Notes from Tuesday’s Primary Election: Democratic Surge in Spokane and Whatcom


Spokane Mayor’s Race

Incumbent Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, in seeking a second term, has gone big for bashing the left side of the state, rousing contributors by accusing challenger Lisa Brown of pursuing “a radical playbook straight out of Seattle.”

“Nadine Woodward is flush with cash,” the Inlander reported a few days before Tuesday’s primary, noting the incumbent’s $417,444 war chest plus independent spending on her behalf from the National Association of Realtors and to the tune of $100,000 from the business-centric Spokane Good Government Alliance.

With the initial vote count, however, Brown was ahead with 46.8 percent of the vote to 38.6 percent for Woodward. What’s more, conservative candidates trailed in contests for Spokane City Council president and other council seats. None topped 40 percent of the vote, despite spending by the Good Government folks and Realtors, traditional powers in Lilac City politics.

Three factors appear to have been in play. The Woodward administration has seen conflict and turnover, including a city administrator’s recent resignation in face of sexual misconduct allegations. The mayor, long a presence on Spokane TV news, has come under criticism for leasing a former warehouse to warehouse the homeless. The owner, developer Larry Stone, is a major Woodward donor.

Brown is a rare political critter, a successful Democrat in Eastern Washington. She was State Senate Majority leader and recently did a three-year stint as director of the State Department of Commerce. As chancellor of Washington State University-Spokane, she led the successful campaign for a new Wazzu medical school.

Brown took a run at U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in 2018. Although the mayor’s job is officially nonpartisan, Rodgers’ political operation is deeply involved in the Woodward campaign. But Spokane is the one locale in Eastern Washington that sends Democrats to the Legislature. Brown carried the city in her 2018 challenger to CMR.

As well, Brown has struck a chord with the argument that Spokane is a city of unfulfilled promise, a city  “stuck in neutral” while other Northwest cities have boomed in today’s technology-driven economy. Property values are on the upswing, but a recent Inlander study showed average household income in Spokane trails behind Seattle, Portland and Boise. Despite the local presence of Gonzaga, Whitworth, Eastern Washington University and WSU, Spokane trails its Northwest neighbors in its percentage of college educated residents.

Woodward and Brown will face off in November. A second marquee contest is for Spokane City Council President, where the progressive candidate Betsy Wilkerson was taking 48 percent of the early vote county to 36.3 percent for conservative-backed Kim Please. The Realtors have put $99,000 into the Please campaign.

A third mayoral candidate, former Spokane fire union president Tim Archer, was taking 11 percent of the primary vote, running as a law-and-order conservative.

In words of Jim Dawson of Fuse Washington, the state’s largest progressive organization, “This is the most important election in Washington this year.” Nadine Woodward has voiced a similar sentiment at the other end of the spectrum, writing supporters: “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.”

Such themes have worked in past Spokane elections. Defending their hold on the mayor’s office, and in McMorris Rodgers’ reelection campaigns, business and the realtors have not hesitated to sling mud, spend money and go on the attack early.  Still, Brown, 66 is a longtime presence in Lilac City politics, state government and as an academic. She is upbeat, ebullient and a big reason why Spokane now has a medical school.

Whatcom County Exec

The 2014 candidates’ night, sponsored by the Tea Party movement in Whatcom County, brought the accustomed turnout of right-thinking rural voters ready to share in liberal bashing with conservative Republican State Sen. Doug Ericksen.

But there was a new wrinkle – a sprinkling of turbans in the audience. My old home county had acquired a Sikh population, members of which were on hand to show support for the down ballot candidacy of small business owner and Bellingham Technical College president Satpal Sidhu.

Sidhu lost that year but has since won election to the post of Whatcom County Executive. He has served in interesting times. A great atmospheric river, in November of 2021, overflowed the Nooksack and Fraser Rivers and re-created the long-drained Sumas Lake. The Whatcom County Council has voted to ban any expansion of fossil fuel facilities in the industrial park at Cherry Point, recently scene of a battle over the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal.

The county of my birth once had the nickname “Wide Open Whatcom” for welcoming refineries, an aluminum smelter, once even courting (briefly) relocation of the Navy’s Port Chicago ammunition depot. But the county, and particularly Bellingham, have since gone green with a Climate Action Plan and limits on use of natural gas in new buildings.

Western Washington University is a big presence, the teachers college of my youth owning a national reputation as a first-rate small public university. The power of business owners nicknamed the “Mill Street Mafia” is much diminished. And when construction unions tried last year to challenge liberal State Rep. Alex Ramel, he won 70 percent of the vote.

Sidhu is seeking reelection in the midst of a drawn-out battle over a new Whatcom County jail. He was taking about 35 percent of the vote in Tuesday night’s first batch of returns. A centrist Democrat, State Rep. Alice Rule of Blaine, was running way back at 17.6 percent, while a liberal County Council President Barry Buchanan was at about 14 percent.

Sidhu will face Dan Purdy, a businessman who once worked at BP’s Cherry Point Refinery and Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold.  He took just under 28 percent of the vote. Sidhu goes into the general election as a strong favorite.

Doug Ericksen is no longer with us, a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Democrat was elected to his State Senate seat last November.  The candidate beaten by Ericksen in 2014, lawyer Seth Fleetwood, is now Bellingham Mayor.

Fleetwood comes from an old college family, served on the Whatcom County Council, and is the latest in a line of activist Bellingham mayors. He has had a bumpy ride from the political left over support for a new jail, and removal of a homeless encampment in front of City Hall, but has been a strong advocate of preserving greenways and forests in a fast-growing city. (Bellingham has been a hotbed of support for fringe presidential candidates – e.g. Dennis Kucinich – and its Democrats have even given a bad time to progressive U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen.)

Fleetwood was taking about 39 percent of the vote, fifteen points ahead of Kim Lund, former head of the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation and a member of the Whatcom County Planning Commission. Trailing was Bellingham City Council member Kristine Michele Martens, the first African American to serve on the council.

Whatcom County was once a key swing area in Washington politics, in addition to extending the welcoming mat to just about every polluting industry that wanted to set up shop at Cherry Point.  That was then. “Wide Open Whatcom” is now progressive and celebrated for its natural environment and the wisdom and will to preserve it. 

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. I would urge Spokane to be careful what it wishes for. If there are lower property values and lower incomes than Seattle that looks to me like a good match. Bring in a flood of higher incomes with booming tech companies and you will have higher property values, bidding wars and unaffordable housing. Medium-small is good.

  2. What is the real estate industry looking for, from Spokane conservatives? Is it the Growth Coalition direction, that Ms Johnson cautions about above? That would sure be good news for realtors, but it sounds like Brown is at least equally eager to go that way, so it would be a puzzling reason for big realtors to bankroll her opponent.


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