"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

The Spokane 2

Dennis Hession

Dennis Hession

Mary Verner

Mary Verner

Spokane two or three decades back likely would have slam-dunked Dennis Hession in his election to hold the job of mayor to which he was appointed a couple of years back.

He looks and sounds like a mayor. He appears to have done a creditable job (from the Spokesman-Review‘s endorsement: “The city is performing well, and re-electing Hession would promise political stability under a capable hand.”) Not Mr. Excitement, but steady and solid. And – significantly – one of the downtown professional/business crowd, an attorney comfortable with the community’s power structure. All of that would seem to be plenty to win election.

That said, we’d right now give odds that in November Spokane’s voters will replace him with Council member Mary Verner, who fits none of the traditional criteria but maybe satisfies where a lot of Spokane is headed.

That conclusion emerges from the early returns (we’ll be back at this to look at the detailed numbers later) from the Tuesday primary. Three substantial candidates were running for mayor. As of this writing (with about 98% of ballots counted), Hession (a former council member) took 10,666, Verner 10,286 and fellow Council member Al French 9,206. Next step is the November runoff for the top two.

Hession has been a reasonably visible mayor and (in normal fashion) has trumpeted his activities at City Hall, but – maybe in reflection of the ongoing angry voter mood – all three incumbent city officials wound up loosely trying to position themselves as outsider insurgents. That was most problematic for Hession who is, after all, trying to say at the same time that the current team is already doing a good job.

Verner’s second place finish may result from the sense that she seems least like a downtown insider. Two months ago we wrote 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.)” Professionally, Verner is like Hession an attorney, but there the similarity ends; she is executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes.

In looking ahead to a Hession-Verner showdown this fall, two dynamics jump to mind.

One is traditional political calculation: An incumbent who falls well short of half the vote against several opponents in round one, will usually lose to a single opponent in round two. Most elections featuring incumbents are shaped fundamentally by the incumbent, and votes tend to shake out on that basis. Hession is falling far short of half the vote – about 33.6%. He may be able to pick up some of the Al French vote, but the primary numbers indicate Spokane voters are in a kick-em-out mood. He may have a much tougher time than will Verner in getting to 50%.

The other indicator is partisan. Spokane’s city races, like most in most places, are non-partisan, but the partisan colors and hues here are unmistakable: For quite a few voters, Hession likely will be the surrogate Republican, and Verner the surrogate Democrat. (There’s a similar dynamic in Boise and some other places.) That means the mayoral race has partisan implications for a traditionally Republican city which has been (notably in the last couple of elections) trending Democratic.

Of course, odds are not a lock on the future; much can happen between here and there. But the Hession campaign has some serious work to do.

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