John Powers- Spokane's first strong mayor - beholds the changes the city has undergone, and pronounces them (mostly) good

John Powers- Spokane's first strong mayor - beholds the changes the city has undergone, and pronounces them (mostly) good
Daniel Walters
Former Spokane Mayor John Powers is back in Spokane, "This is home. I feel at home here."

John Powers stands on the balcony of the Inlander Building, gazing out across the river at the city where he once served as mayor. He can see his house from here — the Riverfalls apartment complex on Riverside. The view off that apartment balcony is just as sweeping, he says, and just as meaningful.

"I can see from Paul Sandifur's bridge, all the way up to Sacred Heart hospital. That's 270 degrees," Powers says. "From the hospital my kids were born in to the churches I've attended, to my first office in Washington Trust at Paine Hamblen, to the Davenport where we cut the ribbon. From City Hall to Gonzaga to the courthouse."

He rattles off the spiel with the practiced confidence of a salesman who's given the same pitch a hundred times, but still truly believes in his product. Indeed, when I called for a follow-up phone call, Powers launched into the same speech, almost verbatim.

But it doesn't come across as inauthentic. The 71-year-old former politician bounces with a kind of giddy optimism, and he isn't just reminiscing about the good old days. It's about the excitement for the days ahead.

He led Spokane, he left Spokane, and now he's returned to Spokane.

click to enlarge John Powers- Spokane's first strong mayor - beholds the changes the city has undergone, and pronounces them (mostly) good
Inlander file photo
Powers was elected as Spokane's first strong mayor in 2000

Elected for a truncated term in 2000 as the city's first strong mayor — the previous mayors had been little more than glorified council members working with a city manager — Powers entered office in 2001 with little experience. But he had the kind of confidence to believe that he could be the one to fix a decade-long scandal involving a downtown parking garage.

He couldn't.

When the parking garage mess finally was resolved, he notes how close the adopted solution was to his proposal.

Nonetheless, like many mayors before and after Powers, voters booted him out after his first term.

"A great three years," Powers says. "I have no regrets."

But shortly after, he left Spokane to lead the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County. And for 16 years, at one job or another, he stayed on the west side.

Two things brought him home. The first was his wife's 2016 death from cancer. Suddenly, a whole lifetime spent together had ended.

"Twenty-two of those years were spent here in Spokane," Powers says, "both of us at Gonzaga, raising our family, working in the community, Bonnie as a teacher, myself as a lawyer."

He had so many good memories, so many good friends in the Lilac City.

The second thing driving him back to Spokane was the pandemic. He was already planning on leaving his then job with the Kitsap Economic Development Council. COVID accelerated it.

"I said I can't take one more Zoom," Powers says. "I'm not a Zoom guy. That's all we're doing in the first year of COVID — Zoom this, Zoom that."

Spokane just felt right to him.

"This is home. I feel at home here."

When Powers arrived back in Spokane, he says, he did a "self-guided tour of this community."

Every day, he'd drive and see what he could see.

"Kendall Yards. The new stadiums. The university district had come alive," Powers says. "When I came home and I looked at this city, I said, 'Wow, they're moving.' This community is moving in the right direction with a new spirit."

That's not to say that Spokane doesn't have woes. He grappled with homelessness 20 years ago as part of his "One Spokane" initiative, but it's much more visible and more intense today.

"It's right there. It's in our face every day," Powers says. "And underneath that facade is acute mental health challenges, including addiction. People that are just so discouraged, they don't see a future for themselves."

He says he just attended a conference where his former chief financial officer, Gavin Cooley, presented on the challenges of homelessness and addiction.

But he doesn't dwell on that. He is, at his heart, a civic booster, not a critic. He recalls a time, back when he was still mayor, standing on the roof of Chicago City Hall, speaking with then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

"I said, 'I'm still getting criticized back home for being too positive, too much a cheerleader, too much a rah-rah guy,'" Powers recalls saying. He stopped me, he said, "John, if the mayor doesn't do that, who the hell's gonna?'"

A former mayor, perhaps.

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...