A Hidden Life [home page]
  • home
  • the outing
  • interviews
  • site map
  • discussion
  • watch online

impressions of mayor jim west

Jim West grew up in Spokane, worked as a sheriff's deputy there, represented the city in the state legislature for more than a decade and served as its mayor for a year and a half before being recalled in December 2005. Here, journalists and ordinary Spokanites talk about their impressions of West -- political and personal.

David Ammons
Political writer, Associated Press. He covered West in the state Legislature.

Many politicians get ahead by using honey, and Jim West always used vinegar. He was very dogged in pursuit of his goals and didn't seem to mind offending if he thought that was necessary or ruffling feathers. He wasn't much of a hand-holder.

[Was he sensitive to criticism?]

I think Jim had a very thin skin. You could see it. He always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He was that way with the press; he was kind of prickly always. ... I suspected there was that insecurity and that was what the tough guy persona was all about.

I think the only time we ever saw the gentle side of Jim West is when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He let people in. He dropped his defenses for a while. His colleagues just rallied around him. It was amazing. And he was very tender and warm for that year.

He said after the fact that that was his best year and his worst year. It was the year that he passed a no-new-tax budget and really pushed through an aggressive and very amazing agenda, particularly when there was a Democratic governor there. So it was interesting to see that side of him. ...

... [How powerful did West become?]

Jim West became one of the most powerful Republicans in the entire state. He achieved more than he could have ever dreamt of achieving. He then went on to an office which we never understood why he wanted to do, but to be the mayor of his beloved hometown of Spokane. And he said by the end of the year [as mayor] that he had achieved it all. He was in seventh heaven. And then, just as quickly it seemed, as he had achieved the pinnacle of power, then it all dissolved. It's very Shakespearean. It's quite a tragedy.

David Postman
Political writer, The Seattle Times.

Read the full interview »

How would you describe West's political style?

I always thought he was one of those guys ... who were more interested in the behind-the-scenes machinations. ... Much more than, "I want to change the world," it was, "I won today," or "I won that vote." ... So I think there was a little sense of [his] wanting to be the big thinker, but it was really more of the mechanic. And he was applauded for it. The Democrats looked to him as the Republicans' smart strategist and gave him his props for that. ...

In the paper, I said something about he's from the "Dennis the Menace school of politics," because I always thought of him as plotting the next way to poke the other. And he got really upset about that. He called me and [said], "Why would you say that? That's so embarrassing, and I've climbed to this high position." I said, "Well, I think that's you, every word." And I think that I've been proven largely true about that. ...

There was a scorecard running in his head, would you say?

Yeah, and I saw that even when I went back to see him recently. When he would talk about the people that were involved in his big scandal in Spokane, everything in his mind would go back to 1972, or 1978, or, "This guy doesn't like me because of that." ... That's what got him in trouble with the alleged threat that he left on an answering machine.

... Tell me that story.

I can't remember the year this was, '98 or '99. There was a piece of legislation that the home builders in the state opposed, ... and West was on the other side of the issue. Normally they would be allies; in this case he was against them.

In Spokane they took out an ad in the newspaper attacking him and essentially saying, "He's going to rob your children of a future." And he went ballistic. He called the head of the Building Industries Association of Washington, a man named Tom McCabe, probably one of the best political strategists in the state. ...

West called him and left a message ... that said something like, "McCabe, you better hope you get me, because if not, you're a dead man." ... And so McCabe called the police. ... The police investigated, and essentially after the thing got kicked around through jurisdictions a little bit, West had a plea agreement and was on probation.

It was a big deal for him. I think that West wanted people to see that as he's a victim of Tom McCabe's bullying ways, and some people did. ... But I also think people thought, "Wow, what would make a guy do that? What would make a state senator ... do such a dumb thing?" ...

Karen Dorn Steele
Staff writer, The Spokesman-Review. She worked with Bill Morlin on the West expose; her reporting focused on West's record as a state legislator.

[What are the highlights of his record on social policies?]

... It was very interesting. He actually sided with the far right or the evangelical right of the party rather consistently after he went to the legislature. On Christmas Eve of 1985, Governor Booth Gardner signed a bill that banned discrimination in hiring and other state practices, and included gays in that protection for the first time. West was one of a coalition ... who sponsored a bill that would have banned gays from any kind of public employment -- in daycare centers, in schools and in several other types of public agencies -- and would have required interviews on sexual preference for any kind of state jobs, asking people, are you gay or are you not gay? ...

... [What were some of the other things that West did in legislature?]

... In 1990, he was the chairman of the Senate Long Term Care and Health Committee, which dealt with a lot of medical and social issues, and he co-sponsored a bill that would have criminalized teen sex. It would have made it a criminal misdemeanor for any kids under the age of 18 to not only have sexual intercourse but to touch each other. It was the first time in state history that anybody had tried to actually criminalize teenage sexual behavior. The bill was written actually by Teen-Aid, which is a sex abstinence group linked to the religious right, and he was one of the fourteen co-sponsors of that. And that bill was kind of ridiculed throughout the state, especially by editorial boards. ...

... [West's response is that he just signed his name to the bill, that he didn't read all of it.]

I think he did. It was often like the Teen-Aid bill: It was often something that another group sponsored that he signed, but it helped him rise to power at the time. In the '80s, the Republican Party was moving to the right. ...

[Do you think that his social conservatism is cynical?]

Yeah, I do think there's a degree of cynicism in it. I mean, I can't say what his motivations were at the time, but in more recent years some of the Republicans who have run from this town are actual evangelical Christians. They live their beliefs, and then they go to Olympia and they try to enact legislation that's in consort with those beliefs, whether it's anti-abortion or other social issue legislation. But with West there always seemed to be a disconnect. He was not an evangelical Christian, and yet he was aligning himself with these groups for more pragmatic, or one could say cynical, reasons.

Rob Brewster
Owner of a successful real estate development and construction company. He was a Boy Scout in Spokane around the time that troop leaders were accused of sexual abuse.

There would have been a lot more sympathy for Jim West, I think all across the board, had his past as a legislator not been so riddled by different legislative opinions or votes or even bills that he started, that looked to gay people as either criminals or lesser beings. As this whole thing came out about him being gay, I think the gay community probably would have embraced him a lot more, and I think the average Joe would have embraced him a lot more had he not had that terrible word follow him around now: hypocrite. That bothers most people. ...

Don't lie to us. We all know what was going on. And then to be told that ... at least personally he didn't feel that way, that his constituents were voting that way and therefore he had to reflect that in his vote. That's crap. ...

... [How do you think West was as mayor?]

From an economic perspective, West was a great mayor, and I still think that had this not happened West would be our mayor. I would be willing to bet that he would be re-elected, but it's not happening. ...

I think West did a great job of restoring a lot of confidence in the city. ... A lot of the developers in Spokane just didn't have much of an interest in doing much here; a lot of us were off doing things in other places. A lot of us looked at the city as a real impediment. There was a real roadblock to moving forward. He helped move some things out of the way. ...

And he was really starting to inspire a lot of people, and you could start to feel it, that just the attitude was changing in many ways. I really supported him. I think he was doing a great job. And had this not all happened, I certainly would be out there as one of his biggest fans still. ...

Rich Hadley
President, Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce. He worked with West on economic development in Spokane.

I came here 12 years ago, and I met Jim West about third week I was here, I think. He came in, introduced himself -- he was a state senator at the time -- and by and large came in and said, "I wish the chamber would get its act together and come over to Olympia with a united voice." ...

And we did that; we got our act together, and for the next 10 years, we, the chamber, and Jim, the senator, worked closely. ... I think he taught us how to be better on what we were trying to do and advocating for business, and I think we taught him a little bit about what small businesses needed. ...

[So you knew him well when he became mayor?]

Oh, we all knew him very well. Spokane is a great mid-size city, and it's big enough to have just about anything you want and small enough where everybody can get to know each other. ... So yes, and we encouraged him to run for mayor. He, as you are I'm sure aware, thought that being mayor would be the sort of plum job of his life, and we thought that he would be probably the best mayor we could possibly have. ...

... [How do you think he did?]

I think he did really well. I think the community was coming into a really positive time. His election coincided with it. The national economy was improving gradually. Our economy was improving. There had been a significant amount of investment in the community, and much of that was starting to come into place: the Davenport Hotel, River Park Square, the convention center. ...

Jim pulled a lot of people together and asked them what their hopes were for the city. He worked in a transition role where he was very inclusive [of] lots of voices in the community. ... He built a good relationship with the city council, which was probably instrumental to much of the progress made in those 18 months. It began to work more as a unit of government as opposed to an administration and a legislative body. ...

Ginger Marshall
Jim West proposed to Ginger Marshall on the floor of the state Legislature in 1990. They were married for five years.

He cared about Spokane. He cared about the people. He cared about the infrastructure, that Spokane be and continue to be a vibrant city. He always wanted more for Spokane. He served Spokane from the time he graduated college. He started his career as a deputy sheriff and was a City Council member. Was a member of the House of Representatives and then the State Senate. He had ambitions to do good things for Spokane, and it grew into ambitions for doing good work for the state as a whole. He had an interest in being governor at some point. ... So those were his goals, was to serve. ...

I guess it was before the recall election, my husband and I went to dinner with Jim in Spokane. ... And he sat himself right in the middle [of the restaurant]. He wasn't shy for people to see him, to talk. He didn't want to sit in the corner and hide. ... He was going through all of the media attention and the stress of all of that, and yet as we were sitting there throughout dinner there was a steady stream of people that would come by the table, stop and say, "Hi Jim, just want to let you know, I'm supporting you, you've got my vote." "Hi Mr. Mayor, thank you, you've done a great job for our city, we appreciate what you've done." "Hi Jim, how you feeling, you're looking good." There was a lot of public support there for him. ...

He was never embarrassed by any of this, because he hasn't done anything wrong. He's made some decisions, personal decisions, that people don't agree with or don't like. But he's never done anything wrong and he holds his head high. And I think that's a measure of the character.

[But there are those that say that he wasn't honest about who he was.]

I can understand where people who don't know him, who just read in the paper what they read, that they might feel that there's a disconnect between his public and his private person. I guess I don't happen to think that. I think that what people are trying to say is you can't be conservative and be gay or be bisexual or have an interest in men, whatever you want to term it. And I think that's a bunch of hogwash.

Ted McGregor
Editor and publisher, The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Spokane's alternative weekly newspaper. It covered the West scandal extensively, even writing this article naming a local computer expert as "Moto-Brock."

I guess the mayor is a lot more complicated as a person than we ever knew. He, at times in his life, seemed like robo-politician. With everything that happened, I think we found out that he was a much more conflicted person. ... He's not a great poster child for gay rights in America, but I think he shows what can happen in a small community where you're very much encouraged to stay in the closet. ...

Now that you know that there's two parts to Jim West, how much of his public part is 100 percent calculated? He came back and ran for mayor [the first time], and he still had the vestiges of being this jerk of a politician, and the next time he came back to run for mayor [he was] Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Charm. He knew how to do the charm. ... He was fighting cancer, didn't want anybody to forget about that. ... And at the time I was like, "Well, he really has genuinely changed." But then of course after all this you're kind of like, "Wait a minute. What a chameleon this guy is. What's real?" I don't know what's real about him.

home | introduction | watch online | the outing | spokane's view | interviews | producer's notebook
join the discussion | producer's chat | readings & links | teacher's guide | dvds & transcript
site map | press reaction | credits | privacy policy | journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home | wgbh | pbs

posted nov. 14, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright © Holly Pickett/The Spokesman-Review
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS