ELECTION 2023: Being mayor is a tough job, why do these two want it?

click to enlarge ELECTION 2023: Being mayor is a tough job, why do these two want it?
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Nadine Woodward (left) and Lisa Brown.

Nadine Woodward and Lisa Brown are in the final stretch of a grueling application process for one of Spokane's toughest jobs.

Come November, whoever wins will have the dubious honor of being in charge of all the city's problems. As mayor of Washington's second-largest city, they'll be the public face when things go wrong — the name taken in vain when a driver hits a pothole.

Their list of responsibilities will include, but not be limited to: a $20 million budget deficit, a growing homelessness crisis, housing unaffordability, an influx of fentanyl, political and social polarization, crime, wildfires, and the growing specter of climate change.

"You get credit for the good times, and you take responsibility for the bad times, even when it's not your fault," says Dennis Hession, who was Spokane's mayor from 2005 to 2007. "Expect this to be your seven-day-a-week job."

The salary is actually pretty good — $176,500 a year plus health care and other benefits. But that's still a lot less than most private sector executives make when they're sitting at the top of an organization with more than 2,000 employees and a billion-dollar budget.

"The buck stops with you. All of the issues land in your lap," says Woodward, 61, who took office on Dec. 30, 2019. "All the concerns and the complaints and the challenges really rest on you. But you don't always have all the authority to face those challenges and address the concerns in the way you want to."

The public scrutiny is relentless. Woodward says not being able to please everybody is one of the more difficult parts of being mayor. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

"People were upset that I wasn't in the Pride parade, then they were upset that I was in the Pride parade," Woodward says of the annual LGBTQ+ event.

And unlike many other political positions, the role of mayor doesn't come with much upward mobility.

"I don't think it lends itself well" as a career stepping stone, Brown says. "Except for Mayor Pete, maybe."

Brown, 67, is referring to Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who vaulted to the Cabinet-level position of U.S. transportation secretary under President Joe Biden after running for president in 2020.

Mayor Pete is an outlier.

"Mayorships are definitely not the path to the congressional seat or the Senate seat or anything else like that," says John Powers, who was mayor of Spokane from 2000 to 2003 and worked in economic development in the Seattle-area after leaving office, only recently returning to Spokane.

Brown and Woodward have spent the better part of a year arguing — incessantly and contentiously — about why they're the better pick for the job. But why do they want the job? They both have plenty of connections, and could easily find one of those vague consultant jobs that doesn't involve hard work or everyone being mad at you all the time.

But for some reason, these two are determined to be mayor.

BECOMING A POLITICIAN

Woodward says there was never a "lightbulb" moment. Her interest in politics came gradually, across decades of work as a broadcast TV journalist for KXLY and KREM.

"I loved election night coverage," Woodward says. "That was kind of the Super Bowl of news, so to speak."

The live updates. New ballot drops trickling in. Excitement and uncertainty. Woodward says she especially enjoyed getting to meet and interview the candidates.

In 2019, as Woodward's contract with KXLY neared its expiration date and the next mayoral race loomed, rumors began to swirl about a possible Woodward run for mayor.

Woodward was already well-known because of her years on Spokane television, and it wasn't totally unprecedented for someone to make the jump from broadcast news to politics: former KXLY anchor Ron Bair was elected mayor of Spokane in 1978. He decided not to seek reelection because the office was putting strain on his marriage and finances — the salary was just $9,000 back then, equivalent to about $47,000 today — and thus began a three-decade streak of one-term Spokane mayors that lasted until David Condon's reelection in 2015.

Woodward announced her candidacy for mayor one month after her contract with KXLY expired.

"I loved my job as a journalist telling the stories of people doing great things for the city they love, and I wanted to be those people," Woodward says. "I wanted to make the biggest impact I could, and I felt that the office of mayor would definitely allow me to do that."

Woodward came into the job with no experience in elected office. She argues that it's a good thing she's not a career politician.

"Being able to listen to the community, that's one of the skill sets that I think journalists parlay very well into elected office," Woodward says.

If elected, Brown will be the opposite. She's spent the better part of three decades in various positions at the state level, most of them elected, though she pushes back on the "career politician" label and notes that she's also spent decades working in higher education.

Before getting involved in politics, Brown worked at Eastern Washington University as an associate professor of economics. In the early 1990s, someone from the Washington State Labor Council reached out and asked if she'd be interested in running for elected office at the state level.

"[With] the passion I had for public policy, it seemed like a good next step," Brown says. "Especially with my friends at the time, we had a true grassroots campaign."

Brown was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1992 with 64% of the vote.

"It was also good timing because it was the quote-unquote year of the women," Brown says, referring to label commentators used to describe the unusually large number of women elected to the U.S. Senate that year, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Brown still has fond memories of the first big piece of legislation she worked on — it's part of what cemented her passion for public policy, and the reason she decided to run for reelection again and again and again.

It was the Cooper Jones Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Education Act — named for a Spokane teenager who was hit and killed by a motorist while riding his bike. Brown recalls Jones' parents and a group of bike and pedestrian safety advocates coming together to work on the bill.

"Their courage to come forward and turn their grief into something positive for the whole state really inspired me," Brown says. "That kind of became a model for me."

"A global health pandemic. Summer protests. Our first riot. 'Defund the police.' A workforce shortage. Inflation. Camp Hope."

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UNPRECEDENTED TIMES

To say that Woodward's first term in office came with unexpected challenges is an understatement.

"A global health pandemic. Summer protests. Our first riot. 'Defund the police.' Housing crisis. A workforce shortage. Inflation. Camp Hope," Woodward says. "Any one of those things would have been a big challenge."

During her run for reelection, Woodward opens many of her campaign speeches by enumerating that same list and highlighting the unprecedented times she faced in her first term. Brown has accused Woodward of deflecting responsibility toward factors outside her control. But Brown does acknowledge that the pandemic was unique.

"When this mayor says things aren't going well... there's always somebody that's blamed," Brown says. "Even the pandemic, which, granted, that was a challenge. Not going to question that one."

Woodward says the days of navigating the pandemic from the city's emergency operations center, while City Hall was largely empty of its 2,000 employees, was especially challenging as a new mayor trying to learn the inner workings of city government. The pandemic also shuttered many of the community appearances that are expected of mayors.

Woodward says people often ask if she would have run for mayor if she'd known what was coming. She says she would.

"If we knew what we were going to face in life, we wouldn't get out of bed sometimes. But it is what it is," Woodward says. "When you're called to do something, there's a moment in your life when you realize there's something else for you. I said, 'You know, I think I'm being called for servant leadership.'"

The pandemic was an especially challenging time for America's mayors. The limited resources of municipal government clashed with the fallout of a pandemic and rapidly worsening homelessness crisis.

A 2020 Boston University Menino Survey of Mayors found that 46% of mayors felt there was a "large gap" between the federal assistance funding available and what was needed. In a survey the following year, three in four mayors said residents were holding them responsible for homelessness, but only 19% said they felt like they had any control over the issue.

A lot of pandemic-era mayors ran for re-election but lost amid a dramatic drop in approval ratings. Others simply decided not to run again, citing burnout from the pandemic, protests and associated challenges.

But Woodward says the trials of her tumultuous pandemic term weren't enough to dissuade her from running again.

"I would love to know what this job is like without all of those challenges," Woodward says.

FROM THE STATE TO THE CITY

In 2018, Brown ran to represent Washington's 5th Congressional District against the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Brown lost the election but won the vast majority of precincts in the city of Spokane. She says people started reaching out and asking if she'd consider running for mayor, but Brown didn't feel like it was the right time.

In January 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her to become director of the state Commerce Department. Brown says the work allowed her to see the connections between local and state government more clearly, and got her thinking more seriously about the idea of running for mayor.

"Infrastructure projects, clean energy grants, small business support, housing and homelessness... I saw all those connections much more from the perspective of Commerce than I had seen them as a legislator," Brown says.

Then came Camp Hope. Throughout 2022, Woodward's city government clashed repeatedly with Brown's Commerce Department over the 600-person homeless encampment in Spokane's East Central neighborhood. Brown's mayoral ambitions became clearer, and people started to speculate.

Woodward has suggested that Brown intentionally delayed Camp Hope's closure to harm her politically and boost Brown's mayoral ambitions. Brown says that's completely false.

"It was just the opposite," Brown says. "Really, it was my frustration with how the city was handling that situation that got me seriously thinking about having somebody in that office who would not re-create that debacle."

Brown says she didn't decide to run for mayor until late December of last year. She consulted with family, gave Inslee a heads-up and took the plunge. She acknowledges that it's unusual for people to leave state-level politics to run at the city level, but says she wanted a challenge.

"I think local government is going to be harder," Brown says.

"This is the culmination of my public sector leadership. This is it. For me, it really is truly about service."

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'BEST JOB IN AMERICA'

Throughout his term at the beginning of this century, Powers was embroiled in controversy surrounding the city's River Park Square parking garage, a yearslong debacle that saw the city financially tangled up in a public-private partnership to revitalize downtown with a parking lot that failed to pay off. Powers describes the time as "very contentious, very divisive."

"I went into it thinking I could mediate a quick resolution," Powers says. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way."

Powers ran for reelection in 2003 but was defeated in the primary with just 20% of the vote. Regardless, he looks back at his time as mayor fondly.

"If you love your community and you want to help it move forward, if you've got some thoughts and ideas and ability to build a team and support around it, it is the best job in America," Powers says.

Hession faced a challenging economic situation and controversy over a city's garbage pickup strategy. After being appointed mayor when Jim West was recalled by voters, Hession ran for re-election in 2007. He was defeated by Mary Verner. (Verner didn't respond before deadline. Condon declined to comment.)

But, Hession, too, says he enjoyed being mayor and wouldn't trade it for anything.

"You make many, many interesting but challenging decisions every single day," says Hession, who returned to his law practice after leaving City Hall. "You have your finger on the pulse of the city all the time every day, and that's incredibly gratifying to say that's part of your job."

Despite the contentious attacks, public scrutiny and polarization this election cycle, Brown and Woodward say they share that same sincerity about the job. They both describe it as a calling, a desire to serve the city they love.

Both candidates deny having any greater political ambitions.

"This is the culmination of my public sector leadership. This is it," Brown says. "In terms of career accomplishments, I'm not seeking any. For me, it really is truly about service."

Woodward feels the same way.

"This is my way of giving back to a city that welcomes me and has been very, very good to me," Woodward says. "I have no intention of running for any other office, I'm not looking for a political appointment of any kind or my next political opportunity. This is it." ♦

Nate Sanford

Nate Sanford is a staff writer for the Inlander covering Spokane City Hall and a variety of other news. He joined the paper in 2022 after graduating from Western Washington University. You can reach him at [email protected]

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