by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Just when you thought Spokane might be mellowing out, all hell breaks loose. What was shaping up as a relatively quiet mayoral race between incumbent John Powers and City Councilman Steve Corker has ballooned into what will surely become another page-turning chapter in the wild history of Spokane politics.

In recent months, an initiative to rescind the strong mayor form of government was placed on the primary ballot, former newspaper editor Tom Grant jumped into the race and, at the very last moment, two political veterans, former mayor Sheri Barnard and current State Senate Majority Leader James West, threw their hats in the ring.

Here's the twist: All bets are off when it comes to old allegiances. The once-monolithic quartet (at least on the River Park Square issue) of Corker, Steve Eugster, Cherie Rodgers and John Talbott has crumbled: Eugster supports Powers, Talbott is behind Grant and Rodgers is for none of the above, as she'd prefer to see the strong mayor system thrown out (although she says Corker would be a "very good" mayor).

Still not enough drama? How about this: One candidate, West, is running for office while he's fighting for his life, having been diagnosed and treated for colon cancer.

Reality TV's got nothing on Spokane.

The Sixth Candidate -- As the candidates for mayor spar in front of civic groups across the city, there's an 800-pound gorilla in the room, and they can't ignore it. If the initiative to return the city to a council-manager form of government passes the primary ballot on Sept. 16, there will be no office for any of them to fill. (Of course, this all depends on the constitutionality of the initiative, which is being called into question, but that's another story.)

Most believe that the late entrants to the race hurt the initiative's chances because five candidates will be talking about the benefits of the three-year-old system and more people will be motivated to come out and vote for one of them. Still, plenty of people are dissatisfied with the new system, and only a few weeks back, many were confidently crowing about the end of the strong mayor system.

"Two years is long enough for me," says City Councilwoman Roberta Greene, who has served under both systems. "My disappointment level now is monumental. I'm just so disappointed."

Greene says the new system puts too much power into one person's hands, and she believes the community is more comfortable having that power shared by the council members.

"One senior person [in city hall] told me, 'I'm tired of bowing down,' " says Greene. "This is how you have to function within this particular situation."

Rodgers, who has often disagreed with Greene on policy, agrees with her on this issue: "I've never seen morale lower. That's partly because the mayor was new. If you don't have the experience, there's a learning curve. You need to get that addressed in the first 90 days, and that didn't happen."

Rodgers adds that the system is "more expensive, less effective and less accountable" than the old system, although she admits past councils should have fired a city manager or two to demonstrate the previous system's teeth. But Rodgers is also anxious to take issues like the garage litigation back into the council's control.

"The city council would get back in charge of RPS," she says, "and that's a really good deal."

But as the campaign progresses, it's likely that such voices will be drowned out by mayoral candidates, all of whom support the strong mayor system, even if they don't like the man who currently holds the office.

Barnard recalls that the day after she was elected mayor in 1989 -- a campaign she waged, in part, as a challenge to the waste-to-energy plant. The city manager was quoted in the newspaper saying that she was just one vote on the council. That, she says, drove it all home.

"If I had been a strong mayor then," Barnard says, "I could have called a press conference and stopped the incinerator in a day."

"Does anybody think we should have a weak governor, or a weak president?" asks Corker. "No. Then why should we do it here?"

People outside the race are supporting the system, too. The Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce has gone on the record in opposition to the initiative. Chamber Chairman Chris Marr says at least some of it has to do with how things look to the outside world.

"It's about consistency," he says. "It makes us look somewhat bush at a time when the buzz about Spokane is strong."

But more importantly, he says, it sets a bad precedent, as is being set in California: If you can't win at the ballot box fair and square, you can recall a mayor or pull out the rug from underneath him. "No one has offered me any concrete argument that this is anything other than a referendum on Powers," says Marr, "and all of us feel that's bad public policy."

Erik Skaggs, a vice president at Metropolitan Mortgage, who has led that company's efforts in local elections, including supporting the strong mayor initiative, says the system is only part of the equation.

"At the end of the day, it is the person," says Skaggs. "Mayor Powers has given the strong mayor a really bad name."

"The system itself is sound, and it's being exercised in more and more cities of this size and larger," adds David Bray, executive director of Taxpayers for Accountable Government (TAG). "Boise is a very good example. This hasn't been given a remotely fair test in Spokane yet."

The challenge for the candidates -- especially for Powers -- is bigger than in a normal election. Rather than simply convince voters to support them, they need to also explain why the office should be preserved. So let's meet the candidates.

John Powers -- By now he must know how Gray Davis feels. The embattled governor of California has become the fall guy for his state's misfortunes -- some of which he can rightly be blamed for. And even though he had enough support to win a statewide election, a minority movement was able to get a recall on the ballot. In Spokane, a minority of citizens, funded by a public employees union and shepherded by former city officials, was able to get a recall on the ballot, too. Many believe it got there because of how Powers treated union workers during contract negotiations, in which they ultimately secured pay increases.

But Gray Davis isn't really the best analogy for Powers; Bill Clinton is. Powers has the same effect on people that Clinton did -- they either love him or hate him. How much is based in knee-jerk politics versus actual policy quibbles doesn't really matter -- it's a perception thing, and it has characterized his two-and-a-half-year tenure.

Depending on who you talk to, he is either righting the sinking ship of state or running it aground.

"Powers thinks he's got a Little League team out there," says former Mayor John Talbott, who lost to Powers in 2000. "He's done nothing but serve himself."

"The mayor has some fantasy that he's a national Democratic player," adds Skaggs. "He's not the president of the United States; people didn't used to have to go through three layers of staff to get to the mayor."

And of course the candidates, to varying degrees, are running against the incumbent, with Barnard and West the least critical and Corker and Grant at the other end.

West even compliments the mayor's hiring of City Attorney Mike Connelly and Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley, but says Powers could have done a lot more. "He seems to be running [for office] even after he won," says West.

"We've made government too complicated," adds Barnard, referring to the layers of bureaucracy she regards as new since she was in charge.

"Out in the community," says Grant, "the No. 1 thing we are being told is that anything is better than the guy we have right now."

"John's biggest mistake was taking the separation of powers approach," says Corker, whose office was moved to a different floor in City Hall as part of the mayor's reorganization. Corker says Powers alienated the council through this and by dropping surprises like the rooftop garden on them at the last minute. And Corker is critical of Powers' attempts to take credit for things he shouldn't.

"John Powers came into office with a surplus in excess of $10 million, and it's been at that level for three years," says Corker. "He says he's created a reserve of $3 million. No, he hasn't. His representation that this city was in the tank and his policies have changed it -- it's a gross misrepresentation of fact."

Like Clinton, Powers has developed a system of surviving the body blows: Stay on message in hopes of keeping enough of the voters with you. His basic message? Despite what you're hearing from critics or not hearing at all in the Spokesman-Review, the new system is paying big dividends already.

"Some tough decisions have been made," Powers says, "and we're conducting the business of government in a businesslike fashion."

Surprisingly enough, even the mercurial Steve Eugster agrees: "The story yet to be told is about how well Powers has performed as strong mayor. He may not be my kind of strong mayor, but he's a strong mayor. He stood up to bargaining units, he's done a reserve, he's looking carefully at the budget, he hired [CFO] Gavin Cooley."

And Powers counters the criticism that he doesn't get along with the council by pointing out that his appointments were confirmed and that major policy has moved forward.

"Monday night, when the camera's on, people take shots at the mayor," says Powers. "But when the dust settles, how do they vote?"

Meanwhile, critics say his office is too expensive. "Our office is getting the job done," he counters, pointing out that overall city employment has been cut back to 1995 levels, and that his legislative affairs effort has increased outside funding streams to the city five-fold. Others say One Spokane was a boondoggle. "I don't apologize for a minute for One Spokane," he says, rattling off a list of accomplishments he says were helped along by his summit.

But he knows he has his work cut out for him; with a field of five candidates, anything can happen. That's when he plays what he appears to regard as his trump card in the race: his independence. Powers claims Corker is Met Mortgage's candidate and predicts that the Spokesman-Review and the Cowles family will ultimately back West.

"I'm beholden to the citizens," Powers says. "I'm nobody's candidate, and I don't think Jim West and Steve Corker can say that."

Perhaps the tallest hurdle for Powers, however, is the fact that Spokane hasn't re-elected a mayor in nearly 30 years. Powers says that's been a big part of the problem, as no mayor has been able to finish the job he or she started, leading him to ask potential voters: "How about giving this foundation a chance to mature?"

Steve Corker -- With a 12-page resume, Corker has the qualifications to be mayor. You could say the same thing, however, about Dick Gephardt's readiness to be president. Sometimes being too much of an insider can be a liability with voters suspicious of government to begin with. And Corker's opponents, especially Tom Grant, who is fighting for the same core constituency, are trying to remind voters of Corker's insider status.

While Powers has to defend his office, Corker has to defend the institution of city council, which has been held in even lower esteem than the mayor's office. But Corker is trying to educate the public on the city council's real record over the past four years.

"The Spokane City Council is the whipping boy for the Cowles media," says Corker, adding that the county commissioners are much more dysfunctional, although you won't see it in the newspaper.

Corker says Spokane needs to become more politically mature and realize that a lot of the sparks of the past four years have come from once-shadowy business suddenly being conducted in the light of day.

"Taking the controversial issues and putting them on the dais -- I still think that's healthy," says Corker.

As mayor, Corker says, he could heal the notion that city government isn't working by creating a more cooperative relationship with the city council. And he'd like to see the independent auditor position first raised on Talbott's watch become a feature of City Hall that could cut through the bureaucracy and politics on issues big and small.

"Look at the Lincoln Street Bridge," says Corker. "If we'd have had an internal auditor, we'd have never spent the money before certain issues had been defined."

But even Talbott says Corker had his chance: "Steve Corker is a great guy, but for the last two or three years, I've seen him sitting on the fence," Talbott says. "He had the opportunity to seize the leadership where Powers created a vacuum. He's a great one for consensus, but to me that's just the lowest common denominator. That's not leadership."

Others, however, say Corker's outsider sensibility and his knowledge of the lay of the land in City Hall will allow him to be effective immediately.

"We can't afford somebody who needs on-the-job training," says TAG's Bray.

"Grant and Corker come from the same perspective," says Skaggs. "Grant is at Step One in the process; he's where Corker was four years ago. And Corker is really at Step Two. Corker is really maturing; he's become a stronger proponent. He voted yes on the convention center, he introduced the independent auditor. Corker has evolved out of Step One, and he has matured as a council member."

Corker does have long-standing ties, both personal and professional, to the Sandifur family, owners of Met Mortgage. (Strangely enough, it appears that Sandifurs have given more to Grant's campaign than to Corker's -- according to filings with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission as of Aug. 4.) Corker sits on the Board of Directors for one of Met's companies, Western United, and he was instrumental in securing the startup funding from Met Mortgage for Camas Magazine, an online publication that has investigated and reported on the River Park Square issue.

Corker says Met's concern is altruistic; they have no business before the city, he says, but are just interested in leveling the playing field politically so that economic development can progress normally.

"They've never asked for a HUD loan, they've never asked for any [favors to help develop] property," says Corker. "I have never had any political pressure from a Met employee on an issue facing City Hall."

Again like Gephardt, Corker is also working to secure the endorsements of the various unions; he already has the firefighters' endorsement, while others are yet to make their decision.

At risk of being too much of an insider, Corker is quick to list his accomplishments: working for years on the convention center expansion, often as a critic, but finally as a supporter; helping get the Growth Management Act compliance back on track after it had been languishing; helping the Davenport Hotel project get the city's assistance; and working on the transition team, which streamlined the city's departments from 14 to eight when the strong mayor system came in.

Finally, he beats an old drum that many may like to hear: consolidation. While he recognizes it may not happen during his term, he says more consolidation is needed to cut down on the cost of services that can be handled regionally, including, he says, police protection.

"I'm not interested in turf wars," says Corker. "It's just critical in the next 10 to 15 years that we move to regional government. We can't afford not to."

Tom Grant -- One of the first lines Grant ever wrote as editor of the Local Planet was that "TV sucks." Later, he spent lots of ink outlining the alleged crimes of the Spokesman-Review. From time to time he would even pick on The Inlander. Now, as he seeks help in getting his message out, he has to hope the local media treats him a little better.

As an outsider, Grant would love to become this race's Arnold Schwarzenegger -- a candidate who lights a fire under an apathetic electorate. Of course Arnold is loaded and Grant's campaign is bare-bones, but with his weekly picnics and other outreach efforts, it's clear that Grant is doing something a little different -- a little more grassroots -- than the others.

"Everybody else has a constituency," says Grant of the other candidates. "We don't have one. Our constituency is something we're out there creating."

Still, Grant likes his chances against a bunch of political insiders: "Being an outsider is not a bad thing in this town. The city is looking for somebody to represent them, but they haven't found them so far."

But another scenario might be that Grant replays the role of Ralph Nader, whom many believe kept Al Gore out of office. Most acknowledge that Grant and Corker are fighting over many of the same voters, and that they share many of the same values and policy objectives. So if Grant's candidacy keeps Corker out of the general election -- or vice versa -- wasn't having two candidates with the same base worse than having one?

"I tried to talk Tom out of running," says Corker. "We have a lot of very close friends who we're going to force to make a choice.

"The biggest difference," Corker continues, "is exactly what happened to John Powers. Tom has no municipal experience."

"I really like Steve Corker, but we have differences," says Grant. "One of them is that he's inside government, and I'm out."

With an eye to the general election, former Mayor John Talbott thinks Grant could create the kind of excitement needed for the citizens to "clean house."

"The only one who has any expertise is Tom Grant," says Talbott. "As an investigative reporter, he has to determine which facts bear on an issue; I don't see any others with that skill. But that's if you want to fix the problem. I don't know if Spokane really wants to fix its problems."

Grant says he would apply his skills as an investigator to City Hall, and he points out some of the successes he has had as a reporter: debunking the myth of the Wenatchee sex ring case; helping veterans get recognition for Gulf War Syndrome; and exposing a fraudulent mortgage scheme in Spokane.

But "journalist" perhaps doesn't completely reflect Grant's career; in fact, politics may be a more natural fit for him.

"Relative to other journalists, I tend to act more decisively," Grant says. "I was taught that you have to know where you stand when you write a story. I always knew where I stood, and I think people know that."

Grant doesn't think he's been an advocate in his reporting, but some of his stories and methods over the years have teetered on that brink. For instance, he seemed to employ a double standard in alleging the Cowles family used its newspaper to further the agenda of its owners, while his own paper repeatedly ran glowing reports about advertisers Metropolitan Mortgage and the Sandifurs. And while he was reporting on the trial of alleged white supremacists accused (and later convicted) of bombings and bank robberies in the Spokane Valley for KREM, viewers didn't know he was caring for some of their kids in his own home.

But in an era of FOX News and points of view creeping into about every nook and cranny in the media, these issues probably don't amount to much in the eyes of voters. Yet personally speaking, Grant may be more comfortable -- perhaps even liberated -- by wearing his opinions on his sleeve.

"I hate to call myself a politician," he says, "but this feels very right for me."

Several Corker supporters are very complimentary about Grant's work, but say he's just not ready to make that Arnold-like jump from no inside experience to the top of the totem pole.

"Tom asks a lot of good questions," says Rodgers, "but I wish he would have run for city council."

Perhaps one reason that Grant has been able to generate excitement in the race is because he is offering specific ways for Spokane to break with the past.

"Seattle used its first public development authority to build Pike Place Market, and they got the icons of the flying fish and Starbucks," Grant says. "Our first one was to build a parking garage, and that's an example of Spokane's failure of vision."

Grant admits his ideas aren't all his own, but they are ones he'd like to champion in office. He'd like to see a permanent public market incorporated into the design of the new convention center. He'd like to see a public utility created to extend high-speed Internet access at a low cost to citizens -- something that's already happening in Grant County. And he'd like to get behind an effort to create a medical school in Spokane.

And like Corker before him, he's advocating for an independent auditor, although his vision is a bit different. While Corker wants the position filled via election, Grant wants it hired by the city council and set up to work for that body exclusively.

"I see a city that needs somebody to get them through some very difficult times," says Grant. "If you don't have a vision, then we won't have any idea where we're headed."

James West -- How do you beat Lance Armstrong? You don't -- especially after he beat cancer. West is this race's Lance Armstrong, and it's hardly fair, really. He was a pretty tough candidate before being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Now he looks to be even tougher. Not only can he expect to get some sympathy votes, but he may also get votes from people enamored with the idea of how much b.s. a guy will cut through when every day is precious to him. Add to all this the fact that West is the only Republican in the race (supposedly a nonpartisan one), and the man who couldn't make it out of the primary in the 2000 mayoral election appears to be poised to make a serious run at the job.

The above scenario is all too easy to outline, but the truth is, as West so bluntly puts it, "I'm not cured yet," and voters may stay away from someone so sick.

On a visit to The Inlander office last week, the senator looked good for a guy undergoing chemotherapy four times a month: he had his hair and he looked tan, not gaunt. But then again, looks can be deceiving: underneath it all, he still has tumors in his body that could kill him. His treatments are shrinking them, but there are no guarantees, he says. He may even need surgery during the campaign to remove the tumors.

Voters will need to make a decision with a lot of uncertainty, but West is optimistic. Or course, he has to be. If voters need any more guidance on the matter, he offers this: "I could be hit by a truck tomorrow -- any one of us could be hit by a truck tomorrow."

In the voting booth, it will be hard for voters not to put themselves in West's shoes: "You're having a great session," West recalls of his life just before being diagnosed, "everything is going your way, and -- bam! It tells you life is short, and if you're wanting to do something, you should do it now."

It falls to the rest of the candidates to squeeze some doubts into voters' minds amid all the well-wishing.

"I don't want anything bad to happen to Jim West," says Grant. "I just hope he's OK."

In the week after his surprise announcement -- West says he first tried to convince Rob Higgins to run -- West generated the most buzz. The entire race changed when he entered it. Would he steal support in the business community from Powers? Would he be able to raise enough money in so short a time? (West says he will need to raise $50,000 in the next six weeks.)

Bray says West is a strong candidate and that, if he was elected, his high profile and many connections could be a boon to Spokane's economic development efforts.

"West is a heck of a senator," says Met Mortgage's Skaggs, "and I'd hate to lose that senate majority seat for Spokane." Skaggs also points out that in the past, West has supported projects that Corker criticized, like the Lincoln Street Bridge.

Others have been anxious to get West out of the senate. The state Democratic Party turned West's last re-election effort into the most expensive senate race in state history. Ironically, some in the party might secretly root for West to win the mayor's job.

It might just be time for West to quit the senate -- if he wants to go out on top, anyway. Recognized by most as having brokered the toughest budget in the state's history without new taxes, even West says it was the best session he'd ever had.

"We decided early on what our [Republican] focus should be," he says, "and that was the economy and jobs. Bills had to be tailored to jobs."

Why leave his post? "Spokane needs more help than Olympia. I can do more here."

Some politicos hope he winds up staying in Olympia, however.

"West is tied up with special interest groups," says Talbott. "He's been tied up with them for years."

Chris Marr of the Chamber says West's success may come down to a question of style: "West needs to be careful not to come across as bare knuckles."

But West says his transformation has been underway over the past three sessions in Olympia, and that his health problems have pushed him even farther into the "kinder, gentler" column.

West also believes he can save the strong mayor system. Without a "sensible" alternative, he thought the system would get voted out. As for all those people who are going out to vote to get rid of the system -- voters who will be allowed to vote for a mayoral candidate, too -- "I'm the insurance policy," West says.

Many have criticized Powers for stumbling out of the gate, perhaps due to his lack of political experience. West agrees with that assessment and says that among the candidates, he offers the best management style. He has had to cross the aisle more and more in recent years, as margins of control in Olympia have been razor-thin. And he's become a big believer in management gurus like Stephen Covey and others; he's even used their systems in running the Republican caucus. West says he would work more closely with the council than Powers has: "Successful presidents, governors and mayors work with their legislative bodies."

West also sees the need for the city to get the small things right. For example, he wonders why visitors to Spokane, entering at Division, have to be greeted by weeds and homeless people asking for money. "These are the gateways to the community, and how we greet people matters. We need to clean up our front yard.

"People just want a stable government," West concludes. "They want to feel good about their city."

Sheri Barnard -- On Friday, Aug. 1, Barnard woke up and decided to run for mayor. Sure, it was a decision that was a few weeks in the making, but it was as spontaneous a major political move as you'll find.

To carry our candidate analogies to their conclusion, let's say Sheri Barnard is your mom. You and the neighbor kids have been goofing around all day, messing up the living room, and she's been threatening from the kitchen: "Don't make me come in there!"

Well, guess what? Mom has had enough, and the city of Spokane finally did it -- they made her come over there to set things straight.

"Instead of the bickering and nonsense that's been going on at City Hall for eight years, let's make people our No. 1 priority," says Barnard. "If we do that, economic development will follow."

Barnard wants to inject a grown-up's sensibilities into a City Hall that she says is not making its citizens proud. It's going to have to be a grassroots movement, she says, since she doesn't plan to raise much money. Barnard is the wild card in the race; most activists are wondering where her constituency lies and who she'll steal votes from. But again, with five candidates, a candidate could advance with 20 percent of the vote or less. Anything can happen.

In this sea of testosterone, Barnard's natural constituency would seem to be women -- a potentially powerful group, indeed. She also has a long list of admirers. If you've ever seen her walk down a city street, you'll understand -- she only makes it 30 feet before she sees someone she knows. And that's where the seeds of her candidacy were sown.

"I just kept seeing people on the street who said, 'We wish you were still down there; it's so horrible,' " says Barnard. "That really bothered me that people thought that about our city."

Barnard, who currently works at the YWCA, says she could have done more as mayor under the strong mayor system, but is quick to add that, "I was a strong mayor." She points to accomplishments like the Youth Commission, the Riverfront Park Powwow, the Friends of the Davenport, the Human Rights Commission and the successful levies to fund new libraries, fire stations, parks and streets.

"Everybody worked together harder then," she says, adding that she'd like to foster and recapture that cooperative spirit. "We'd be a team, and I think that's what the community wants. The bigger picture is to restore trust in City Hall."

Who Advances? -- There are plausible scenarios that put any combination of these candidates into the general election -- along with the possibility that the job disappears into a fog of lawsuits and civic confusion.

Most predict a lively race because so many viewpoints are sure to be aired. Marr hopes the focus remains on the future, not the past.

"If this turns into a shouting match about chocolate-covered strawberries and rooftop gardens, we'll probably be missing the point on all this," says Marr. "I think people really want to hear about the future."

The man in the middle of it all, John Powers, says he hopes the campaign can stay clean.

"If you look at the last two races, it would be reasonable to expect that there will be a lot of last-minute financial support, both individually and through attack PACs," says Powers. "I'm hopeful that the public will reject it. The future of our city should not be based on negative politics."

"It's an incredible bag of worms," says Bray of TAG, one of those groups Powers has taken to calling an attack PAC. "I haven't seen a race like it since I've lived in Spokane. The real message is that people need to vote."

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Publication date: 08/14/03

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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...