Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal Spokane Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Spokane mayor James E. West was a conservative Republican Washington State senator and a staunch leader against gay and lesbian rights while in the legislature. In May, 2005, local media reported that West had chatted online with a seventeen-year-old boy about having sex with him. The media also said that West had sexually molested boys years earlier and that he had been having sex with young men whom he met on the Web. West was recalled from office in 2005.

Summary of Event

In May, 2005, the Spokane Spokesman-Review broke a story that it had been investigating for a considerable time. Mayor James E. West, a conservative Republican, was accused of attempting to elicit sexual favors on the Web from a young man in return for an internship at Spokane City Hall. What made this accusation even more startling was that in his twenty-plus years in the Washington State legislature, West had been a staunch voice against gay and lesbian rights. Among the causes he had championed were barring gays and lesbians from working in schools, day-care centers, and some state agencies, and defining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. [kw]Gay-Sex Scandal, Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in (Dec. 6, 2005) Spokane, Washington West, James E. Sullivan, Shannon West, James E. Homosexuality;James E. West[West] Spokane, Washington West, James E. Sullivan, Shannon West, James E. Homosexuality;James E. West[West] [g]United States;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Sex crimes;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Sex;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Corruption;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Politics;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Law and the courts;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Families and children;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Public morals;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] [c]Publishing and journalism;Dec. 6, 2005: Spokane, Washington, Mayor Recalled in Gay-Sex Scandal[03550] Oelrich, Ryan

In his powerful post as Washington senate majority leader, West had effectively killed a bill that would have banned discrimination against gays. He also introduced legislation outlawing sexual intercourse between consenting teenagers. Additionally, as mayor of Spokane, he indicated that he would veto a measure to offer benefits to domestic partners of city employees. Although some of his family-values causes never became law, they were indicative of West’s political leanings and presumptive evidence of his hypocrisy.

One of the most shocking aspects of the breaking story was that it involved a boy whom West believed to be only seventeen years old. In reality, the event was a sting; the presumed teenager with whom he had been in contact was someone hired by the Spokesman-Review. During one of their online chats, for which he called himself Right Bi-Guy, the mayor admonished the youth to remember that he was “very closeted” and that no one knew he liked men sexually.

The Spokesman-Review published the Web exchanges in copious detail. Even more seriously, the article accused the mayor of having molested at least two young Cub Scouts (both of whom later became convicted felons) almost twenty-five years earlier when he was a sheriff’s deputy. To minimize the damage, West immediately issued a statement apologizing for the “shame” he brought to the city but vigorously denied any molestation. He did resign from a Boy Scouts council and admitted to frequenting gay Web sites and having sexual relations with adult men. Although denying he was gay, he did allow that he might be bisexual. (He had married at a relatively late age, was in that relationship for about five years, and then was divorced.)

Despite the accusations against him, West vowed to complete the mayoral term to which he had been elected in 2003, the same year he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Among the accusations was that he had promised city jobs to those with whom he hoped to have sex. One person who received a city job in exchange for sex was twenty-four-year-old Ryan Oelrich, whom the mayor did appoint to Spokane’s Human Rights Commission. Oelrich resigned after six months because he claimed West would not stop pressuring him for sex. Eventually, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stepped in to investigate the charges of public corruption.

Although West believed that he was safely closeted, rumors about his sexuality had existed for many years. In general, outrage against the mayor greeted the article, but there were people who questioned its timing. Some thought it had political overtones, and there were those who thought it was unfair entrapment. West threatened to sue the paper for invasion of privacy, but he did not do so. After admitting to the sexual indiscretions, he defended his prior antigay opinions as representing the will of the constituents who had elected him and said they were not necessarily his own beliefs. He also expressed regret about the way he had voted on some of these issues. At a news conference, he averred that the events had “helped me straighten out my personal life” but also complained he had been “brutally outed.”

Shortly after the allegations surfaced, Mayor West said he would take a short leave of absence to fight the molestation charges. During an appearance on NBC television’s The Today Show, he again claimed that he was just following the will of the voters in his antigay proposals. The city of Spokane began looking into West’s use of city computers and e-mail accounts. It hired an independent investigator, who determined that West had violated city policy when he downloaded images from a gay Web site onto his office computer. The police did not immediately comment on any possible criminal charges resulting from his actions. For one thing, the statute of limitations for molestation had expired.

Although fellow Republicans and Spokane city leaders distanced themselves from the mayor, they did not push for his resignation. It was left to a single citizen, Shannon Sullivan, to instigate a recall petition. She gathered more than the required 12,600 valid signatures. The thirty-seven-year-old mother maintained it was not an antigay move but that she just wanted a mayor whom her young son could be proud of. A Superior Court judge ruled against two counts of the petition but left a third intact. West then appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court, which ruled against him. Although not a lawyer, Sullivan herself had made the oral arguments before the court. A special mail-in recall election was then ordered and held on December 6, 2005.

During the recall campaign against him, West had few public defenders, but when a gay rights group offered him a forum to tell his side of the story, he declined. West was recalled from office by a 65 to 35 percent margin (approximately 40,000 votes for the recall and 21,500 against it). Sometime before his death from colon cancer at the age of fifty-five in July, 2006, West told a Seattle newspaper that he no longer visited gay Web sites and had been refraining from gay sex. This revelation could well be related to his hopes to run for office again.

Impact

Toward the end of his life, West still hoped to be rehabilitated, but his political career was finished. Although he had characterized being the mayor of Spokane as his “dream job,” he apparently harbored ambitions to run for governor. (He did run for lieutenant governor in 1996 but was defeated in his party’s primary.) The Republican leadership of Washington State avowed that the scandal would not reflect on their party, but it is possible that some political fallout resulted. Another right-leaning antigay conservative within the party was revealed to be a hypocrite on the issue.

The local lesbian and gay community used the West scandal to demonstrate the damage that being closeted caused to those who felt they had to conceal their sexuality. They also wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of those politicians who espoused family-values rhetoric in public but who lived very different—indeed, deeply opposed—lives in private. This case engendered much discussion in Spokane about the problems that gays and lesbians faced. A gay spokesperson said that the city had learned that “lives lived in dishonesty are lives not well-lived.”

Overall, the gay and lesbian communities in Spokane and elsewhere were generally less than sympathetic to West. The Advocate, a leading gay news periodical, decried as “pathetic” those people, including West, who denied their sexuality. Spokane, Washington West, James E. Sullivan, Shannon West, James E. Homosexuality;James E. West[West]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breslau, Karen. “Spokane: A Mom vs. a Mayor.” Newsweek, August 29, 2005. A fuller account of Sullivan’s recall petition drive and her appearance delivering oral arguments before the state supreme court.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Egan, Timothy. “Spokane Mayor, Caught in Sex Sting, Is Ousted in Vote That May Advance Gay Rights.” The New York Times, December 8, 2005. The recall election of December 6 spelled the end of West’s career. Another recap of the scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaushik, Umesh Kher. “Exposed in Spokane.” Time, May 23, 2005. A report on the exposé by the Spokane Spokesman-Review, which brought to the public’s attention the sexual hypocrisy of Mayor West and accused him of molesting boys many years earlier.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saskal, Rich. “Spokane Recall Ruling.” The Bond Buyer, August 26, 2005. News story on the Washington State Supreme Court clearing the way for Shannon Sullivan to begin collecting signatures for a recall election against West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “West Taking Leave.” The Bond Buyer, May 15, 2005. After a local Spokane newspaper broke a sex scandal implicating Mayor James West, he announced that he would take a leave of absence to prepare his defense.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savage, Dan. “No Excuses for West.” The Advocate, January 31, 2006. A gay columnist’s opinion piece about the West scandal and a look back at how gays of his generation coped with being forced to remain in the closet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Juliet A., and Paul Apostolidis, eds. Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. Provides a context for the West case by examining other sex scandals involving political figures.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Aide Is Arrested in Gay-Sex Sting

Evangelist Billy James Hargis Resigns College Presidency During Gay-Sex Scandal

Congressman Bauman Is Arrested for Liaison with Teenage Boy

Conservative Politician John G. Schmitz Is Found to Have Children Out of Wedlock

Congress Members Censured in House-Page Sex Scandal

Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Extramarital Affair Is Revealed

Newspaper Claims That Arnold Schwarzenegger Groped Women

Congressman Mark Foley Resigns in Sex Scandal Involving a Teenage Page

Male Escort Reveals Sexual Liaisons with Evangelist Ted Haggard

Florida Politician Is Arrested for Soliciting an Undercover Male Police Officer

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer Resigns in Prostitution Scandal

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