Northeast Spokane City Council candidates campaigning in defiance of partisan labels

The two candidates vying to replace Amber Waldref on the Spokane City Council say the issues in the city’s northeast corner defy partisan politics.

That hasn’t stopped speculation that Kate Burke, the current aide to a Democratic state senator, will lean left on a panel with a veto-busting progressive majority. Tim Benn, her opponent, likewise distanced himself from the Republican label he ran under in 2012 and 2014 for the state Legislature.

“It’s a super interesting community,” said Burke, who moved to the Nevada Heights neighborhood nearly two years ago after growing up on the South Hill and working with nonprofits in the West Central neighborhood. “The residents just want to know they can trust somebody.”

“I don’t think we need more partisanship,” said Benn, a longtime property owner in the Minnehaha neighborhood who operates a licensed daycare center with his wife. “We need more ideas, more solutions and less posturing. It seems like we’re blocking ideas because of that climate.”

Both Benn, 39, and Burke, 28, said potholes, property crime and poverty were their focus heading into the November ballot. Each said they were running to bring more attention to northeast Spokane, which they said often ends up at the back of the line for infrastructure improvements. They both agreed that taxes shouldn’t be raised, questioned the legality of fining coal and oil trains through town and believed the city could add police officers to the force without breaking the bank.

But those lining up in support of the two candidates show a clear ideological divide in this non-partisan race to represent a district that has shown a split political personality in recent history.

The endorsement split begins with Waldref and City Councilman Mike Fagan, often the lone vote against a majority of the panel often criticized as a monolithic progressive body. Waldref defeated Fagan for the seat in 2009. Fagan was then elected two years later in a race against Donna McKereghan decided by less than 600 votes.

The two politicians have split on issues that include a paid sick leave policy in the City of Spokane, codifying a policy preventing police from asking about immigration status and a law preventing landlords from screening tenants based on their acceptance of housing vouchers.

Waldref said she supported Burke because of her nonprofit work and familiarity with policy at the state level.

“With all the community work she’s done, she has a large network of people to lean on,” Waldref said.

Fagan, who hosts a weekly radio show called the “Right Spokane Perspective” that features Benn, fired a recent social media salvo with a collage of photos featuring Burke with prominent Democrats Bernie Sanders, Gov. Jay Inslee and former President Bill Clinton.

“No hate here, just showing affiliations and influences that could have an impact here in District 1,” Fagan wrote.

The post, shared on Fagan’s public official Facebook page because his personal page was taken down, garnered more than 300 comments, the majority of them in favor of Burke. Fagan said he took them from Burke’s public Facebook page.

Andrew Biviano, chair of the Spokane County Democrats, called Fagan’s post “a nice compliment” to Burke in a Facebook post of his own. In an interview, he said the dig could backfire.

“Mike Fagan apparently thinks being associated with Democratic politicians is somehow a mark against you in that region,” Biviano said. “Which I find surprising, given that Amber Waldref represents it. I think there’s voters across the board in that district.”

Burke declined to comment on the Facebook post, saying she preferred to focus on the issues in the campaign. Benn, a former campaign manager of Fagan’s, said he didn’t know the council member was going to post about his opponent.

“The discussion that ensued because of that doesn’t get us closer to a solution, or solving the problems of the community,” Benn said.

Fagan said he’s known Benn for years and believed he’d be a better ally on the City Council.

“First and foremost, Tim has been in this district pretty much all his life. He has a better grasp on the issues affecting the northeast district,” Fagan said.

Benn, who said he ran as an “independent Republican” for state office in 2012 and 2014, has received the endorsement of the Spokane County GOP and political donations from several Republican elected officials, including Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase, Spokane County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald and former state Rep. John Ahern.

In response to criticism about her recent move into the neighborhood, Burke said it was “up for the voters to decide.” She also dismissed partisan labels in her interactions with neighborhood residents, who she said were more concerned about crime and the roads than political labels.

“The marjority of us are working families. We’re the lowest income over here, and we don’t have a lot of time to get invested in the political scene and the neighborhood council meetings,” Burke said. “But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that we need those resources.”

Both Waldref, and City Council President Ben Stuckart, who’s also endorsed Burke, said she’d been working hard to meet people in the district and get involved with neighborhood governance.

“I’ve heard from people that live up there that she’s been doorbelling like crazy,” Stuckart said. “She’s been putting a lot of energy in going out and talking to the citizens.”

Burke’s other endorsements include numerous local organized labor groups, including the Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 and the Spokane Education Association representing thousands of District 81 employees. Burke has also received the endorsement of the group Fuse Washington, a progressive-leaning political organization that has organized several protest events, many of them targeted at Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Burke received 500 more votes than Benn in the district’s August primary, by far the fewest ballots cast of the three council seats up for grabs this year. Burke had raised $46,849 for her campaign as of Wednesday, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. Benn reported earnings of $21,724.