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Spokane heat

Dennis Hession

Dennis Hession

Al French

Al French

Mary Verner

Mary Verner

The last time Spokane voters re-elected a mayor was 34 years ago – 1973. (Compare that to the re-election-as-norm in Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Vancouver or Boise.) The incumbent mayor who is running this year, Dennis Hession, was appointed to the job in the middle of the current term, not elected, meaning both that he wouldn’t necessarily have to beat history to win, and also that he’s untested in a run for the top job.

Which may sound like an either-or, but we have some ease in suggesting the odds favor him.

One reason is the math of conventional political calculation. When an incumbent is on the ballot, the race almost always centers first around that incumbent – whether that person should stay or go. Hession, who is a former city council member (its president at the time he was chosen mayor, by a vote of the council), is opposed by two current council members, Al French and Mary Verner. Incumbents are ordinarily best-served by a divided opposition, and there’s a good chance that will play out in this case.

There are other considerations, a few of them countervailing.

bullet An era of good feelings. Hession’s predecessor was Jim West, who was for the most part a highly capable mayor but whose final months were swamped by scandal, and who was recalled by the voters. City politics was poisonous. Hession had the disagreeable task but political advantage of draining the swamp, and he benefits by comparison with what came before. Hession has had some missteps, but nothing that looks especially horrible in context.

bullet Similar backgrounds. Three years ago, all three of these candidates were on the Spokane city council, and they were not at war with each other. All had plenty of civic pushups under their belts, all were reasonably well known in the city, and all were operating on the inside of city hall; none is so easily definable as a “change” candidate. All are prominent professionals: Hession an attorney with a downtown law firm, French an architect fairly prominent in the business community, and Verner is an attorney and executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes.

bullet Hession and French seem more “alike” than either is with Verner. And it’s not just the gender thing (not to entirely discount that). Hession and French seem to have more a downtown business perspective, while Verner’s seems more shaped by policy activism, such as the environmental and resource staff work she did earlier in her career. (Echoes of it continue to show up – consider the long list of policy interests on her web site.)

bullet Verner has also had more negative headlines. The key here is a complaint filed with the new Spokane Ethics Commission (which is still in formative stages) saying Verner should have recused from voting on a city contract on archeological services, which went to a company endorsed by the Spokane Tribe, which is a member of the Upper Columbia United Tribes. Verner has called the complaint a smear, and the Spokane Spokesman-Review pointed out that the Spokane Tribe isn’t the same thing as the regional tribe organization Verner works for. Politically, in a scandal-sensitized Spokane, any bad headlines can hurt, however valid the charges. And that said, we may not have seen the end of filed complaints.

bullet The firefighters like French. The city’s firefighters Local 29 has donated big to French, $5,000, and – though interviewing both him and Verner – didn’t even invite Hession to a sit-down. (They’ve amassed a list of complaints against him.) French is undoubtedly glad to have the money, but to what extent could Hession counter by saying he’s a tough manager and negotiator?

So, in all, there’s some interest here, plenty of time for more twists and turns, and indications that the race isn’t a runaway.

For the moment, we’ll stick with the presumption of incumbency. Even if it Spokane.

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