Laurel Demkovich

(Washington State Examiner) Spokane will soon have a new mayor. In January, longtime Democratic state legislator and former Washington Department of Commerce chief Lisa Brown will step into the job.

She was ahead of incumbent Nadine Woodward in last week’s election by a margin of 51.7% to 47.7% as of Monday.

Brown spent 20 years in the Legislature, leaving in 2013 after becoming the first Democratic woman in state history to serve as Senate majority leader. She went on to serve as chancellor for Washington State University’s Spokane campus. And, until earlier this year when she resigned to run for mayor, Brown was state Commerce director.

In her new leadership role in Washington’s second-largest city, Brown will confront issues like unprecedented levels of homelessness, a lack of affordable housing and a budget shortfall.

The Standard sat down with Brown to discuss these and other issues and how she plans to apply her experience in state government to her new job in the mayor’s office.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What are your top priorities heading into this new role?

I look at it in two ways for Spokane. First, there are some clear challenges that we have to take on, but I also see that we have some real strengths in the city and opportunities. I don’t want to lose sight of those.

I’m hoping to be launching a transition committee that will have workgroups in these areas. And as I said, it will be both looking at the challenges, homelessness and housing, public safety and the fentanyl crisis. And the opportunities. We really have some good things happening in the space of economic development. We’re a strong city in terms of our parks and schools. So we have some things to build on as well.

Can you talk more about how you want to address homelessness and housing?

We will be doing a point-in-time count in January, but as of the last information that we’ve seen, there are probably well over 1,000 people who aren’t housed, more than the capacity of our shelter and emergency bed system. An immediate goal for me is to work with nonprofits and faith communities and the private sector and understand simply how we can keep people safe in the really freezing cold temperatures that Spokane experiences in the winter and create more places for them to come inside. That’s a short term emergency goal.

Longer term, we want to create what’s known as a navigation center or is probably, more accurately, a coordinated entry system for being able to address unhoused people and coordinate the providers that do both assessing their needs and addressing their needs. And, of course, ultimately, like other cities, we would like to get more upstream with the kinds of things that prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. That is both with respect to assistance to renters, but ultimately building more housing.

Spokane has already passed reform for zoning to accommodate for building more housing and more density in our close urban neighborhoods. But I think we’re going to have to have more opportunities for financial incentives so people can really take advantage of the new flexibility. For example, people can create ADUs but how can we make it easier to actually have plans and a financial mechanism to make that work for Spokane households.

How do you anticipate working with state officials in Olympia? What are some of your priorities you would like to see out of the Legislature?

Definitely continued work on housing, both affordable housing and homeownership programs. Particularly I’ve always been interested in the expansion of capacity for child care and early learning. That is another area that we’ll emphasize that isn’t off the ground. There have already been meetings between people in the school district and the child care community to start to understand how to expand capacity and create access for more children. My background in the Legislature and at Commerce will be useful at that. We’ll be able to jump right in and be engaged in the legislative agendas in those areas.

How do you plan to address concerns surrounding public safety in Spokane?

Well, that’s an area that is a federal, state and local issue. There’s a law enforcement aspect to it, but we also clearly need treatment and recovery programs. At Commerce, I administered programs for behavioral health facilities, so we want to make sure that Spokane is taking full advantage of the funding that’s available, but I also believe we have to do something in a more coordinated fashion. I believe we’ve got to expand the use of street medicine teams to do outreach and utilize people with lived experience of addiction or homelessness in those teams.

The tools and the laws are one important part, but we are also experiencing challenges in recruiting law enforcement officers, and one of the issues that I have learned about on the campaign trail – and don’t have answers to yet – is the issue of police response when people call about a crime, or maybe someone’s having a mental health or addiction crisis on the streets. Who responds, how long does it take to respond? What is the response and how does it vary from neighborhood to neighborhood? Those are issues that I want to bring some transparency to, so that we know where we’re at. There appears to be a lot of frustration about that in the community.

How have you seen Spokane change in recent years?

One of the things that occurred very rapidly is Spokane turned around from a place where housing affordability was an asset and something that people took for granted. With migration and the cumulative effect of not building enough housing, there was a dramatic negative impact. And that’s still being felt.

On the other side, we have these great developments. The realization of the vision of the new [Washington State University] Medical School and the [University of Washington]-Gonzaga partnership for medical education. Spokane’s university district has really become a reality, and we have a much more diversified economy than we had before. But we have to contend ultimately with this issue of housing and the lack of a coordinated system for unhoused people.

What do you think it says about voters and the changing makeup of the city, that voters have chosen you, with your long history as a Democrat, to be mayor?

What I ran on was not my ideology, or even my background as a Democrat, although I’m proud of that. What I ran on is my experience in leadership and collaboration. One of the things I really learned in the Legislature is that you can work together, on both sides of the aisle, and take on tough issues. That is what the people focus on and really want to see. Spokane is always going to be a place where people with very different political views live very close together. But I think what people want to see is finding common ground and working together.