Saturday, February 29, 2020
Feb. 29, 2020

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Press Talk: The good, the bad, the ugly

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Southbound traffic crosses the Interstate 5 Bridge. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)
Southbound traffic crosses the Interstate 5 Bridge. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Bridge talk builds careers. Not bridges.

Hey, it ain’t “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff,” but it does have some potential for a coffee mug. Let me explain.

I’m pretty sure long before Fort Vancouver was a real fort, there was chatter about how to get across that monster of a river, known today as the Columbia. Some guy promised two canoes in every driveway and even though he probably didn’t deliver, he was named grand poobah for life, because he said what we wanted to hear.

Today, the on-and-off harangue on how to improve our commuting experience back and forth to Oregon is back on again. Our state Legislature is at the beginning of doing its talking thing again which — if history is any indication — will amount to absolutely nothing.

And the only thing there has been more of than politicians pontificating on all things bridge, is journalists writing about politicians pontificating on all things bridge. So I had to ask myself, have I got anything — anything — worth a buck? Don’t answer that too quickly! Heck, let’s give it a try.

How about, even though we can’t seem to get a bridge built, all the talking we do about it has built a few careers. Some of those careers are good, some are bad and some are ugly. Yeah, that’s the ticket. So let’s get started.

The good

When I became managing editor of The Columbian in 1997, one of the first things I did was have a long discussion with Editor Tom Koenninger. We talked about all things staff related including the recent newspaper coverage of — you guessed it — a large I-5 Bridge repair.

There were going to be lane closures and commute headaches and big wrenches and all that good stuff. Sure, The Columbian had a great plan for coverage — both before and after the repairs began — and executed it superbly. But the point Tom wanted to make to me was all that bridge coverage was just what the doctor ordered for the newsroom.

Tom said the newsroom had been in a bit of a funk and having the entire staff coalesce around an important project was critical. It brought notoriously individual staffers together. So that stubborn old bridge became a good thing for the newsroom. “It reinvigorated newsroom careers,” he said.

The bad

David Madore is known for a bunch of stuff, including manufacturing widget thingies that created a bunch of local jobs and made him a millionaire. But he would have forever been just another rich guy who flew below the radar if it weren’t for the stubborn old bridge. Yes, Madore has helped a number of faith-based groups, but you rarely see him at a community luncheon or event.

So it was only when an earlier discussion of building a replacement bridge caught his attention that Madore caught fire. Part of that earlier discussion was to place tolls on any replacement bridge and Madore would have none of it. He began showing up at city council meetings with pie charts and graphs and pushed back on the proposal.

Then Madore used his newfound fame to unseat an incumbent county commissioner. He vowed to shake up county government. That he did in a strange, unbecoming way, but he was mostly a disaster. He was one-and-done and did absolutely nothing to move the bridge forward. It was just bad.

Today, Madore is mostly silent but he continues to make a little noise now and then. In fact the Republicans just held a meeting at his gadget factory. Still, he has no chance of a comeback because he will forever be known as the guy who was brought to power because of the bridge but played his cards terribly and was just bad.

The ugly

Former Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and Madore couldn’t be further apart, especially when it comes to politics. But that stubborn old bridge also played an important role in Leavitt’s rise to the mayoral throne.

Leavitt had been appointed to a vacant city council seat and was performing nicely. But he was ambitious, impatient and ready for a fight. He often looked to the center of the dais and pictured himself in the mayor’s chair. There was one small problem: Mayor Royce Pollard was sitting there.

Leavitt figured it was time for the old guy to leave quietly, but Pollard would have none of it. Pollard wanted one more term, then he would pass the torch to the young stud. But Leavitt would have none of it.

So the two squared off in an epic battle. Now Politics 101 tells you to beat an incumbent you had better be able to find some dirt on him or you had better find an important issue to distinguish you. Leavitt found the issue. The bridge. Remember Madore and that “no tolls” stuff? Leavitt had the same strategy. Pollard understood the finances of the bridge so he publicly acknowledged that tolls had to be a player.

Leavitt should have known it as well, but he was campaigning on no tolls.

He won, in large part because of his no-tolls stance. But here’s where it gets ugly. Almost before the paint was dry on his new mayoral parking space, Leavitt had a bit of an epiphany. Tolls, he realized, would be necessary. Leavitt reluctantly and slowly came around to sort-of, kind-of, agreeing that maybe he could have handled that no-toll campaigning thing a little differently.

Unlike Madore, Leavitt went on to have a very successful mayoral career and, frankly, would still be mayor today if he hadn’t decided to spend more time on his engineering career. I’ve always like this guy and — unlike Madore — when I write something in my column (maybe this one too?) that he doesn’t like, he still always talks to me.

By the way, the guy Leavitt beat — Pollard — turns 80 later this month and there’s going to be a big party in May. Everyone’s invited, included you Mr. Leavitt.

• • •

So the bridge has meant much more than just concrete and steel beams. It’s created togetherness, made a household name and sped a rise to the top.

And what about any real bridge progress? Well the state legislative session — where most of the talk is happening — is scheduled to finish at the end of this month. State Rep. Sharon Wylie — who is on the transportation committee — said she’s uncomfortable to predict where we’ll be at the end.

“But I expect there to be a clear (Washington State Department of Transportation) work plan that includes state-of-the-art public outreach, Oregon at the table and a heavy workload for those of us appointed to the Bistate Committee. And more,” she said.

Good luck with that. And let’s keep talking. Who knows if another career will be made.

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