A Work in Progress

Four years ago, Spokane took a chance on David Condon; despite his lack of experience and some shaky moments, he has become our best strong mayor yet

It was about four years ago exactly, David Condon and I stood together and looked out the window of my office, then up on the fourth floor of the Hutton Building. Framed by the curtain of ponderosas that mark the South Hill where we both grew up, we were actually focused just a few blocks up at the old Sanders Market on Washington, just across from Arby's. My grandfather Archie owned that store for years after the war; my dad, Ted Sr., always says he learned the value of hard work there. There's a lot of McGregor family history stowed in that dilapidated little storefront. Condon's dad also worked for my grandpa, earning money while he was at Gonzaga University; Jack Condon often told his kids stories of working at Sanders, too.

Spokane can be that way sometimes, with connections seemingly on every street.

I was asking him about his plans if elected. I knew David's brothers, but I didn't know him, as he's a bit younger than me. Yet in many ways, I knew exactly who he was. We both went to Gonzaga Prep, and there's a kind of unspoken understanding among those taught by Jesuits. I knew his family, a hardworking bunch, and I could tell he was sharp by his sense of humor. I believed he wanted to make a difference in his city.

Ever since we switched to the strong mayor system, I've mostly been disappointed. We created the potential for better leadership and more dynamic government, but delivering that has been difficult. Part of that I blame on the mayors we have elected, for not always quite being up to the job; an equal part, however, I blame on Spokane, for so easily turning on them. We have kind of a Groundhog Day thing going, and it's holding us back.

I was a bit suspicious of Condon that day. He was almost a complete neophyte — no elected experience, young, brash and with the kind of right-wing pedigree that can be divisive. Despite Mary Verner being an aggravatingly inept mayor at times, I saw enough promise to recommend not turning the page like we usually do. Even our personal connections weren't enough to convince me to hand over the keys to our fragile city to David Condon.

Of course he won.

Inhabiting the office

Condon overcame zero name recognition and a dismal showing in the primary to move into the mayor's office. It was an impressive performance, made possible by an opponent who had been so remote that she had little political capital in the bank to draw on when she needed it.

Being mayor is two jobs, really — the symbolic and the conventional. You're toast if you can't run the city competently; Verner started down that path when the city failed to deploy snowplows quickly enough during an early storm, and she lectured citizens that "It's only snow, people." But really, you have a staff — a city administrator, department heads — to do all that conventional stuff. To me, the more important job is as the leader of the city — reaching out to business owners to grow jobs, highlighting charities that need a boost and helping citizens make sense out of tricky issues. You need to draw on your inner cheerleader to be successful — championing things nobody else can tackle and nudging them closer to reality.

Condon had snowplows at the ready his first winter in office, and he carries around that giant pair of scissors from the World's Fair to cut ribbons. From the start, he understood the job.

The strong, active nature of our city council and council president have helped Condon, although he may not see it. With a variety of viewpoints represented in city hall, and sparks often flying, citizens can feel the democracy. The council also protects us from any ideology he may have brought along with him from his days with Cathy McMorris Rodgers; thankfully he has chosen to focus on governing, not to push conservative social issues.

Condon and other leaders have also ushered in a refreshing youth movement. Entering office while in his thirties, Condon is energetic and focused on livability in both the little details, like fixing up the entrances to the city, and in the massive undertakings, like securing $65 million for Riverfront Park renovations. (Full disclosure: Condon asked me to volunteer to lead the committee that helped detail those renovations; he also nominated me to the Park Board, where I serve independently.)

Spokane has been wandering in the wilderness for decades, a civic orphan that can't find a mayor to call its own. The short, unhappy tenure of Jim West was the first glimpse of what a strong mayor could and should be; Condon has proven himself our most effective strong mayor since we switched to the new system in 2000.

Then the past month happened.

Navigating stormy seas

Over the past 30 days or so, Condon has felt Verner's pain, as his shoo-in re-election seems to have run off the rails. Even Doug Clark has started picking on him, the mayoral equivalent of seeing the vultures circle overhead. How he has handled the scrutiny after the departure of Police Chief Frank Straub says a lot; it's been clumsy. What really happened remains a mystery, a lawsuit's lined up, and now Condon seems to be laying low until the election.

He surely has lawyers telling him not to say anything as litigation is pending, but that never inspires confidence. To truly connect, Condon needs to be as honest and open with the public as possible — and instruct his staff to do the same. There's been far too much secrecy and obscuring of the real story over the past month. This is 100 percent our business.

National headlines tell us that police effectiveness is one of the toughest issues any American mayor will face. In Spokane, we've been at this for a decade now. In Condon's first term, we've seen reforms that are making a big difference. However, the ugly end to Straub's tenure is a reminder that this isn't over; the next mayor is going to be dealing with these same issues.

Condon also needs to re-engage on the ombudsman process. He ran for office in 2011 on police accountability and was elected in part for that stand; subsequently, voters called for strong oversight. Yet since being elected, Condon has effectively put the process out on an ice floe to die. If he was trying to placate the police, guess what? They still threw him under the bus a month before the election. Police accountability is a Condon promise and a legal mandate that needs to be delivered.

The strong mayor gets to hire and fire department heads. This allows the mayor to enact an agenda, but it's also the surest way to land in controversy. Iffy hires have a higher likelihood of blowing up, prompting hasty decisions that also can blow up. For Condon, it's been no different; ironically, the strongest planks of his re-election campaign — making city hall more business-friendly and reducing crime — are the two things that were delivered by two managers who were run out of the building, Scott Chesney and Straub. Mayors can take credit for the good work of their managers, but they also get blamed when the stumbling starts. The lesson? Hire — and fire — carefully.

Finally, Condon limits himself by viewing the world through the warped lens of politics. This is not D.C., where a state of perpetual campaigning requires that every moment be massaged and back-channeled. As a result, Condon has been oddly neutral on major city issues. When Condon would not endorse the ombudsman proposal that voters passed, it felt calculated. Not saying anything about the STA funding proposal, again, was puzzling. And when the WSU medical school — some say the biggest thing since Expo '74 — became a bit of a scrum, he stayed safely on the sidelines. As mayor, you are hired to lead, not hold up your finger to see which way the political winds are blowing.

Perhaps Condon has treaded so lightly because of that date on the calendar — Nov. 3, 2015. It's true that you're not much of a strong mayor if you can't even get re-elected. But here's hoping that if he does win another four years — his last, as the Spokane mayor is term-limited at two — he can become as bold as he was when he decided to run for the office in the first place.

Key word: "progress"

When I watch Condon working a room, I often think of that old Roman proverb, "Fortune favors the bold." He put himself out there, took a risk, and it paid off. That impresses me, and should impress anyone who cares about our future: Bold is pretty much what we need around here.

But that only takes us so far. I still think my initial read on Condon holds — he was green and probably has been in over his head. As we judge him here on the eve of Election Day, we should recognize that we took a chance on him four years ago. Mayor of Spokane is a complicated, challenging job, and Condon has been learning every step of the way. Every mayor, in fact, learns a lot in that first term; we just never have the patience to let them build on that experience. The past four years of experience give him a clear advantage over his opponent, Shar Lichty. On police reform alone, having gone through that particular wringer prepares him better than anyone for the reckoning that needs to come. And on creating a more dynamic, entrepreneurial city, he's the clear choice: Condon gets Spokane and what it needs.

Yes, Condon has been a work in progress, but so is our city. Lately, however, things have been going our way, and Spokane is on a roll, with pent-up progress coming in surprising ways. Instead of starting all over again, we need to build on this moment. I'm personally voting for David Condon. ♦

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...