Dennis Hession is asking you for his old job back. Hession was once city council president, before he was thrust into the mayor’s office after scandal toppled Jim West.
His opponent to lead the Council, Ben Stuckart, hasn’t ever held public office.
While Stuckart’s raised nearly $85,000 — twice that of Hession’s war chest — Hession is the household name. His record and experience give voters something clear to vote for. Or vote against.
Even at a glance, 61-year-old Hession — balding, sharp cheekbones, perpetually dressed in a conservative suit and tie — contrasts with the 39-year-old Stuckart, clad in a sweater and khakis on his campaign website.
Looks aside, Stuckart says he has enough experience.
“I have the right kind of experience,” Stuckart says. “Leadership isn’t something you gain by sitting at the water cooler at City Hall. Leadership is a trait you transfer from job to job to job.”
For six years, Stuckart was the regional manager for TicketsWest and a founder of Communities In Schools of Spokane County and Pedals2People. He’s a board member of the city’s Arts Commission and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
It’s with this background that Stuckart forms his policy platform: Loosen parking requirements for developers building in neighborhood centers, so areas like South Perry can thrive. Hold monthly forums to educate and gather input from citizens. Address the budget problem by drawing new businesses and people into the city, increasing tax revenue.
On budgets, the candidates claim philosophical differences. Stuckart criticizes Hession’s unwillingness to gradually increase water rates to pay for necessary maintenance. Hession, on a no-new-fees platform, believes all the city’s budgets can be balanced by cutting wasteful spending, though he won’t cite specific cuts.
But philosophical differences matter less to Hession.
“I think my opponent believes that he has relevant experience to do this job,” Hession says. “I don’t think he has that experience.”
He believes success as a council president means having been a council member, which he has also been. And he can claim a long list of outside experience as well. Besides being a lawyer, he’s had roles — just for starters — on the city’s park board and the state public works board. He’s also helped lead Bloomsday and Hoopfest. People know him personally.
It’s why Rob Higgins, executive officer of the Spokane Association of Realtors, supports Hession. He knows Hession from back when Higgins was on the City Council and Hession was on the park board.
“Ben’s a sharp individual, but doesn’t have any experience
with the Council,” Higgins says. “The more experience, you have more
things to draw on to work through issues.”
Yet, the fact remains: Hession lost the race for mayor four years ago. Voters chose the less experienced Mary Verner.
“Dennis’s experience is an experience that we don’t need again,” Stuckart says. “He’s got experience that voters have already rejected.”
During his term as mayor, Hession received flak from the Bernard Street neighborhood about how the city handled tree-removal in 2006. During the mayoral race, a decision eliminating alley garbage truck pickup spawned angry neighborhood protests, which Verner used to her advantage.
“Unlike my opponent, I would listen to the neighborhood,” Stuckart says.
Longtime Councilman Steve Corker — who also ran for council president, but was eliminated in the primary — says that he initially was critical of Stuckart’s lack of experience. He was concerned the city wouldn’t have much experience if both Stuckart and mayoral candidate David Condon won.
But after Verner trounced Condon in the primary, Corker says he’s not worried about experience. Now, he says, it’s a question of who would work better with Verner and the rest of the Council.
“It’s interesting, because experience is proving to be as much of a negative as a positive,” Corker says. “I think the fact that he ran against Mary and it was such a contentious campaign — I think there are some people who are going to make that a factor.”
Hession supported Verner’s first council campaign and encouraged his supporters to donate money to her. So when Verner ran against him, it created a rift between the two. Hession says he felt frustrated and disappointed.
“I’ve spoken to her about it. We met and talked about how we would work together,” Hession says of Verner. “We’re both professionals, and we both have a commitment to the success of the city.”
Corker argues that Stuckart would have a better working relationship with Verner, and the rest of the Council, a contingent of which shares Stuckart’s more progressive views. Stuckart says he has endorsements from three of the current council members — Corker, Amber Waldref and Jon Snyder. (If Stuckart wins, he won’t serve with Corker, who is term-limited out.)
With the council presidency and three seats up for grabs — and only one current incumbent running — the dais next year is guaranteed to be populated by an outsider perspective. Despite his experience, Hession says he can bring an outside perspective.
Even when I was the mayor, I tried to maintain a perspective of being outside City Hall,” Hession says.
But Stuckart doesn’t buy that reasoning.
“Because I’m not part of the City Hall culture, I have an outside perspective,” Stuckart says. “You can’t claim at one time to have six years of experience of council president and mayor, and then claim to be an outsider and have an outsider perspective.”