Even the mayor wonders: Who is the real Jim West?
to ravages of a life-threatening illness. As he prepares for his recall election, he discusses how, much like his own city, he struggles...
Seattle Times chief political reporter
SPOKANE — Only one name appears on the ballot in this city's Dec. 6 recall election: Mayor Jim West.
But which West will voters have in mind when they decide whether to dump the first-term mayor?
The professional politician who was leading the city to a long-overdue renaissance?
Or "therightbi-guy," one of the names the mayor used while cruising online for young men? Or darker still, the former sheriff's deputy and Boy Scout leader who stands accused of molesting young boys decades ago?
In this toughest campaign of a 25-year political career, West says he's pitted against a caricature of himself drawn by recall sponsors and The Spokesman-Review, the local newspaper that since May has published nearly 150 stories about West, reporting allegations that he used his position as mayor to lure young men and that West sexually abused boys decades ago.
The allegations in The Spokesman-Review
Accusations of molestation: Two men told the newspaper they were molested by West decades ago, when he was a deputy sheriff and Boy Scout leader. They say they also were molested by West's good friend and fellow deputy David Hahn, who later committed suicide. The statue of limitations has expired on any potential crime, and there is no police investigation.
Accusations of misuse of office: The Spokesman-Review stories have alleged that West used his mayoral powers to try to entice young men into sexual relationships, including offering an internship to the newspaper's hired computer expert who was posing as a Spokane high-school boy in online chats with West. The stories also allege that West used his city computer to cruise for men online. An investigator hired by the City Council says West violated city and state laws. The FBI also is investigating.
Accusations of hypocrisy: Newspaper articles have asserted West's political and private lives were hypocritical, since he voted against civil-rights protections for gays as a state legislator but had sex with men.
"I have no opponent other than the person they created who is supposedly me," West said.
The mayor created his own "imaginary person" through which he lived a vast and secret online life. But he says it would also be unfair for voters to judge him as that character. "What it really allows me to do is be somebody I'm not," West said.
But even he has difficulty sorting out the real from the make-believe.
"And this is weird. This is incredibly weird for me. This is an imaginary person and this is a real person," he said, pointing with a finger on each hand. "And there are points in time where they cross over a little bit. But few and far between."
Politicians in scandals of this proportion often quickly resign, go off to seek counseling or detoxification or plow on with blanket denials. West, though, has been talking more and more about his conflicted sexuality and self-doubt in ways almost unheard of for a candidate on the campaign trail.
He also follows one well-worn path: Blame the newspaper.
West's first campaign fundraising appeal focused on The Spokesman-Review — which sparked controversy by hiring someone to pose as an online teenager to expose West — and its editor, Steven Smith:
"Are Steven Smith and The Spokesman-Review the ultimate authority in Spokane or is it the people? The choice is ours."
For his part, Smith is surprised the scandal has burned so long. "There are days I feel Mayor West is just making it too easy and that we are in a position of having to continue to write these stories," Smith said. "Now I think that's his responsibility, not ours."
Smith says West could have saved himself further scrutiny by resigning.
"But nevertheless," Smith said, "you've got to ask yourself periodically, how do I feel about this? And there are days I don't feel really great about it. Proud of our journalism. But I just feel like this guy is standing up there and allowing us to whack away at him.
"And we're grinding him into dust."
That last sentence is said without boast. It's Smith's assessment of where the story has gone.
West has cancer. So many elements are at play in the West saga that it's easy to forget that. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003. It quickly spread to his liver. He has had four surgeries and is on his fourth round of chemotherapy.
Spokane Mayor Jim West
Personal: divorced, no children
Education: attended University of Nevada, Reno; received bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Gonzaga University
Work experience: deputy sheriff, Spokane County; Boy Scout camp director; scuba-shop operator
Military experience: joined U.S. Army in 1971, personnel specialist and paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division
Mayor of Spokane: elected in 2003 after an unsuccessful attempt in 2000.
State Legislature: state senator, including stint as Senate majority leader, 1987-2003; state representative, 1983-86
First elected office: Spokane City Council, 1980-82
Party affiliation: Republican
Previous trouble: agreed to a plea bargain to get misdemeanor harassment charges dropped for a threatening telephone message he left for the head of the state homebuilders association, 1998
It's clear he's not well. He's regained much of the weight he originally lost, though he looks more bloated than robust. There's a gray pallor to his skin, and his hair is clumped in thin patches.
There doesn't seem to be any loss of energy. He's as eager as ever to talk about backroom machinations, political intrigue and how he most recently outsmarted the opposition.
His love for political gamesmanship helped make West one of the most powerful Republican figures in Olympia. He spent 20 years in the Legislature, rising to chair the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee and serving as the Senate majority leader.
But mayor of Spokane is the job he always dreamed of holding.
Early in his tenure, West was hailed by The Spokesman-Review and local leaders for bringing a professionalism to the office. Even after the sexual-misconduct allegations, he was named "Best Local Official" in Spokane Coeur d'Alene Living magazine.
"Reprehensible actions aside, the guy can lead and readers still seem to respect him for all the good he has done for the city," the magazine wrote.
Not a great review. But good enough for a mayor in trouble that the magazine sits outside West's office on the fifth floor of City Hall with a Post-it on the page and the entry highlighted in yellow.
Looking out his office window, West points to where the Monroe Street Bridge and the city's refurbished tramway crisscross the Spokane River.
The reopening of the 90-year-old bridge was a high point in the nascent West administration. After the scandal broke, his staff asked West if he wanted to forgo the balloons and the band and instead have a simple ribbon cutting or maybe no public appearance at all.
"I said, 'We're going to have a three-day party,' " West recalled. And they did.
But as quickly as he turns away from the window, he grabs a transcript of one of his online chats with The Spokesman-Review's hired computer expert who was posing as a local high-school boy going by the handle "motobrock34."
Nearby is a pile of letters and e-mails from supporters, including former Scouts, testifying to West's soundness and wishing him well. There is an audio copy and a transcript of his interview with The Spokesman-Review that he pores over looking for discrepancies.
Battling the allegations gives him strength, he says, to fight cancer.
Last May, West's political world began unraveling after The Spokesman-Review reported on two men who say West molested them in the 1970s when they were young boys in Spokane.
Both say they were also molested by West's good friend and fellow sheriff's deputy, David Hahn.
West has denied those charges. In one interview he offers a circumstantial argument against those claims: If he were an abuser there'd be more victims coming forward. The newspaper, with its aggressive search for more victims, would have found someone else.
"Where are they? Pedophiles don't abuse just one person," West said. "Maybe in a case of an uncle abusing or a father or something abusing a family member, but pedophiles who abuse strangers don't abuse one person."
But there is mystery even to West about his past.
Can he understand how strange it looks to some that he worked with two men — Hahn and another fellow Scout leader, George Robey Jr. — who both committed suicide after being suspected of sexually abusing children? "And don't you think that maybe made me to question, 'What's wrong with me?' " West said.
Pressed to elaborate, West demurred, then said, "What was it about me that caused this to happen? Or not to cause it to happen, but had these people lined up? Was it just being [in the] cosmic space in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
Any crime committed in the 1970s would be beyond the statute of limitations. Because of that, law enforcement, government officials and sponsors of the recall against West have paid little attention to the sex-abuse claims — the worst accusations West faces. The newspaper, too, has done little to advance those allegations.
Instead, much of the public attention and the reporting has focused on a narrower legal question: Whether West misused his office by offering City Hall positions to entice young men into sexual relationships.
In one of the initial stories, The Spokesman-Review reported that West had offered an internship to someone he thought was a high-school senior. After that, others came forward to say West had also offered them city positions.
Two weeks ago, an investigator hired by the city concluded those actions had violated city and state laws. West continues to deny the charges.
The allegations against West churn dark memories in Spokane. There have been child sex-abuse allegations in the ranks of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, the Boy Scouts, a ranch for troubled boys and the Catholic Church — a diocese so battered by accusations of molestation it has filed for bankruptcy.
This scandal is about the mayor's actions, to be sure. But many people talk of what it says about Spokane, its history, its newspaper; about the business community; and about how and why city residents don't demand more from their leaders.
The city's power structure has been shaken. The mayor's former business backers and his own Republican Party want him to resign. The newspaper that endorsed West finds itself hailed by former critics as a voice of the people.
Still, the city's most powerful groups stood on the sidelines in the days and weeks after The Spokesman-Review exposé. It was Shannon Sullivan, a self-described unemployed, uneducated, single mom from the poor side of town, who organized the recall-petition drive that will culminate in the Dec. 6 election.
"It surprised me that we would sit down and take this as a community," Sullivan said. "This good-old-boy thing is going to come to an end. It is the people who took back this city."
Some worry a recall will continue the civic unease that has given Spokane an unbroken chain of one-term mayors since 1974.
At stake, they say, is the city's recent success and its efforts to head off life as a branch-office town.
Steve Eugster is a former city councilman, attorney and sponsor of the city-charter change that gave Spokane a strong-mayor form of government. He has been one of West's most outspoken defenders — a defense that often centers on attacking The Spokesman-Review — and says the mayor is being persecuted for his personal life.
"You may not like the guy but he is the kind of strong mayor I had in mind when I advanced the strong-mayor petition," Eugster said.
West's fate has taken on symbolic power in a city longing for change.
Spokane has a chronic inferiority complex. It's a complex so universally recognized it's become an icon. Civic self-doubt is Spokane's Space Needle.
When Spokane was named an All-America City last fall, The Spokesman-Review editorialized that it was time to get over the complex — a complex so rooted here that the newspaper said the same thing when the city first won the award in 1975.
"There was widespread abuse of children in this city for years by priests, by sheriff deputies, by Boy Scout leaders — some of them the same — and you know, you want resolution to that. You do want a white knight to come in and make the bad guys pay in some way," said Jess Walter, a Spokane born-and-bred novelist and former Spokesman-Review reporter.
"I certainly know a lot of people for whom getting rid of Jim West will be a step in the right direction. It will speak well of Spokane if we can do that."
The newspaper, too, has a past to overcome. Local critics have long been suspicious of power wielded by the Cowles family, which owns the paper and other extensive business holdings.
Real-estate dealings have created the most questions for the Cowles family — specifically, a downtown shopping mall and parking-garage deal with the city that went sour, causing years of controversy and litigation.
The Spokesman-Review's stories have generated a host of rumors, including an unsubstantiated one that the newspaper investigated West only because the mayor got the better of the Cowles family in a settlement of that litigation.
"I've never seen conspiracy theorists like the people who have Cowles conspiracies," Walter said. "If they get the weather wrong they say, 'Well, Stacey [Cowles, the publisher] clearly wanted everyone to come inside and shop so they predicted rain.' It's just insanity."
Smith, who worked at six other newspapers before becoming editor of The Spokesman-Review in 2003, sees himself as the new sheriff in town. His Stetson is a fedora and he often wears a foreign corespondent-issue trench coat.
He says there were compromises and ethical lapses under the old regime at the paper, when Cowles' business interests trumped journalism. The paper has written about that since he took over.
Smith, 55, sees darker demons to exorcise from the paper's gothic building. He says the paper "failed to actively pursue" stories about sex abuse in Spokane in the 1970s and 1980s, including allegations about the local Catholic Church and church-run organizations.
"The result is we put children in danger because you allow situations to continue," Smith said.
The publisher of the paper, Stacey Cowles, the son of the man who was in charge of The Spokesman-Review then, isn't so sure.
"I can't believe my father would ever have said, 'Look, we're not going to go there,' " Cowles said.
But after a moment of reflection, Cowles said, "Maybe it's possible." He said that decades ago there were striking religious divisions in town between Catholics and Protestants that the paper may have wanted to avoid stirring up.
Like so much about Spokane's past, doubts are just under the surface.
As West talks about his life, one pictures a blur of men in uniform. West's father was a postal worker. Young Jim went from the Boy Scouts, where his troop leader was an Air Force man, to join the Army, then the sheriff's department, then returning to the Boy Scouts as an adult leader.
West said the system of rules behind those uniforms "definitely makes life simpler." There also is a sense of belonging and camaraderie, he said, that he felt particularly in the Army and the Scouts.
They can be tough on a young man, too.
West's first Scout leader was a tough disciplinarian. Infractions were dealt with by sending a Scout through "the belt line," a column of Scouts using their belts to whip the offender as he ran down the line.
West was born in Oregon but raised in Spokane. As he was about to start his senior year of high school, his father took a job in Reno, Nev., and West wanted to stay behind.
A family he didn't know agreed to take him for the year.
West attended the University of Nevada, Reno, but dropped out. He stayed behind, though, when his family moved several months later, still living in a fraternity house, the place he had one of his earliest homosexual experiences.
West was married from 1990 to 1995. He remains friendly with his ex-wife, who, along with her mother, have donated to West's anti-recall campaign.
He said it wasn't until after his divorce that he admitted to himself that he was attracted to men.
He still professes to be unsure.
"It's hard for me to say this, but I'm curious about men. But you know, I have relationships with women," he said. "I'm basically an asexual. I'm not driven by sex. I mean, God, I could probably count on a couple of hands — besides my marriage itself — how many sexual encounters I've had my entire life."
About five years ago West began to use the Internet to explore his homosexual attractions.
"It was just a curiosity thing," West said. "Then you get in there and you chat with people and they don't know who you are and you don't know who they are. In some cases, you're just teasing them, razzing them."
When West talks about his online relationships, he speaks as if it is technology that draws him in; the computer is the force he feels, not a magnetic pull to young men.
He said the Internet leads to isolation, reduces inhibitions and takes away a needed sense of shame. "It just lowers all those social norms potentially," West said.
That's why he felt compelled to apologize to the citizens of Spokane.
"I think for many people I let them down," West said, "They knew me, but they didn't know everything — sitting at home, being bored, getting online and chatting with people instead of watching TV or reading a good book or whatever. You know, not very proud of it.
"So, that's wrong. And then chatting with 'motobrock' who was an 18-year-old — started out fairly innocent, but went where it shouldn't have. And that was wrong."
To repent, he says, he has sworn off the Internet and sex.
"It created this cleft, this fault, that this was like, wow, that is a place I can't go to anymore: the Internet or any kind of sexual relationship with anybody."
The transcripts of West's online chats obtained by The Spokesman-Review are thick with sexual innuendoes, explicit cybersex and ramblings about living a closeted and sexually confused life. "It's role-playing. I mean, it's like a game," West said.
But the persona he chose wasn't vastly different from his real life. He described himself as middle-aged and generally accurately described his interests and background. He said he worked in a business related to marketing and traveled a lot and had occasion to meet famous people. He said his name was Jim.
"If you're going to role-play, why would you play someone just like yourself?" asked Ryan Oelrich, 24, a Spokane man who chatted with "therightbi-guy" and "Cobra82nd," West's salute to his army division.
And as the case with other chats, "therightbi-guy" and "Cobra82nd" would bring up the mayor.
"He'd say, 'Did you see the mayor on the news today? He's a big, fat, ugly man, isn't he?' " Oelrich said.
Before Oelrich knew West's identity, the mayor went to a friend of the young man's and told him to have Oelrich apply for a seat on the city Human Rights Commission. West initially offered Oelrich the chairmanship. Oelrich turned that down but accepted a position on the commission.
Eventually, Oelrich confronted West in his online persona and the mayor confirmed who he was. He asked Oelrich to keep his identity secret.
After West admitted who he was, Oelrich says, the mayor's online behavior became more aggressive — bordering on stalking. Oelrich, who sees his appointment now as part of a clumsy seduction, resigned and filed a discrimination complaint with the commission.
The commission found West acted inappropriately but did not find that Oelrich had been discriminated against. West denied any wrongdoing.
Oelrich said he urged West to quit hiding his homosexuality.
"I don't think he ever would come out," Oelrich said. "The answer was, 'No, there is no way I can achieve the dreams I have if I was openly gay.' "
It's a Sunday afternoon in April and West is on his computer, chatting under the cover of one of his screen names, jmselton.
jmselton: we trust each other right?
motobrock34: of course
After months of sporadic online chats, according to The Spokesman-Review transcript, West sent his photograph to someone he thought was a Spokane high-school senior.
motobrock34: what is that?
jmselton: this is me
They were to meet for the first time the next day. The online and real-life Jim West were ready to merge.
The two were going to meet for a round of golf the next morning. Instead, West was watched by a photographer for The Spokesman-Review and the paper's computer consultant as he looked around for "motobrock."
The computer setup was a ruse — a word Smith, The Spokesman-Review's editor, prefers to "sting" — arranged by the newspaper.
That tactic has generated plenty of heat. Some journalists and academics criticized the paper for what they saw as a form of entrapment.
West has also made much of the fact that one of the chat transcripts was clearly jumbled and incomplete. He was right, despite a column by the paper's online publisher jabbing hard at West for raising the issue in June and stating the paper "won't always sit quietly when statements are being made about us that we believe to be patently false."
The transcript was corrected early this month, four months after West's complaint.
An editor's note was attached to another transcript July 2 saying that because of technical difficulties the paper's computer expert lost the electronic record of the part of the chat where West first made the offer of an internship to "motobrock." Instead, the expert had to rely on his notes for that allegation that has become central to the recall.
Two sources of the most serious allegations also tell conflicting stories of how one of them says he came to be molested by West.
The discrepancy is clear from interviews and a deposition with two men that The Spokesman-Review posted on its Web site as part of its investigation of West.
Michael Grant says David Hahn, West's fellow sheriff's deputy and close friend, picked him up one day in his departmental car, molested him, and later introduced him to West. Robert Galliher, who also alleges West raped him, says that Grant told him it was West, not Hahn, who picked him up that day in a sheriff's car, in uniform, and molested him.
The discrepancy has never been mentioned in any of the newspaper's stories.
Smith said he does not think that is a substantive conflict and that the newspaper has tried to be straightforward about how memories of events of 25 years ago can be hazy.
Smith did put one thing in the paper he's sorry for. In June he wrote a column — under the headline "Civic Response to West a Model of Timidity" — scolding Spokane residents for a lack of appropriate outrage at West.
He aimed this barb at the Catholic Church: "Are clergy embracing the mayor because this previously and admittedly irreligious politician now has found Jesus and won the Lord's forgiveness?"
Smith believes what he wrote, but says that coming under his name it made the story too personal and made things harder for his reporters.
Smith concedes that the tone of some of the news stories in the early coverage was over-amped. Also, at one point, he asked columnist Doug Clark to back off the story a bit. (Clark made The Spokesman-Review's crusade a multimedia — and R-rated — affair with a parody song posted on the paper's Web site, "I Did It Bi Way.")
Smith says the West tale has followed an unpredictable arc: It started with shocking allegations of pedophilia and Internet cruising. Then the story went through a bizarre stage with stories, for example, about whether West masturbated in his office and the like.
"I don't think anyone can argue on the absurd angle," Smith said.
West's story now, he said, is "just grindingly pathetic and sad and dismal."
On a recent Friday morning, West greeted a visitor at City Hall by saying what his looks hinted at.
"I pulled an all-nighter."
"Just doing stuff."
There's not even sleep to relieve his isolation. His father, Jack, is 80 and lives in town. They see each other occasionally but have yet to talk about the scandal engulfing West.
After West's career in public office, many of his friends are political people. And political people run from trouble. West has heard very little from those he served with in the Legislature. He understands that.
"I'm going to be protective of them. I'm a friend first," he said. "They haven't turned against me, said things against me. But they don't need my baggage and I'm not going to give it to them."
Psychoanalysis, he says, "is not me."
That leaves his newfound religion.
"I've repented," he says. And that includes a relationship with God that began with the pre-scandal cancer diagnosis.
He joined Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominately black church in the neighborhood where West grew up. West began attending after Pastor Lonnie Mitchell Sr. invited him during a mayor's prayer breakfast.
West feels welcome there. On a recent Sunday he is greeted by first name, as "Mr. Mayor" and with the occasional hug. His guest was pulled aside by an elderly woman and told firmly, "You pray for him."
The congregation is racially diverse. West claps to the gospel music with some self-consciousness. (He points out a white man who, he says, "is the only white guy here with real rhythm.")
Mitchell announces his sermon by saying he wants to talk about something so powerful "sometimes we even love it more than God. What is it that's so much fun? It's sin."
Specifically, Mitchell charts a course of sin from watching scantily clad women on MTV — "a foothold to the devil" — to looking at dirty movies and becoming subsumed in the online world.
"The next thing you know you are looking at things on the Internet you had no idea existed. You better stop peeking. Peeking will get you hurt," Mitchell bellowed in his full crescendo. "Peeking will mess your mind up. Peeking will set you apart from everybody."
The pastor warns his congregation that if they are not in right standing with God only hell awaits.
And hell is "a real place," Mitchell promises. And, he warns, "it's hot."
There are lots of "amens" and heads nodding and parishioners urging Mitchell on. The mayor listens and says quietly, "He's talking to me."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org