splays his hands across either side of the Spokane City Council lectern, kicking off a call for county-city collaboration with an insult.
"Here's maybe a mystery to you: Your citizens are our citizens," he tells the councilmembers about their land-use ordinance. "As we hurt one, we hurt all of us. This is old thinking, this is antiquated. This is winners and losers. ... This will place a cold chill on the business recruitment and expansion in this region."
French pauses and lets out a long sigh.
"You can only be the 'city of choice' if you have options," he says.
The biggest philosophical conflict the past few years between the Spokane City Council and the county commissioners hasn't been over military bases or garbage: It's been about sprawl.
French argues that, because the city of Spokane hasn't achieved the growth and density it's wanted, the region should allow more growth on the outskirts.
But Councilman Snyder argues the opposite: "There's no accident we still have dirt lots downtown, when they keep green-lighting their borders," he says. He also blames the legacy French left at the city, where development incentives, "including these weird gerrymanders where his friends own property," were so widespread that they became nearly useless for directing growth.
Last year, over the objection of the city, the county expanded the region's Urban Growth Area, allowing for denser development on the outskirts. A state growth management board swiftly ruled the expansion invalid for procedural reasons, but by that time, 640 lots in the expanded area already had been approved to go forward.
The Spokane City Council fought back, passing an ordinance to bar extending certain utilities to properties in new UGA expansions until legal questions have been resolved. The commissioners were furious.
Spokane Mayor David Condon vetoed the ordinance and announced a truce: Any annexations or UGA expansion plans were frozen, while the city and the commissioners discussed land-use, growth strategy and revenue sharing.
But just a little more than a week after the olive branch was extended, French lit the branch on fire — shooting off a snarky, 36-part public records request asking the council to back up numerous statements. It was written entirely by French.
"Please provide a copy of the Oath of Office wherein Mr. Snyder swore to uphold the laws of the State of Washington," one line said. Another line requested examples of neighborhoods who wanted to have pieces of their territory "demolished" to meet the city's desired density.
"It's like something out of a David Mamet play," Snyder says. "It confirmed what we already thought: We're not dealing with someone who wants to truly collaborate." (Recently, French allowed that asking for the oath of office may have been "ill-advised.")
Two weeks later, French suspended the public records request — but only after more than 475 pages of documents had been provided, including Snyder's oath of office. Snyder doesn't have much faith that the ongoing city-county growth planning talks will produce meaningful progress.
"I haven't seen any willingness on their part to budge on their key issues," Snyder says. "Until I see that, I think the talks are a delaying tactic."
But French, who unsuccessfully tried joint planning with the county back when he was a city councilman, says he's extremely optimistic. He sees these discussions as a way to educate the public. "I'm very excited about this opportunity," he says.
That's another central element to French, which has been crucial to his drive, his successes and his failures: optimism. He loses a race for council president, loses a race for mayor, and still runs for the most powerful position in the county. He truly believes he can lead every coalition, convince every politician, woo every business or win every election, no matter who stands in his way.
"I don't think leadership is about avoiding risk instead of about achieving a vision," French says. "Don't be afraid of the obstacles. Go ahead and deal with the obstacles, but don't let fear drive you. Let the vision drive you." ♦