Longtime politician who voters recalled from office after learning about his pursuit of male sex partners in chat rooms dies after cancer surgery
SPOKANE, Wash. Former Mayor James E. West, who opposed gay-rights bills but was recalled from office over an Internet gay sex scandal, died July 22 of complications from recent cancer surgery. He was 55.
The conservative former Republican state Senate majority leader was diagnosed in early 2003 with colon cancer that later spread to his liver. A statement issued by University of Washington Medical Center said his family and pastor were at his side at the Seattle hospital.
“As a family we wish to thank the caregivers at University of Washington Medical Center, and the many friends of Jim for their support and prayers,” the family said in their statement.
Seven months after The Spokesman-Review newspaper began publishing results of a computer “sting” it conducted to track the mayor’s online activities in a gay chat room, West was ousted from office on Dec. 6, 2005, after a recall petition charged that he used his office for personal benefit.
West was the first Spokane city official to be recalled from office, ending a 27-year career in city and state politics.
The former Spokane city councilman, Boy Scout leader and sheriff’s deputy had frequently opposed gay-rights bills during his 20 years in the state House and Senate.
The Spokesman-Review alleged that he offered to help someone he thought was an 18-year-old high school student get a City Hall internship during Internet chats that involved discussions about sex.
“I wish I had never gone online at all. I just wish I hadn’t,” West told The Associated Press in an Oct. 31, 2005, interview. “I scratch my head today. I can’t tell you why.”
West acknowledged having relations with adult men but denied doing anything illegal. He was never criminally charged, although the FBI conducted a public corruption investigation.
“It is extremely tragic that the last act in the drama turned out to be such a sad and controversial chapter,” Chris Vance, a political consultant and former Republican Party chairman, said Saturday. “It’s not how he would have wanted it to be. Jim West was a great and well-respected member of the Legislature for 20 years.”
West’s legacy will likely be mixed because of the scandal, said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Spokane Democrat.
“I thought it was sad that he had to endure a painful struggle with cancer as he was also, essentially, seeing the end of his political career,” Brown said. “He was a powerful political force here and in the state for decades.”
After two terms in the state House, West served four terms in the Senate, rising to majority leader before stepping down in 2003 to run for his “dream job” as mayor of Spokane.
Dino Rossi, a former Republican Senate budget chairman, said West was a gifted politician who gave his colleagues room to get their jobs done. “He didn’t micromanage things,” Rossi said Saturday. “When I was trying to balance the deficit, he showed up in my office, I think, once and that was because I asked him to come over.”
Rossi, who lost the 2004 governor’s race to Democrat Chris Gregoire after two recounts, was a freshman when West let him serve on the budget-writing committee.
“He gave me many opportunities to succeed,” Rossi said.
Sen. Margarita Prentice, a Democrat from Renton, considered West a good friend, despite their political differences.
“I just think he was one of the finest political minds,” she said. “You had to be tough in order to get past him.”
Less than 18 months into his four-year term as mayor, The Spokesman-Review began publishing its series on the mayor’s online activities.
West fought the recall, despite calls for his resignation by the City Council, business leaders, and the state and local Republican parties.
“It’s an unusual episode in my life. I wish there was a rewind button; rewind and erase and start over,” West said to the media. “Basically, that’s what I’m asking the public, for a second chance.”
Instead, voters kicked him out of office.
“He had a distinguished career in the Legislature and a short but remarkable career as mayor until his problems last year,” West’s successor in Spokane, Mayor Dennis Hession, said. “Jim West did some wonderful things for the city of Spokane and the state and that’s how he should be remembered.”
Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith said the newspaper had no comment on West’s death aside from a prepared statement that read: “Our job today is to report the news. Anything else would be inappropriate and unfair to Jim West’s family and friends. To them, we extend our sympathies.”
Despite his climb to the top in Olympia, West always considered the Spokane mayor’s office to be his ultimate goal, Vance said.
“He made it clear for years all he wanted was to be mayor of Spokane. He won, and by all accounts he was doing a fantastic job,” Vance said. “Jim West was doing a great job and then the scandal about his personal life broke. I hope the people of Spokane will remember him as a great legislator.”
A UW Medical Center spokesman said the family was declining interview requests.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 28, 2006.