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Uh-oh Moments 

by William Stimson
The first time I met Mayor John Powers, he made me a speech. I was entering a downtown shop as he was leaving, and the shop owner introduced us. Powers had just announced for office, and I was happy to run into him. I had some things to say.


But Powers treated the meeting as a campaign stop. I stood silent while Powers shook my hand and said the same things I had heard him say on TV: "We are confident the people of Spokane will want..." That kind of thing. Then he dropped my hand, thanked us both for our support and departed.


As I stood there in his wake, I thought, "Uh-oh, he doesn't listen." Spokane needed to talk, and this soon-to-be-mayor wasn't listening.


Sure enough, the complaint I heard constantly about Powers was that all the talk with him went one direction. As a matter of fact, Powers did a lot for Spokane -- starting with his making it clear that Spokane city government is an autonomous center of power.


But failing even to survive the primary is proof that somehow Powers never connected with citizens. One of the most telling criticisms of Powers I have heard came from one of his warm supporters, and a veteran of decades of leadership in Spokane. This critic said Powers seemed to want to become Spokane's top attorney. The problem with that was that Spokane didn't need another attorney. The position that has remained unfilled in City Hall is that of mayor. In recent years, we've had the insider mayor, then the outsider mayor, and recently the lawyer-mayor.


Spokane needs a political leader, someone who can contrive to gather up the remnants of political will all over the city and bring them into City Hall, where people stand ready to make something of them.


The harsh truth about urban government is that people who live in a given geographical area designated as a city actually have little in common. The most obvious things are potholes, taxes and other irritations. What they need is someone or something -- but we don't have a major league baseball team -- to convince them there is, indeed, a larger reality to a city.


The question that faces Spokane voters is which of the two candidates can do what Spokane actually needs, which is to bring about a shared political purpose. Each of them has gifts that might serve that purpose. But each also has a side that makes one think, "Uh-oh."


I once witnessed Jim West throw one of his famous tantrums. I was in an audience at Whitworth College when West declined to respond to a question. When a second person in the audience immediately raised the question again, West pounded on the podium with his fist and shouted, "I said I'm not going to talk about that!" Then he walked out, only to return a few minutes later to apologize. I was appalled. I had never seen anything like it in a politician.


Then one day after the Whitworth incident, I was on my way to a luncheon and I jumped into an elevator, only to find that the only other occupant was Jim West. Since we were staring at each other, I could think of nothing else to do but to extend my hand and say, "Hello, Senator West, I'm..." He interrupted, "I know. Bill Stimson. Used to be with Spokane magazine." I am sure I never met him before, yet somehow he remembered an association I had almost 20 years in the past. West shook my hand warmly and generally gave me the impression that if I'd had the state budget in my briefcase, he would have been happy to go over it with me right there in the elevator.


That one-on-one political ability is the source of West's success in politics. If he is elected to be mayor of Spokane, it also could be his downfall. What works in the remote marbled halls of Olympia won't work in Spokane. In the key issue of River Park Square, for example, West may broker a deal that includes non-disclosure promises. If he does, he will likely condemn Spokane to another decade of paranoiac speculation about who got away with what.


In contrast, having made his reputation in helping uncover the River Park Square facts, Grant would undoubtedly produce them and have the credibility to say, "And that's all there is to it."


There's a trap that awaits Grant, however, if he's elected: He might turn out to be the "populist" that he claims he is. To populists, strictly speaking, election is total triumph -- the victory of good over evil, after which all else will come automatically. This kind of thinking is why populists have had little impact on American history. Those with power just wait them out and take over again when citizens realize the populists had no post-election plans.


Whichever of these two men is elected, he will likely consider it an endorsement of past habits. West may think he can govern Spokane by the same behind-closed-doors methods that brought him success in Olympia. He is mistaken.


Should Tom Grant win on Nov. 4, he would be well advised not to regard it as a triumph of the outsiders. That would leave the mayor's office victorious but ineffectual, and our recent civic history would simply repeat itself.





Publication date: 10/30/03

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