No longer Matt Shea country: Spokane Valley voters have started picking moderates over far right conservatives

click to enlarge No longer Matt Shea country: Spokane Valley voters have started picking moderates over far right conservatives
James "JJ" Johnson, right, appears to have taken down incumbent Rod Higgins, left, for a seat on Spokane Valley City Council

There was a time, not too long ago, when the Spokane Valley City Council was ruled by a far-right majority. Candidates for open seats who outflanked their opponent on the right would win elections, and many councilmembers had ties to Matt Shea, the fringe former state representative who was accused of "domestic terrorism." 

But today, while the Spokane Valley council remains conservative, it's more moderate than in years past. And after Tuesday's election, it appears voters in the Valley would like to keep it that way.

Wayne and Brandon Fenton, father and son owners of the Black Diamond who openly defied Gov. Jay Inslee's lockdown orders, were demolished in this year's election by the more moderate incumbents, Pamela Haley and Ben Wick, respectively. Wick — who is Spokane Valley Mayor, a position chosen among council members — took 66 percent of the vote in preliminary returns, and Haley took 67 percent.

Haley notes that her opponent, Wayne Fenton, was invited to run for the seat by Caleb Collier, a former councilman and an ally of Shea's.

"He believes politically the same as they do. I consider them further right than I am — by a lot," Haley says. "I think we need to be moderate or we're not going to do the best for the citizens of Spokane Valley."

Wayne Fenton says he's not affiliated with Matt Shea, though he admits that Collier "encouraged" him and his son to run for council. He has attended anti-mask and anti-vaccine mandate rallies led by Shea and Collier.

He agrees that moderate conservatives did well last night — and that makes him concerned.

"Because they're moderates and not true conservatives," Fenton says. "They don't tell us the truth of what they're actually doing...they ride that fence, and I'm sorry, that doesn't work for me. In today's climate, I think we have to declare ourselves, which side we're on. We can't be in the middle."

Fenton says the last "true conservative" on the council now is Arne Woodard.

But the real surprise for Haley, she says, is the city council race between former mayor Rod Higgins and James "JJ" Johnson. As of Wednesday night, Johnson holds a three-point lead and appears poised to unseat Higgins.

"People are looking for more moderate representation," Johnson says.

Johnson, a former project manager in the steel business who now works for Spokane Public Schools, describes himself as independent and most closely aligned politically with Wick. Johnson says he's not in favor of increasing density throughout suburban neighborhoods in Spokane Valley. On vaccine mandates, he says it's "unfortunate" it had to get to that point but that mandates "seemed like the only way to get people to pay attention."

Johnson has denounced Matt Shea, a rare move in Spokane Valley politics. And while Johnson wasn't ready to declare victory Wednesday, if his success means Shea has less influence, Johnson says that's a good thing.

"I sure as heck hope so," Johnson says when asked if Shea's influence is weakening. "His own party determined he's a domestic terrorist, and there's no place in leadership for domestic terrorism."

Haley, for her part, says Shea's support doesn't mean what it once did for Valley candidates.

"I also think he's not involved in politics as much anymore. He's not in the forefront, I don't see his name attached to things, and that has changed his ability to endorse things as well," Haley says.

In a fourth Spokane Valley race, Laura Padden appears to have unseated incumbent Linda Thompson, as Padden is ahead 52-48 as of Wednesday's count. While Thompson is a moderate candidate, Padden, who is married to State. Sen. Mike Padden, isn't as far right as the Fentons.

"I think I'm probably politically aligned with Laura Padden, to some extent," Haley says.

Spokane Valley has also experienced significant population growth recently, which may factor into shifts in voter demographics.

Based on his campaign, Johnson says he's not too surprised voters chose moderate candidates in Spokane Valley.

"When I was out knocking on doors, most of the people I talked to were looking for leadership willing to work with others, willing to come together and set aside differences in order to get something down," Johnson says. 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.