Eastern Washington is a “red” Republican region of the state with a small island of “blue” or Democratic support in the city of Spokane. A third color entered its political picture early this month when Lisa Brown and announced that she is running for Mayor of Spokane.
Brown has spent the last four years as director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, working in the Lilac City that she represented in the Legislature for two decades. She is taking on incumbent Mayor Nadine Woodward, 61, who spent nearly three decades on Spokane television before winning a narrow race for mayor in 2019.
The office is officially non-partisan, but Brown is a Democrat and former majority leader in the Washington State Senate. Woodward won the job with Republican support and is seeking reelection with standard issue GOP themes on taxes, crime, and homelessness.
“This is the most important election in Washington this year,” said Jim Dawson, who heads the Fuse Washington, a progressive group east of the Cascades. Woodward, in an appeal to supporters, agrees about the importance of this race, saying “this election will shape the future of Spokane for decades, and we need to do everything we can to make sure we keep Spokane safe, vibrant, affordable, and business friendly.”
The race is already hot at the end of a cold winter. “She [Woodward].hasn’t moved the needle,” Brown said in an interview, after declaring in her announcement early this month. “Together, we can get a city that is stuck in neutral moving again . . . Forward progress has stalled.”
Woodward hit back hard: “The last thing Spokane needs is someone who wants to undo that work with a radical playbook straight out of Seattle that has only weakened our state laws and policies governing public safety, limited our ability to move people off the streets, and spent without having to produce actual results.” The incumbent is already out with a 30-second hit piece video on Brown.
Brown, 66, has produced “actual results.” She served four years as chancellor of Washington State University-Spokane, campaigning for and overseeing establishment of WSU’s medical school. It was a move not popular with such Seattle luminaries as ex-Gov. Dan Evans, a UW Regent. And regulars at Drinking Liberally get-togethers in Seattle heard her name frequently taken in vain by a University of Washington pathology professor.
To the Seattle “playbook” jibe Brown jokingly replied: “I’m not running to make Spokane anything more than a better Spokane.”
Spokane in the spring is a city to be envied. The Lilac Festival draws visitors from around the Inland Northwest, 150,000 lining streets for the Armed Forces Torchlight Parade. Gonzaga is a central player in March Madness, its highly ranked basketball team proving to be a boon to enrollment. Spokane hosts the Bloomsday Run as well as America’s largest three-person basketball tournament.
Spokane is growing but lags behind other Northwest cities in today’s technology-driven economy. The Inlander recently did a series of comparisons. Just over 30 percent of Spokane’s residents have college degrees, compared with 35.5 percent of Boise’s population, 46.9 percent of adult Seattlites and a 42.2 percent figure for Portland. Median household income in Spokane is $65,283 versus $101,721 in Seattle, $83,843 in Portland and $73,343 in Boise.
Eastern Washington, and Spokane, display a need for the social services that their Member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., regularly votes to cut. Why, then, do Republicans win elections even in Democratic Spokane?
Woodward narrowly defeated Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart four years ago. Stuckart is and assertive, bold, vocal guy who says what he thinks. By contrast, Stuckart said in an email: “Woodward messaged herself as friendly (face of news in Spokane for decades), collaborative.“ Voters, he added, “wanted a change from the negativity they perceived.”
Eastern Washington’s conservatives are, however, quite willing to go negative. When she challenged McMorris Rodgers in a Congressional race 2018, Brown was hit with a TV spot saying she had gone easy on pedophiles. Renowned, no-nonsense mountaineer John Roskelley, who has summited K2, Dhaulagiri, and Makalu, was attacked as being “soft” on crime during his reelection campaign as a Spokane County Commissioner.
The GOP also has money. Spokane realtors are a wellspring of cash that makes rivals salivate. “My campaign was outspent in independent expenditures by over $400,000,” wrote Stuckart. Anti-Brown themes are already being road-tested: She is a “career politician”; “We can’t afford Lisa Brown”; “She voted for $2 billion in higher taxes.”
Actually, Brown has been a lot of things. She was an associate professor of economics at Eastern Washington University and has taught in the organizational leadership program at Gonzaga. She was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1992, to the State Senate in 1996, and served two terms as Senate Majority Leader. She left the Legislature in 2013 and became WSU chancellor. She left that job to challenge Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2018. She took the state post after losing to CMR and ran the Dept. of Commerce from Spokane.
As mayor of Washington’s second largest city, Woodward has faced problems that Fox News and Republican politicians associate with Democrat-run cities. Tucker Carlson and Jason Rantz regularly rant about Seattle’s crime and homelessness, but tents have also sprung up in the Inland Empire. Camp Hope, in Spokane’s east central neighborhood, was last summer the state’s largest homeless camp. Woodward used homelessness in her 2019 election race but hasn’t found herself called to account on Fox for an encampment that at one point held more than 600 people.
The population of Camp Hope has since fallen to double digits, although the whereabouts of more than 200 former residents is unaccounted for. The city has feuded with the Washington Dept. of Transportation and has sued WSDOT on whose land Camp Hope sits. A Spokane County Superior Court judge recently declared Camp Hope a chronic nuisance, telling the city and WSDOT to work out a plan to clear the camp by April 19.
Summing up her views, Mayor Woodward has declared: “I think we need to get to the point where we’re working to make homelessness less comfortable and get people connected to services.” To this end, to warehouse the homeless, the city has leased a former warehouse. It is owned by developer Larry Stone, who supported Woodward’s 2019 campaign to the tune of $97,000, the Spokesman Review reported.
The shelter can take 350 people but is located a distance from downtown in an industrial area. “They’re out there, far from facilities and services they need,” said Brown. She would prefer to partner with nonprofits to build affordable housing, adding: “Ideally, you have smaller facilities located around the city. But that is not easy.”
Spokane has been a contentious place of late. Community groups have demanded the resignation of Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidi, alleging he performed special favors for business. The city’s Dept. of Neighborhoods, Housing and Human Services has seen two directors last a total of 10 months. Woodward and city council members have disagreed on whether to buy or lease the warehouse. The mayor has criticized the state for not closing Camp Hope. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have experienced lengthy factional battles.
Anybody in the Inland Empire witnessing a Lilac Festival parade, or the basketball tournament, will learn a basic fact. Spokane is the largest city over a large geographical area. The core of Lisa Brown’s challenge: The city is “not living up to its potential.”