by Inlander Staff
Mayor of Spokane -- Jim West -- Spokane voters confirmed their trust in the new strong mayor system in September, and come Nov. 4, they can finish the job by choosing a qualified leader who can fill the office the way it should be. Spokane has come through a rough patch in recent years, with major changes implemented that have been nothing short of revolutionary. Now the time has finally come when the city can reap the benefits of those changes.

One of the concerns voiced early about the strong mayor system was whether the job would attract serious candidates. Jim West proves that it has. He is the most qualified person for the job -- period. He has balanced massive budgets, in good and bad economic times; he knows the state and local systems well, and has personal connections to the people who work in them; he is highly attuned to the issue of economic development, the city's No.1 challenge; he has managed people in a government setting; and he has the political sophistication, borne of years in public office, to stay focused, get out of the chute fast in January and make things happen.

He's a slam-dunk, right? Not so fast. There's an odd political current these days, perhaps stemming from a decade or more of bashing the government from all kinds of directions -- talk radio, initiative peddlers and even from politicians themselves. Now we're reaping what has been sown, and there seems to be a notion that lack of experience is a virtue.

Take California, for example, where the bland, hyper-qualified Gray Davis was booted in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose reliance on one-liners and clear lack of experience has many hoping for the best but really wondering who will be pulling his strings once he's in office. But at least you can say that in California, they hired an experienced person and it didn't work out, so they're trying something different. As we've written before, even laboratory mice will try something different after one electrical shock too many.

Perhaps the California story bodes well for Spokane, as the Lilac City elected an inexperienced candidate in 2000. So now voters may go in another direction, as in California, though here that means trying experience for a change. First-time politician John Powers meant well, and he has made some progress for the city, but his lack of political experience was a burden -- and often painful to watch. After seeing three years of Powers, many have come to realize that experience is just what the job calls for. Here's what some were saying back in August:

"The biggest difference is exactly what happened to John Powers," then mayoral candidate Steve Corker told us. "Tom [Grant] has no municipal experience."

"We can't afford somebody who needs on-the-job training," Taxpayers for Accountable Government's David Bray said.

"Tom [Grant] asks a lot of good questions," Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers told us, "but I wish he would have run for city council."

To put it simply, Tom Grant is not qualified for this job. Voters are essentially hiring the city's CEO; Grant's resume features journalism awards he has won. Kudos on those, but they're not all that relevant. This is like interviewing for a new heart surgeon, and one candidate comes in with the perfect education and experience while the other candidate is really good at civil engineering. Running a city is a professional job, and although we've been conditioned to believe otherwise, experience is the greatest predictor of success.

Grant would say that his experience comes from watching Spokane closely for years, and from tapping into new ideas. These are the exact same things that John Powers said during his 2000 campaign.

Back to Schwarzenegger: A big question for Grant is who is going to help him make the decisions he's not ready to be making. Lack of experience creates a vacuum, and something will fill that vacuum. Voters should wonder, for example, if Yale Lewis will be back in charge of the River Park Square litigation. It's possible that electing Grant would be sending the city right back into those chaotic years of 1999 and 2000. Those were tough times, and there's no reason to repeat them.

Grant means well, he has worked hard on the campaign and, yes, he cuts a more charismatic profile than West. He's championing some intriguing ideas, and campaigns should be about specifics. But even there his lack of political experience looks like Powers II. He seems to be following the current mayor's script in making promises he can't keep. Powers told the community he could solve RPS through mediation; he couldn't, he probably should have known that he couldn't, and when it came time to run for reelection, he had no explanation as to why it didn't work. Now Grant has a plan to get the state Supreme Court not only to reopen the garage case but also to rule in the city's favor. The plan is so misguided, it's hard to believe it's coming from a reputed expert on the garage issue. Lawyers familiar with the case, including Steve Eugster, and even a former Supreme Court justice, told us the plan is well beyond a long shot. Even if it is legally valid, it's just not practical. Whoever wins the mayor's office will have a plate overflowing with RPS from January to April, when the federal case is to start. Pursuing a parallel track of entirely new litigation would only be a distraction, just as the real ballgame is starting.

Grant may not realize it, but voters are likely to take his calls for goodies like a new medical school as campaign promises. As with Powers, Grant's strategy of making promises that will be nearly impossible to keep adds up to a recipe for another one-term-and-out mayor. How long can Spokane afford to switch horses every four years?

Many people are concerned about voting for West, seeing him as too partisan or just plain mean. As for partisanship, this is not Congress or even the state house. West won't be in charge of determining abortion policies or setting gun regulations. He will be overseeing the delivery of services. No, you probably won't see much interest from him on things like One Spokane, and you may see him share the stage with George Nethercutt from time to time, but being mayor is one of the least ideologically driven positions at any level of government. Even he says he's anxious to get the "R" out from behind his name. And as for whether he's mean, West has clearly mellowed over the past few years, having learned to work across the aisle in Olympia. It's true that he has a more direct style than some might be comfortable with, but maybe Spokane needs a little bit of that to get moving in the right direction. To put it more bluntly: Maybe West is a bit of a hard ass, but at least he'll be our hard ass.

This idea that experience is somehow bad can only be called the politics of desperation. And desperation causes people to do things that don't make much sense. But Spokane can't afford to keep doing things that don't make sense. In the end, will this city buy into the nonsensical notion that experience doesn't matter? Or will it make the rational choice and choose the only candidate in the race who has the potential for transforming the office into what it needs to become?

City Council President -- Dennis Hession -- This one's a really tough call, as both men have proven to be thoughtful, hard-working city councilmen. Much has been made over whether the job should be full-time or part-time; there are compelling arguments on both sides. We don't think it should be full time. The council should be made up of citizens; when you work in City Hall, you run the risk of becoming a bureaucrat, and if you're a bureaucrat, you're no longer just a citizen. We're not saying that this would happen to Al French, however, and it's admirable that he is willing to work at it full time. We don't see it as the only issue in the race, and it didn't factor much into this endorsement.

The major criterion in this race is who will be able to change the office from what it currently is --setting the agenda and running the Monday night meetings -- to what it needs to become. For the strong mayor system to succeed, the council president really needs to become more like the Speaker of the House of Spokane, rallying votes for new public policies or opposing the mayor, if necessary. The council needs to provide a counterbalance to the mayor's office, so that Spokane will get the kind of check-and-balance system that's been missing. Along with mentoring the new council members, the council president should work closely with the new mayor, but he shouldn't necessarily think that his job is to make the mayor look good or to help the mayor succeed. Both Dennis Hession and French seem to understand the changes that need to be made.

But to make progress, the council president and the mayor will need to trust each other. This is where Hession earns an edge, just enough to outweigh French's longer list of experience, including good work in helping the STA figure out its future.

Hession is more of a political free agent; with him, what you see is what you get, and that kind off honesty is rare and valuable. No interest groups will be able to get their hooks into Hession. Not being tied into one perspective is a powerful thing in Spokane. And while both Hession and French generally fit that description, French is more likely to play at politics, as evidenced by his rocky relationship with the current mayor and in the flap over campaign contributions and whether he should accept them from those who have business before the city.

This is as close a call as we've had to make over these 10 years we've been publishing. Either man could be effective, as long as he maintains his independence and embraces the new role the position calls for. The good news is that even the loser will keep his seat on the council -- and here's hoping whoever loses maintains a leading role on the council, along with the other remaining veteran, Cherie Rodgers. The rookie council members will need some mentoring. But Spokane will be fortunate in continuing to have both French and Hession in its service.

Publication date: 10/23/03

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Wed., Feb. 8, 12-1 p.m.
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