Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Can Councilwoman Karen Stratton forgive the mayor for endorsing her opponent?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 14, 2016 at 3:15 PM

click to enlarge Mayor David Condon waving signs for Councilwoman Karen Stratton's opponent on October 27, 2015 - VERDUIN CAMPAIGN PHOTO
Verduin campaign photo
Mayor David Condon waving signs for Councilwoman Karen Stratton's opponent on October 27, 2015

About a year has passed since the campaign began gearing up for last year's city council election. Yet for at least one candidate, a wound left over from the race still hasn't healed. 

In this case, it's a candidate who won. 

"As far as my relationship with the mayor, one does not exist. I don’t have a relationship with him," Councilmember Karen Stratton says. "The mayor made it very clear during the election when he supported and worked for my opponent, he did not have confidence in me... It crushed my spirit a little bit. I was very, very disappointed."

Last week, we described the rift between the mayor and City Council President Ben Stuckart. But the division between Stratton and the mayor is a much deeper one. 

It wasn't a surprise last year that Condon endorsed Stratton's opponent, Evan Verduin. Stratton leans liberal, while the mayor and Verduin lean conservative. He also endorsed LaVerne Biel, who lost to Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, and four years earlier, endorsed councilmen Mike Allen and Steve Salvatori. 

On top of that, Stratton had been among the most vocal critics of Condon, faulting him for
adding new exempt employee positions at the expense of union-backed civil service positions. 

"I think the citizens expect us to philosophically disagree and having those debates is fine," Condon said last year, arguing Verduin's perspective of a small business owner with a young family was needed on the council. 
click to enlarge A year after the campaign started, City Councilwoman Karen Stratton says Condon's endorsement of her opponent still stings.
A year after the campaign started, City Councilwoman Karen Stratton says Condon's endorsement of her opponent still stings.

Yet, for Stratton, who had worked in the city for conservative Mayor Jim West and liberal Mayor Mary Verner, Condon's endorsement felt out of line. 

"I don't think it's appropriate at this level of government," Stratton says. "If I had my way, no candidates or electeds should endorse other electeds running for elected office. I was asked to support candidates running and I didn't." 

She did, however, donate money last year to the Spokane County Democrats and to the Coalition for Economic Vitality, which donated to the campaigns of herself, Lori Kinnear and Council President Ben Stuckart. But part of it, Stratton says, was the public nature of the endorsement. 
"To publicly go against somebody that could be on your city council makes for a very uncomfortable working relationship," Stratton says.  

It's a point of view not shared by left-leaning City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has argued that electing "like-minded candidates" who would push his agenda was an important part of his mission. Stuckart endorsed Stratton. (Stratton says she might have also have felt betrayed had Stuckart endorsed her opponent instead.)

Stratton says Condon could have done her the courtesy of giving her an explanation for why he was opposing her.

"I felt that what I would have preferred is a visit from him, if he would have sat down with me and said, 'here's the deal, and I want you to understand why I'm doing it,'" Stratton says. 

But instead, she says, she found out when she spotted the mayor's name on Verduin's campaign literature and saw him waving signs for Verduin. 

There was a moment, before the campaign, Stratton says, where the relationship between the two seemed more positive. She says she met with Condon once before, shortly after she was appointed to the council in the fall of 2014. She wanted to discuss concerns she had about employee morale and the lack of communication between the mayor and the council. 

"I thought we had a very good visit," Stratton says. "We both treated each other with respect. I left that meeting feeling hopeful."

But since the campaign season last year, they haven't met together once. 

It wasn't the only fallout from the race. In January, Verduin wrote and paid to promote a Facebook post accusing Stratton of lying about her views on sick leave during the election, and referring to her as a "contamination." While Verduin took down the post and apologized, Stratton and several other councilmembers retaliated by kicking him off the city's Plan Commission.

"I was done," Stratton says. "I drew my line in the sand." 

The relationship between Condon and Stratton has shown signs of strain in other respects: Last month, Condon accused Stratton of mishandling an email from COPS director Patrick Striker that was highly critical of Condon's leadership.

“I am disappointed in Councilwoman Stratton,” Condon told the Spokesman-Review. “As a leader, we need to notify the employees that were there, if they felt it was inappropriate, they know where to bring their issues.”

Asked about it by the Inlander, Stratton strongly denied that she had leaked the email to the media, or tipped off the Spokesman-Review to its existence. She objected to the suggestion that she would, noting how much she respects Striker.

Like Condon, Stratton believes any underlying issues between the two should have been handled personally. She recognizes that there's a serious rift. 

"It has kept me awake at night. How can I be a better example? How can I prove that I want to move forward?" Stratton says. "I’ve thought a lot about it, about keeping egos out of it and trying to come together and hit the reset button and starting over. I wasn’t elected to have a big friendship with the mayor, I was elected to represent the district. But sometimes a good relationship with the mayor helps me do that. I'm torn with that. I’ve got to get my trust back." 

Maybe, she says, there will be a day will come when the phone will ring, she'll pick it up, and the mayor will be on the other end, reaching out.

"We both probably need to consider reaching out to each other," Stratton says. "I don't think he is necessarily ready to do that, and I'm not ready to do that." 

In a statement Condon emailed to the Inlander last night, however, he extended an olive branch to Stratton, suggested they start meeting together again, and noted their common ground. 
I am focused on the business side of running a city and good communication is a part of it. My door is always open to her. I meet individually with the rest of the councilmembers and I welcome the chance to resume our regular meetings. We have a lot to talk about as we share interests that include a 21st Century Workforce plan and the Housing Quality Task Force that is discussing housing needs in Spokane. Both are important to the future of Spokane.
Stratton says her legislative assistant, Skyler Oberst, always encourages her to "press the reset button" and move past moments of frustrations toward common ground. Still, she suggests that the wound of what she sees as "a personal, public expression of no confidence" hasn't yet healed. 

"On one hand, I think I'm very very tough. You have to be thick-skinned [as a council member,]" Stratton says. "I am in most cases, but the human side of this is you can't always be Teflon. Sometimes something happens in a relationship that hurts."

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...