Exploring Spokane’s Political Class –
There are precious few reasons why Spokane should not be considered one of the premier cities in the nation, and recognized throughout as such—a magnet for innovative, entrepreneurial individuals seeking a higher quality of life in an environment, both urban and natural, where all their needs are met.
Instead, those who live outside the orbit of the Northwest only have a vague notion of where Spokane is, how big we are, and what we have to offer. We may perhaps be the most obscure city in America. Where, exactly, is Spokane? Far flung, indeed, by most accounts it is north and west of anything important, but Gonzaga plays there, right?
If not for generally favorable regional market forces, Spokane would easily be on par with such prosperous communities as Rochester, New York; Flint, Michigan; Youngstown, Ohio; and Scranton, Pennsylvania. The gods of economics have been charitable, however, and granted us the indispensable virtue of being a regional cosmopolitan and financial market center for a broad international geography. Thus, instead of suffering a fate akin to rustbelt communities of similar size, we’ve managed to glide on the contrails of metropolitan areas that have experienced rapid growth since 1990—Boise, Idaho; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico. These are our faster maturing brothers and sisters, just not nearly as attractive and with far less to offer. Yet most identify with these western communities of similar size and are more than likely able to place them on a map far before they could Spokane.
We’re neglected from other outlets, too. Look no further than The Weather Channel, the best place for geographers to get their daily fix, to discover how insignificant Spokane is perceived within the western urban hierarchy. As you can see from the snap-shot of The Weather Channel’s 2,100-Mile radar map, their standard map format when broadcasting western weather conditions, it appears Missoula outshines Spokane.[i]
Being a mid-sized American metro, Spokane naturally rides a boundary line within the minds of cartographers about whether it is significant enough to place on smaller scale maps. Heck, even bureaucrats in Olympia have a hard time placing Spokane on the map. City boosters hotly remember the publication of the official Experience Washington tourism map, whereby the west side of the state was accentuated and they placed the logo where Spokane should be.
Spokane as an urban region is simply not a part of the national psyche, at least not on par with metros of similar size. Travel anywhere east of Denver and folks become pretty impressed that you’re from Spokane, as if you just qualified for the Special Olympics. “It’s pretty rainy and green up there, isn’t it?” They always ask, implicitly thinking of Seattle.
Yet in the past 15-years, Spokane has started to lap at the feet of competing on a national level. Two significant forces have directly contributed to this maturation: the ascendance of Gonzaga men’s basketball, and the rise of the local Public Facilities District (public sector owners of the Spokane Arena, Spokane Convention Center, and the INB Performing Arts Center [“The Opera House”]). Both products have created regular opportunities for Spokane’s appearance onto a national stage (more about this later).
Concurrently, as Gonzaga and the Public Facilities District have grown to compete on a national level, the strength of downtown Spokane as the region’s central place was solidified in the late 1990’s by executing a public/private partnership to reinvigorate River Park Square (the region’s most dynamic retail destination), redevelopment of the Davenport Hotel area courtesy of Walt Worthy, and the creation of downtown’s Parking and Business Improvement Area.
Of course, as any local will tell you, the financial and political trauma created by the River Park Square fiasco has yet to wane. The transaction wrought such a large degree of paranoia that Average Joe citizens will no doubt compare the next proposed public/private partnership to that of River Park Square and, worst yet, community leaders will no doubt continue to hesitate from entering into the next public/private partnership for fear of being chastised as creating another River Park Square. Thus, the political environment has diminished to such a state that any prospect of attracting significant investments is paralyzed by speculation and fear on both sides.
This comes as no surprise, however, because the puzzle that is Spokane politics is often an irrational one. The allogamy between people, organizations, business and political interests is fluid and often veiled beneath the surface. Veterans of the local political arena, in particular executive level public and quasi-public officials, choose their words wisely because expressing direct opinions that challenge the status quo, however irrational the status quo might be, is dangerous territory that may well end with a termination notice.
Seen through an economic development lens, Spokane’s political dialectic is oversaturated with traditionalism. Greater Spokane, Inc. (the region’s primary economic development advocacy organization), for example, proudly hangs its hat on the billion-plus dollar North/South Freeway as a testament to regional progress. In the 1960s, right around the time Spokane’s North/South Freeway was conceived, the matriarch of contemporary urban planning, Jane Jacobs, dispensed with the notion that new freeways are good for cities by publishing The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In the decades following, scholars and eventually city councils have recognized that saturating your metro with freeways does more harm than good. Those cities that were the first to successfully ward-off new freeway construction (Portland, OR; San Francisco, CA; Boston, MA) are universally recognized as urban areas that enjoy a dynamic quality of life that communities from across the nation, including Spokane, consciously try to emulate. Not coincidently, the same metros that were able to fend-off the simple siren song of new freeways are the same metros that are at the forefront of attracting creative class talent that drive their regional economies.
Spokane’s economic development traditionalism is due to several factors, the most significant being leadership. Spokane is led by a stratum of leadership that’s generally a closed circle of individuals and organizations. They are the gatekeepers. They are ones who truly make the decisions. The leadership circle is relatively tight-knit and generally fastidious when it comes to outside perspectives and new ideas. Elected leadership is a sure-fire way to break into the circle and, from time to time, the circle will open and attempt to entertain new perspectives by hiring outsiders into influential positions.
Many from within the inner-circle have a lake place (more than likely on Priest Lake) and/or a ski condo (more than likely on Schweitzer Mountain). Many head to Hawaii in February or March. Most are members of the Spokane Club. They all know each other because they’ve been around for years. Walk through the skywalk system downtown on any given business day and you’ll see at least a half-dozen of them. They do business together, they sit on boards together, and they know the names of their wives/husbands, kids, grandkids. Most live on the South Hill but those who were raised on the North Side are likely still there. (New money places like Liberty Lake and Colbert are for upper-income migrants, not the natives.) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, most are baby-boomers a few years north and south of 60. One could make an argument, as many already do, that the stratum of leadership that controls Spokane is best characterized as a good-old-boy culture.
These are the individuals who call the shots for Spokane. There are perhaps a couple hundred of them. Between them, there is an un-written rule that if one were to disagree about which way a given project or initiative is moving, the others will support such an opinion and thereby the circle of leadership tends to move in lock-step. One-hundred percent consensus before new ideas and projects can move forward is a key cultural trait of Spokane’s leadership stratum. Open disagreements at board meetings and split votes are extremely rare and often times grounds for alienating the perpetrator of such sins. Only those with enough money and/or influence may set the tone for any given discussion. Once the tone is set, the less influential among them (or those simply looking to curry favor) quickly fall into line.
Those within the inner-circle tend only to do business with each other. Therefore, at board meetings when public initiatives are discussed, allegiances to business interests are more important than what may be of public benefit. A person who may otherwise be in favor of advancing a public benefit (i.e., doing the right thing) will most certainly not express his opinion if those he is doing business with expresses a position against the public benefit. Therefore, at public and quasi-public board meetings, inter-personal business interests always trump the public good.
Free thinking elected officials—city council members, mayors, county commissioners—are begrudgingly accepted into the inner-circle and quickly excused upon expiration of their term or failure to achieve reelection. Afterward, no doubt, they’re likely wondering where all their friends went.
Money, and how it flows from big business to quasi-public organizations also dictates the leadership culture’s dynamic. Who is sponsoring what will answer a lot of questions about why a given quasi-public organization has taken the position it has taken.
Traditionalism is also rank within day-to-day professional interactions. As any professional female in Spokane will tell you, misogyny runs rampant. Even women who are well accepted into the good-old-boy culture are not immune. I’ve enjoyed drinks with everyone from Teresa Sanders (Spokane City Administrator) to young, upstart female attorneys that I’ve known since childhood, and they all spin tails of bias and cat-calls courtesy of the good-old-boys.
Finally, there is a passive-aggressive cultural trait that pervades the leadership stratum. Strong and open opinions are rarely made during board meetings. This is the passive side of the culture. Executives of public and quasi-public organizations know this all too well. In order to survive the political culture, which is mostly led by the community’s business elite, never be the first to express a strong and open opinion on any subject. Those that have taken similar risks know all too well that the assassin’s knife comes from the backroom, probably over vodka-sodas at the Spokane Club (and that’s not an exaggeration). This is the aggressive side of the culture.
As new generations have matured (the X’s, Y’s and now even the millennials), the baby booming Spokane leadership culture still has a firm grip on power. Longingly they pine for “Expo ‘74” and wonder why no transformational events have occurred since. Not coincidently, however, superseding generations are wondering the same thing.
What’s next for Spokane, how do we get there, and what’s holding us back? The essays that follow explore answers to these questions. We will run the gambit of topical analysis to the nuanced inner-workings of day-to-day political sausage making. To reiterate the opening paragraph, there are precious few reasons why Spokane should not be considered one of the premier cities in the nation. SpokanePlanner intends to identify them.