by Ted S. McGregor Jr.To call the controversy surrounding Mayor Jim West a soap opera is to get pretty lazy with your analogies. Michael Jackson -- now, that's a soap opera. You've got to think bigger.
No, this is a storyline old Sophocles would be proud of. The ancient Greek dramatist was big on presenting larger-than-life characters from history who were good in so many ways but who always had a flaw -- pride, or as the Greeks called it hubris, was his particular favorite, since it always came before the fall. What makes someone with such a shocking secret want to be a leader of men? The gathered citizens would submit themselves to these dramatic tensions as a kind of collective therapy, reminding themselves of their imperfections -- their humanity. When Oedipus Rex fell from grace, they all fell. And in the end, if the drama did its job, the audience felt a sense of collective understanding wash over them -- a catharsis.
There are two major differences between Oepidus Rex and Jim West, however: Spokane is still living with West as its king, and the people are still waiting for their moment of catharsis.
As our tragicomedy continues to play out, and as West amps up his defense in the court of public opinion, at least we can try to make some sense out of it all. That's why we decided to ask the regular folks what they were thinking. Not surprisingly, the majority of people aren't too happy with the mayor right now, but as you ask why, it starts to get interesting -- and complicated.
Our poll hit on several themes, so let's take them one by one, with the numerical results and comments from people who were randomly selected to answer our poll.
SHOULD west RESIGN?
Some leading community organizations (including The Inlander) have encouraged the mayor to quit, and now we have proof that the majority of the citizens agree. Out of the 520 people polled on this question (the number remaining after pollsters eliminated those who said they weren't aware of the controversy from the 600-person sample), 61 percent said he should resign. Statistical science shows that number can be applied to the entire city population, within a margin of error of +/-- 4 percent. Meanwhile, 31 percent say West should stay right where he is.
For many, asking West to leave is just a question of what's good for business. "He should resign," says James Milliron, 62, who has lived in Spokane his entire life and voted for West. "I think any time he goes on the Today Show, he's not doing our city any good at all. I think it hurts our financial status, our ability to borrow money. People who are considering moving to town may reconsider when they hear he has done this."
Betty, a 75-year-old who lives in a retirement home in northeast Spokane, says it's more a matter of the mayor having to abide by the same rules as everyone else. "Maybe he did some good things, but the bad overrules the good," she says. "If anybody else did that kind of thing, they'd get fired immediately. He acts like it doesn't make any difference."
For many, the allegations about sexually abusing boys 25 years ago are the hardest to judge.
"The issue is less looking at 10,000 e-mails, which we all are numb from hearing about on TV every night; let's examine what is there to the accusation of molesting a child," says Arlene Hanson, 65, who is a social worker. "It's not his sexual preference that is the issue; it's more that he could be a sexual predator. I think we need to get to the bottom of the story. If he is a sexual predator, as in those young boys who say he abused them in the '70s, he should be run out of town and preferably to jail."
But accusations aren't enough for Nicholas Otani, 57, who voted for West. "A person is innocent until proven guilty. If accusations are enough, then nobody is safe."
While some say they believe the allegations against West, others, like Mitch Jensen, a schoolteacher who worked on John Powers' mayoral campaign, say they are carefully weighing the accusations with the information they have available.
"I feel bad for those two guys [West's accusers], and I hate to call anybody a liar," says Jensen, "but I'm just wondering about these guys. West's name was never brought in until now."
Jensen says part of his perspective is the fact that he has friends who were in scouting when West was their leader, and they have no bad things to say about him.
"Everyone I talk to says, 'If he did it, string him up -- but they better prove it.' And I don't think they're going to find anything to corroborate these guys' stories."
Somewhat surprisingly, support for the recall election option to remove West is less popular than having him simply quit. In fact, less than half of the city (45 percent) told pollsters they favor the recall election. Only 28 percent actively oppose it, which roughly matches West's level of support in response to the "Should he resign?" question. Overall, the jury is still out on this one, as 27 percent say they aren't sure about the recall. Whether that suggests confusion or indicates that people just haven't yet made up their minds isn't completely clear -- but judging from the reaction among those people we interviewed, it might be a case of political burnout.
Jackie Ogden, a 65-year-old conservative who lives in the West Central neighborhood, says she supports the recall, but it worries her. "It's a very, very convoluted procedure," she says. "You have to go through attorneys, then you have to go through his attorneys, and that's like a brick wall. It has to go to court; it has to be signed by a judge. The procedure could take months."
Joey Paulson, a 19-year-old political independent, says he experienced the process when he worked on the effort in California that booted Gov. Gray Davis out of office. "I would most definitely not support a recall," he says. "It's too expensive. I used to work for a survey company, and we did surveys for the California governor recall, so I'm pretty familiar with the process."
Whether he's guilty or not, or whether he deserves what he's getting, many people think West has been so wounded by the controversy that he can't continue as an effective mayor. In fact, nearly 70 percent believe he will be either slightly less effective (27 percent) or much less effective (41 percent) as mayor if he remains in office.
His past supporters are more likely to believe he can continue to do an effective job. Despite calling herself a liberal, Jara Baker, 25, voted for West. She thinks what doesn't kill West seems only to make him stronger. "Now that he knows that everyone's on his back, I think he's gonna work harder now just to prove that he can be mayor," Baker says.
But Rex Stewart, 42, who is politically independent, voices the concerns of the majority when he wonders how West will ever rebuild trust.
"The City Council wants him gone, the business people want him gone -- he doesn't really have support that I can see," says Stewart. "Maybe some staunch Republicans still support him, but even the people who backed him don't support him.
When you talk to the citizens about West, the anxiety is palpable. There is emotion behind the words: People still care about West, but they care about their city even more. In balancing those concerns, more than anything, people want to know how this story is going to end.
In that grasping for answers, the polled became the pollsters, often asking us the one question to which only one person knows the answer: Why won't West quit? The mayor has said he hasn't broken any laws and that he intends to get back to doing a good job for the city. But some citizens see it differently.
"It seems he has lied and that he's looking out for himself," James Milliron puts it simply.
"If I was in that position, I'd resign and hold my head high," says Charles Giffing, 76. "But he's got a better paying job being mayor of Spokane than he ever did in Olympia. I think that's what it's all about."
Failing to resolve the problem, some say, will have consequences for Spokane well beyond having a less effective mayor for 30 more months.
Betty, the retired woman from northeast Spokane, says it's the same old story for Spokane -- the powerful do what they want, and the ordinary people get more cynical. That's why she thinks West is staying right where he is. "He's got some good old boys in his pocket. He'll just do his thing," she says. "When you're just a resident here, you don't feel like you have any power. It's very difficult to be heard."
Others who support West staying on as mayor say it's just the latest -- and perhaps most acute -- manifestation of that affliction known here as "Spokan't."
Jensen, the 43-year-old who worked on Powers' campaign, says he believes that West was unfairly set up -- and that now the entire community is taking the fall.
"As a schoolteacher, I see declining enrollment -- people are moving out of the city," Jensen says. "We've always got to accentuate the negative, and that's the problem with Spokane. As soon as something starts going good, somebody's got to throw water on it. That's what this felt like -- things were going good, and we had to kick Spokane down again."
To read the rest of our coverage on Mayor Jim West, check out the News section.