How liberal activist Nicolette Ocheltree went from warning Spokane about Jonathan Bingle to working for him

click to enlarge Spokane City Council member Jonathan Bingle (left) and his council legislative assistant Nicolette Ocheltree. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Spokane City Council member Jonathan Bingle (left) and his council legislative assistant Nicolette Ocheltree.

As activist Nicolette Ocheltree stood in front of Planned Parenthood, local politician Jonathan Bingle's allegiances had seemed disturbingly clear.

It was 2019, two years before Bingle won a seat on the Spokane City Council, back when he was mounting a doomed race for mayor. Ocheltree, running a largely symbolic write-in campaign to the left of liberal mayoral candidate Ben Stuckart, could see Bingle across the street at the "The Church At Planned Parenthood," the hybrid church service/protest that had become a central flashpoint for the fight over abortion in the city.

Bingle was in a prayer circle with other candidates — including then-state Rep. Matt Shea, who had made national headlines for publishing the outline of a document that said "kill all males" if they don't yield to biblical law.

"Their ideal candidate for Mayor is Jonathan Bingle... enabling them to further push their evil political agenda," Ocheltree wrote on Facebook. "This should be seen as an attempt to overthrow our local government — because it is."

Today? Ocheltree is working for Bingle.

This month, the activist — who'd had a Facebook profile picture of herself yelling into a megaphone while wearing a bright pink "I stand with Planned Parenthood" T-shirt — became the legislative assistant for the City Council member who believes "abortion is the greatest moral evil" in our country.

At minimum, a legislative assistant serves as a kind of secretary for a council member, but in many cases that role can expand to influence policy or develop legislation. For Bingle, the choice provides insight into the kind of council member he aims to be, while for Ocheltree, it's a lens into how an activist's tactics can shift, sometimes dramatically, in a few years.

The reaction from some of the local partisans, however, has been incensed.

"It's ferocious," Ocheltree says. "It's ridiculous—"

"It's stupid," Bingle interjects.

On the right, Ocheltree says, some think she's "a spy," while some on the left tell her "he's just trying to silence you," she says.

"I can't tell you how many phone calls I've gotten from people in all kinds of different organizations, going like 'I was really surprised,' or 'How could you pick her?' and 'Why?!'" Bingle says. "Honestly, at this point, I'm just sick of explaining it."

Bingle and Ocheltree are sitting together in a City Hall conference room, Ocheltree wearing a mask, while Bingle's sporting a mustache. The two tell the story of how they met like an old married couple.

After Ocheltree wrote in another 2018 Facebook post that it was "grooooooossssss" that "Nazine Woodward" had been endorsed by Bingle, "Matt Shea's first pick for Mayor," Bingle invited Ocheltree to have a conversation over coffee.

"I had a picture of Nicolette in my mind, this crazy super pro-abortion person," Bingle says. But their first meeting didn't go the way either expected.

"You were in mourning that day, do you remember?" Bingle says to Ocheltree.

Her bearded dragon had just died, Ocheltree says, and she was dressed in all black.

That, in itself, took some of the tension out of the room. It turns out, Ocheltree says, that Bingle didn't know Matt Shea back then. They found points of common ground, even surface-level ones. Bingle was wearing black too. They bantered back and forth about how they have the same birthday and were born at the same hospital, and isn't that crazy?

"I definitely got a lot of backlash for meeting him in the first place," Ocheltree says. "I've actually lost a lot of what I thought were friends, because I am willing to have conversations with people that I disagree with."

It's a constant debate on the left — when is it OK to meet with someone you consider an extremist? When should they be called out and shamed, and when would doing either be "giving them a platform," effectively doing their promotional work for them?

When a local conservative launched a "500 Mom Strong" Facebook page to oppose a local "Drag Queen Story Hour" reading at the local public library, Ocheltree launched "500 Drag Queen Strong," a sometimes acerbic counterprotest page.

Both publicly and privately, Ocheltree sometimes clashed with other activists, accusing one in particular of actively sabotaging her events. But with time her approach shifted.

"I realized, 'What the hell am I doing?'" Ocheltree says. "Who actually changes policy? It's City Council members."

So when virtual meetings became the norm at City Council when COVID-19 hit, Ocheltree was often the only citizen testifying on ordinances. And after a three-hour-long conversation at Shari's with Bingle last year, they realized there were a lot of core principles — like transparency and financial responsibility — they could agree on.

That's when Bingle says he started considering Ocheltree for his council assistant.

"I really respect her intelligence, her thought processes," Bingle says. "There would be tons of issues where I wanted to talk to somebody who might think differently than me: How can I hear that side without a lot of nonsense?"

Ocheltree had applied for similar jobs. She'd applied to be the legislative assistant for Councilwoman Kate Burke, Ocheltree says, but didn't get an interview.

"Honestly the fact that Nicolette hasn't had this job before kind of pisses me off because she's so great," Bingle turns to Ocheltree, half-laughing. "I was so mad for you."

But there were doubts on both sides.

"There would be tons of issues where I wanted to talk to somebody who might think differently than me."

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"I have way more people telling me it's a bad idea than it's a good idea," Ocheltree says. But those who supported it were the people who knew her best.

Bingle was wary of the fact that, if she were his assistant, he'd be having sensitive conversations with Ocheltree about extremely controversial matters, on subjects where she might fervently disagree. But ultimately, he decided to trust her.

"One of my rules is, you know, don't second guess a good choice made in the presence of God," he says.

But one of Bingle's other worries — that the choice might cost him with some of his conservative supporters — quickly bore fruit.

"If this is who you choose to have on your side, please don't expect support or respect from me," Lesley Haskell, the wife of Spokane County's prosecuting attorney, wrote in a Facebook post that tagged Bingle, according to a screenshot Ocheltree sent the Inlander.

"This is what happens when Satan puts on a charismatic show and Christians are too weak to see the devil himself," Lesley Haskell wrote. "I happen to believe our children should be protected from mentally ill psychopaths, not literally exposed to them. Wow."

(During a controversy over Lesley's social media posts in 2015, Larry Haskell wrote to the Inlander "she does not represent me in these forums, either personally or professionally.")

The response from the left has trended a bit more supportive, though several say they initially had concerns.

"I had a visceral reaction to it," says Anwar Peace, a policing activist who has clashed with both Spokane's police chief and county sheriff. But he came around to be hopeful. "I think with the help of Nicolette, this council member might be a really good ally to us in the activist community."

Terri Anderson, Spokane director of the Tenants Union, lamented that they'd be losing Ocheltree's pro-tenant public commentary at council meetings. In Anderson's "suspicious mind," she says she wondered if it was some sort of strategy to take Ocheltree off the board, but she adds that Ocheltree absolutely deserves the job.

Ocheltree isn't quite sure whether she has less or more total influence after trading her public activism for a behind-the-scenes role. On one hand, she has a direct conduit to a council member and helps prep him with the information she believes he needs. On topics like homelessness, she's able to share her own personal experience of being homeless as a child.

Still, while answering a conservative Christian group's questionnaire while running for City Council last year, Bingle gave the maximum amount of agreement — 10 points out of 10 — to a statement that explicitly cited "drag queen story hour in libraries" as an example of normalizing "alternative lifestyles" and undermining "traditional families."

Today, in her new role, Ocheltree says she's reduced her activity on the 500 Drag Queen Strong page.

Both downplay the likelihood of abortion coming up as an issue in the local level.

Yet Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, points out that issues specifically involving the abortion provider have come before City Council multiple times in the past decade, most recently in March 2020, when the City Council passed a noise ordinance intended to lower the volume of the protesters at Planned Parenthood.

"I will be very fascinated to see how they work together," Dillon says.

Indeed, it's one thing to disagree about property tax rates or how to reduce Fire Department overtime. It's another when they disagree on issues involving what they see as fundamental human rights.

Still, each praises the other's spirit of inquiry.

"The thing that I love about our conversations is that I can tell that you're searching for truth," Bingle says to Ocheltree, while Ocheltree says Bingle is "very much persuaded by truth and honesty."

And yet, when the Inlander asks Bingle if there's anything specifically she's convinced him of, he can't point to anything — at least not yet.

"I don't think she's presented anything that has changed my mind," Bingle says. "I think she's helped to reinforce my beliefs as she's asked difficult questions."♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...