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Time to Govern 

David Condon proved he could win an election. But can he govern?

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Are Republicans serious about governing? Has the party been reduced to the “perks” of office sandwiched between favoritism and religious fundamentalism? Has politics become so much about the campaign fireworks that fixing our problems is an afterthought? All are fair questions.

GOP primary voters no longer seem to value the kind of experience it will take to be a successful president. “Who cares if my guy can actually govern,” the thinking seems to go, “as long as he shares all my narrow views.”

Mitt Romney, a former governor, can’t get much of a foothold with his party’s faithful; Jon Hunstman, also a former governor, can’t even get the time of day. But the one who ran a pizza chain and has no relevant experience for the job is still popular after multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

And now we are left to wonder if that same non-serious attitude toward the difficult business of governing is alive and well right here in Spokane.

Which brings us to David Condon. Sorry, Condon supporters, but this is one thin resume.

Consider the late Republican Mayor Jim West: Before he became mayor of Spokane, West had served five terms in the Washington state Senate, including one as majority leader, which required that he become an expert on the state budget and the doings of every single state-run institution. Before his senate career, he served two terms in the state House of Representatives, one term on the Spokane City Council. Before that, he had even run for Spokane County Sheriff. Now that’s a resume. That’s relevant experience. 

Once elected mayor, Jim West took seriously the business of governing. And he ran for the office not to pursue some cranky ideology, nor to carry the water for party handlers who don’t even live here. West ran for mayor for only one reason: He really did love Spokane and thought he could make it a better place. One didn’t have to agree with West (and I often didn’t) to appreciate that here was a courageous, if tormented, guy who, to use the lingo, “knew his way around the building.”

Because Condon has no such background, when the post-election hoopla quiets down, he will face a more difficult uphill climb. The structural deficit that Mary Verner has wrestled with for four years isn’t going away. He will likely come to understand that the water-rate policy makes sense. Like Verner, he will confront an entrenched police department that seeks refuge in a fortress of state statutes.

As for his promises to improve the economy? Well, here’s an assignment: Avista just raised our rates again, by another $50-plus a month. Want to help out citizens? See if you can do something about that.

Most seriously, he will face a permanent government that will view him as a neophyte — a guy who doesn’t know his way around the building.

So he faces the immediate challenge of impressing staff. I know, it’s supposed to be the other way around, but it isn’t. He could try “my way or the highway,” but as Richard Neustadt famously wrote in Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, order-giving is evidence of weakness: “The power of the president” — and mayors, I’d add — “is the power to persuade.” Evidence of competence is the stuff of persuasion.

I last served inside the national security establishment as staff to an assistant secretary of defense — the comptroller. Our office had budget authority over the entire defense operations and maintenance appropriation (twice the size of the Washington state budget).

My immediate boss was a very smart, savvy man, whose sense of irony was exceeded only by his bluntness. I had been on the job for just a few weeks when he walked into my office, sat down and said, “I’m giving you some more accounts.” Then followed with: “Before I assigned you more accounts, I needed to see how stupid you are.” Competence and stupidity, as my old boss called it, are mutually exclusive.

And when you think about it, most newly hired employees are presumed to be lacking — law school graduates, new doctors, junior executives, or, for that matter, electricians and plumbers, and defense budget analysts, too. But when you run for strong mayor, especially when you have little relevant experience, you make a tacit promise to the voters: “Yes, I’m new on the job, but trust me — I’m sharp enough to overcome all that.”

So comes the question: Will Mr. Condon learn his way around the building, become expert on the downtown and neighborhood issues, land-use issues, budget issues and social problems? Will he be a good listener? Will he ask the critical follow-up questions — the strategic questions?

Once in office, will he speak for the people, or for special and partisan interests? Recall that he advertised himself as “nonpartisan,” yet he accepted 60,000 partisan dollars from the state Republican committee. He should keep in mind that the same electorate that voted him in nearly passed the Community Bill of Rights — perhaps the most leftist bit of legislation I’ve ever seen.

Finally, unlike many Republicans today, will he actually take governing seriously? Simply saying, “We can do better,” as he did in his campaign ads, was somehow enough to get him elected. Succeeding as mayor is a completely different animal. 

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