Would-Be Healers

All three mayoral candidates claim they can repair the division that's defined Coeur d'Alene

From left: Mary Souza, Steve Widmyer, Joe Kunka
From left: Mary Souza, Steve Widmyer, Joe Kunka

When mayoral candidate Mary Souza launched her campaign, she chose the spot that perhaps represented the single biggest source of controversy in Coeur d'Alene: the McEuen Third Street boat launch. The possibility that the boat launch would be removed in the McEuen Field remodel sparked a surge of public outcry, demands for a vote on the field, even a failed recall attempt to remove the mayor and three city councilmembers.

Souza's been at the forefront of all of it. On her blog, in Coeur d'Alene Press columns and in her weekly newsletter, she's long been a fiery critic of the city. She's blasted the city council's behavior, the high salaries and "golden" benefits of city employees, and most of all, the Lake City Development Corporation, the entity that provides incentives to spur development. Beyond McEuen, she's been skeptical of plans for the Kroc Center, Person Field, downtown high-rises, the Education Corridor, the park in Riverstone, the new library and the Cherry Hill baseball facility.

But as she announced her candidacy, her focus was on bringing the city to a less tempestuous future: She promised to hold public votes on major projects, use taxpayer money wisely, restore trust and return the city to civility.

With the city still reeling from one of the most heated stretches in recent history, all three candidates promise to heal the rift that's divided Coeur d'Alene.

"We won't allow name-calling," Souza said at the launch. "We will not allow juvenile behavior. And when citizens get up to speak, they'll be listened to, and they'll be treated well."

But on her campaign website, Souza links to older columns where she dubbed long-haired Woody McEvers a "hippy dippy councilman," dismissed letters opposing a public vote for McEuen Field as "from cronies of the Mayor," and criticized councilwoman Deanna Goodlander's mid-meeting coughing spells as "disruptive and unfair to anyone trying to give testimony."

Repeated attempts to schedule a phone or in-person interview with Souza over the past week were unsuccessful.

Some supporters, like Councilman Dan Gookin, have found Souza's critical rhetoric refreshing. "She doesn't sugarcoat it," Gookin says. Like Gookin, she earned the endorsement of the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, who also endorsed council candidates Chris Fillios, Sharon Hebert and Noel Adam.

Gookin is another frequent critic of the Lake City Development Corporation, believing urban renewal has fixed downtown but has done little to improve the rest of the city. While Souza doesn't plan to eliminate the LCDC entirely, she wants to broadly reform it. By exposing how the urban renewal agency was spending taxpayer money, Gookin says, she drew the ire of the "ruling class."

"In the city of Coeur d'Alene, being honest is a crime," says Gookin. "You don't tell people the truth. When you do tell people the truth, they get angry."

But Souza's critics view that same brashness as a serious problem if she were to be elected. This is the city council, after all, where a big dust-up this year stemmed from the city attorney calling a councilmember an "ignorant shit."

"I ran against Mary eight years ago. She came in third in a three-way race. And she's never gotten over it," says Mike Kennedy, one of the councilmembers Souza attempted to recall. "Mary will be as divisive a force as we've ever seen in local politics. ... We're still too small of a town to use these scorched-earth tactics."

Kennedy says he's more impressed by one of her opponents, Steve Widmyer. "He would call me up and say you're just flat-out wrong with this, and here's why," Kennedy says, who adds that Widmyer did so in a respectful matter.

Widmyer, endorsed by the Balance North Idaho PAC, also says he wants to repair Coeur d'Alene. He peppers his statements with the word "positive" — positive attitude, positive direction, positive leader. His strength, he argues, is that he has business and finance experience, but without ties to controversial past battles.

"There's been some bad blood that goes back and forth. A lot of that stems from the recall," Widmyer says. "I don't bring any of that with me. If my opponent was elected, she brings all of that with her."

Most of his positions seem to split the difference between the two traditional camps in Coeur d'Alene. He isn't as critical of the LCDC as Souza, but says the agency could be better at bringing jobs to Coeur d'Alene. Though he thinks the McEuen Park update will help the whole town and that public advisory votes should be rare, he says he could have supported a public advisory vote on the plan. Widmyer and Souza both say the city should partner more closely with the economic development corporation Jobs Plus to boost employment.

Souza's supporters, however, tar Widmyer as too connected to downtown interests, too likely to perpetuate the status quo.

The third choice for mayor, perennial candidate Joe Kunka, doesn't have a PAC backing him and lists few specifics. But his platform has many similarities to Souza's.

Like Souza, he believes Coeur d'Alene should hold public votes before embarking on particularly pricey projects. Like Souza, he hammers the city for not listening to its citizens. Like Souza, he hasn't expressed support for the city's new anti-discrimination ordinance. But Kunka says there's a major difference between the two of them.

"I'm not divisive. I don't run around talking bad about everything and say everything needs to change. ... I didn't run around and start a recall effort," Kunka says. "Every decision the city makes, she seems to want to turn into a controversy and turn into an argument."

To truly ensure that people feel listened to, he says he would go citizen-by-citizen.

"There are 44,000-plus people in Coeur d'Alene. I want to meet every one of them," Kunka says. "I'll set a day aside [each week]. People can sit down with me face to face and talk about issues that concern them." ♦


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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...