News & Comment » News

A Political Machine in Spokane?


by Robert Herold

Councilman Steve Eugster accuses Mayor John Powers of trying to build a political machine. Egads! A political machine? In Spokane, Washington, a town where public life is measured in milliseconds? Can Powers pull it off?

No way -- and there's the problem.

Let me make the outrageous suggestion that were Eugster right, were the Mayor to be out and about skillfully building one of those organizations some call "machines," we might actually get something going around town.

Eugster charges that the Mayor has hired into various senior positions people who worked on or contributed to his campaign. I should hope so. Who might Mr. Eugster expect a winning candidate to hire? Perfect strangers? Maybe we should rely on the civil service commission?

Laurel Siddoway, the attorney who Powers brought in to handle the River Park Square issue, has come in for special criticism. Eugster apparently believes that she should be disqualified because she and her husband were contributors to Powers' campaign. As if Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld didn't contribute to Bush's campaign? As if every ambassador ever appointed didn't contribute to the campaign of the winning candidate? As if no one in Gary Locke's cabinet contributed to his campaign?

Honk if you know of an elected president, governor, senator, congressman or mayor who didn't come into office with a team of people, all of whom had contributed to his or her campaign.

Machine? What we have here is nothing more nor less than an elected mayor who selected his cabinet. He should be judged on the effectiveness of that group, period. And, truth to tell in Powers' case, the jury is still out.

But let's go back to that machine, aka organization, idea. Why was Richard Daley a successful mayor? Why is his son today a successful mayor? What sustained them in office?

The answer to the first two questions lies in the answer to the third. They were sustained in office by Chicago's voters. And why? Well, in part, because the organization took care to mobilize the vote. And why was the organization successful? Because even down at the precinct level, it was at work and visible. Members of the assembly were expected to hold forth at least one night a week (and not deliver sermons, but to listen and take action). This is where smaller matters were addressed and tended to. Then, when the votes were cast at city hall, those very same voters had put into office representatives who were loyal to the mayor.

With a working majority in the assembly, the mayor could get things done. And he did. Other strong (substitute the word "influential") mayors in America have also been effective at mobilizing constituencies. Mayor Rudy Guiliani didn't have an organization to compare with Daley's in Chicago. But he came from the ranks -- his family had strong ties and roots in the fire department and the police department. Rudy supported them and they came through for him. Also, Rudy understood the importance of getting the middle class on your side. And what appealed to the middle class? Safety. The middle class doesn't like being hassled on the street. And street life is important to the social health of a city. Rudy understood all of this, and because he did he was able to mobilize yet another loyal constituency. All this translated into influence.

Now, we might pause here: Did Daley the elder and the younger bring into their senior administration people they knew and who were loyal to them? Did Rudy? Did former Seattle mayor Charlie Royer or any other successful mayor around the country? Of course they did.

Top-level loyalists are taken for granted. The criteria for an organization goes to what happens below this level of government. Can the mayor count on the civil service? Can the mayor count on a working majority on the city council? Can the mayor get out the vote on election day? Does the mayor have loyal foot soldiers in the political trenches?

If the answer to all these questions is "yes," then you have an organization. With an organization, you display the internal discipline needed to settle River Park Square disputes. With an organization, you don't drop on the public a pothole tax bill without first knowing that you will succeed. With an organization, you don't flounder around trying to get some handle on poverty. With an organization, you wield heavy influence on your delegation to the state legislature. With an organization, you are very responsive to neighborhood problems. With an organization, you formulate some agenda for working with the county and have the discipline to execute on that agenda. With an organization, the city's relationship to the business community changes: the city becomes a player rather than a mere enabler. With an organization, the linkage between the voter and the representative is more obvious, and elections matter.

Ideally, to ensure that the bigger issues are raised, two political organizations compete. And that's another important part of the story.

Here in Spokane, we have none of the above. Only a few loyalists at the cabinet level. Beneath these loyalists? Political dead air.

But a machine? Dream on. I wish we were so lucky.

Comments? Insights? Random thoughts? Share them at

Readers also liked…