by Robert Herold

We almost made it. Spokane was coming dangerously close to holding an election without putting innuendo above issues, an election sans nasty last-minute mailers and free of flat-out personal attacks. This really would have been something. But with only a week left, the gloves came off. At Monday night's City Council meeting, what started out as a discussion on solving the River Park Square dispute wound up as a campaign event. Steve Corker accused Mayor John Powers and fellow Councilman Dennis Hession of not being impartial when it comes to River Park Square, because of campaign contributions from lawyers involved in the case. Apparently, Corker was trying to boost the fortunes of Al French, as the race for council president winds down. If he was trying to help, he didn't.

For one thing, to suggest that Powers is willing to roll over on the garage defies logic; if he had wanted to roll over on the garage, he could have done it three years ago. Instead of scoring points for French, Corker opened a new front for French to defend. An angry Powers hurried down to the meeting on Monday night and claimed that French had met with Cowles family members, all by himself, and brokered some kind of deal that, again according to Powers, let the mall developers off the hook entirely. In these final days before the election, Hession may have to answer questions about how he plans to treat campaign contributors if elected, but now French will have to answer about whether he really believes the garage dispute should be settled without any contribution from the Cowles side. Before Monday night, that question wasn't even being asked.

In Powers' case, the charge was just untrue, as he never received the contributions in question. Every politician has to collect money to run for office. The issue is how you deal with contributions from people who either have business before the city or have some kind of political agenda. In his various runs for office, PDC records show that Corker has taken in nearly $100,000 from the Metro Pac and Paul Sandifur. Corker has said Met Mortgage has never asked for any favors; they just like the work he does. Fair enough -- I can accept that. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that a couple of old-friend attorneys who contributed $600 to Hession's campaign are so easily viewed by this same person as proof of Hession's inability to be fair and impartial.

Again, in trying to help French, Corker reopened one of the few issues that has hurt French. As has been reported, French accepted a contribution from an old friend whose firm wanted the city to rezone a parcel he controlled. Hession was given a contribution, too, but returned it. French kept it, but recused himself from voting on the matter. Who handled that situation better is for the voters to decide, but that question is again front and center.

Perhaps Hession should return the contributions made by these attorneys, but if that's what Corker is arguing, then why not encourage French to do the same thing with the real estate developer's contribution? Corker seemed to imply that he and French can easily balance the duty of their office with the needs of their contributors, but Hession is somehow incapable of that same trick. That's just plain disingenuous.

Over the years, I've worked with French, especially when I was on the Plan Commission. He was always the best prepared among us; no one can doubt his competence. He has shown a remarkable capacity to engage complex questions at every level, from the strategic to the practical. Moreover, he has worked in the civic trenches longer than most.

And Hession has shown similar competence, made an impressive debut on the council, with thoughtfulness and honesty that will be of great use to the city no matter how this election turns out. So why do we need to tear either of these guys down? Corker essentially said, from the city council dais, no less, that Hession is not to be trusted. I don't see any evidence to back up such an assertion. And for French to stand by while this allegation hangs around is wrong. He needs to tell the voters if he agrees with what Corker said.

But now that we've been led down this path, into looking at who is giving money to whom, a curious picture emerges. French enjoys support from a range of land developers and related interests. Hession, while drawing support from downtown business interests, also has 243 separate contributions to his campaign that were listed at $50 or less (as of Tuesday, when this column went to press). French, by contrast, listed just 35 who had given $50 or less, according to Tuesday's filings.

And this brings to mind things about French that may have led the voter interviewed in the Spokesman-Review to refer to him as an "artful dodger." First, recall that he took no position on whether the city should keep the strong mayor system. That sounds a lot like saying it didn't matter. Of course it mattered, and French is bright enough to know that it mattered.

Contrast his indifference to that issue with his insistence that the council president position should be a full-time job. Just exactly what does French expect to do down there from eight to five? The council remains a part-time body, and its president doesn't have any serious authority.

This personal attack has injected a sour taste into what was shaping up as a good old-fashioned, issue-based race. In any case, after Monday night, whether he wanted the intervention or not, it falls to French to get this campaign back on the high road as Election Day approaches.

Ted S. McGregor Jr. contributed to this commentary.

Publication date: 10/30/03

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.