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Spokane mayor caught with Christian nationalists amid reelection campaign

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Nadine Woodward — Photo courtesy of City of Spokane
Nadine Woodward — Photo courtesy of City of Spokane

Spokane, Washington, is currently in the midst of a contentious mayoral election. The incumbent, Nadine Woodward, who has held office since 2019, is facing former Washington state Sen. Lisa Brown in the general election. Now a new political scandal stands to either make or break Woodward's chances at reelection.

The scandal
On Sunday, August 27, Woodward appeared at a worship event hosted by a prominent Christian nationalist musician and politician and seemed to receive an endorsement from Matt Shea, the disgraced former Spokane Valley state representative. Videos posted online show the mayor singing and raising her hands on stage in prayer.

The clips went viral and sparked outrage from many Spokane voters. Woodward has since spoken out, claiming she had no idea Shea would be present.

In a statement, Woodward claimed that she chose to go to pray for the victims of the recent fires that have consumed rural areas surrounding Spokane. "I attended the event with one purpose only, and that was to join with fellow citizens and begin the healing process," she said. "I was not aware that [Shea] would be at the event last night, and it only became apparent as I was walking on stage that he would be leading the prayer. I should have made better efforts to learn who would be speaking at the event."

Woodward also addressed Shea's rhetoric there. Before she joined him on stage, he made several homophobic statements. "I am deeply disturbed that Matt Shea chose to politicize a gathering of thousands of citizens who joined together yesterday to pray for fire victims and first responders," she wrote.

Matt Shea — Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP  

Woodward has also said that she decided to attend at the last minute. Shea has publicly refuted that claim. On Patriot Radio, a podcast he runs and releases, Shea explained that Woodward received and accepted the invitation far in advance — before the wildfires even sparked in Spokane County.

Though the mayor insisted she had no idea Shea would be involved, advertisements clearly stated as much. He promoted the event on his social media platforms. He is also closely linked with the headliner, Sean Feucht, who has traveled the Pacific Northwest with his "Let Us Worship" tour. He performed just a month earlier in Olympia, where Shea also appeared. The tour is produced by Turning Point USA, a conservative religious group that the Anti-Defamation League has flagged for promoting terrorism, extremism, and bigotry.

Many have also pointed out that even if Woodward did not know Shea would be attending, she had several opportunities to leave once she realized he was there, once she heard him spew homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, and before he placed his hands on her head and blessed her. Instead, she took to the stage and raised her hands in praise. "Father God, we pray a blessing over the leaders you have chosen for this time," Shea said while pressing his palms down on Woodward's head.

Matt Shea — Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP  

Who is Matt Shea?
Shea is well-known for causing controversy in Eastern Washington. The former District 4 representative was expelled from the GOP caucus in 2019 for connections to domestic terrorism. An independent investigation found that Shea was involved in the 2018 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon, which lasted over 40 days, after armed militants attempted to take over conservation land from the United States government to protest grazing taxes. The skirmish ultimately ended with FBI intervention and one fatality.

Even though he was involved, Shea was not prosecuted.

Shea's expulsion from state government came on the heels of the publication of his call for a "biblical holy war" and advocating for the murder of LGBTQ+ people. The manifesto, titled "The Biblical Basis for Holy War," praised an Eastern Washington fringe group called "Team Rugged." The group trains children, teenagers, and young men in their twenties for warfare and an anticipated second American Civil War. Before he released the manifesto, Shea publicly supported "Team Rugged" in social media vlog posts and used 2018 campaign funds to donate to the organization.

Spokane County's sheriff at the time, Ozzie Knezovich, turned the manifesto into the FBI. He described the document as a "'how to' manual consistent with the ideology and operating philosophy of the Christian Identity/Aryan Nations movement."

Shea responded to the condemnation of the manifesto on Facebook in 2018. He claimed that the government planted the pamphlets to frame him.

He has also been an outspoken proponent for Eastern Washington to secede and form its own state, Liberty, along with the Idaho panhandle.

Faith leaders across the Pacific Northwest have been wary of Shea and Feucht for their shared hateful beliefs and rhetoric. In July, a Portland-based activist group organized a letter to local legislators from over 20 local faith and community leaders about the "Let Us Worship" tour, warning of its dangerous teachings.

"Sean Feucht has spent the past year capitalizing on anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments by railing against Pride Month, even embracing the exclusionary label of 'Christian nationalist,' and declaring that people with his narrow view of Christian theology should make all laws in the United States," they wrote. "We reject these attempts to cloak bigotry in religious language, and we ask you to do the same."

Not buying Woodward's excuses
Opponents of Woodward aren't buying her claims. Former Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart (who ran against Woodward for mayor in 2019) believes she knew what she was getting into at the event. "It's just so disgusting," Stuckart said. "If a Christian white nationalist asks you to stand up on stage and be prayed for, you say ... 'no,' and you leave the room the moment you figure out that person is there."

"You don't go to white Christian nationalist events, put on by Christian nationalists, and not expect the Christian nationalists to be there," he said to the Spokesman-Review.

While political figures like Stuckart have called for Woodward to resign amid the recent scandal, her opponent hasn't gone so far. Like Stuckart, Brown believes Woodward knows more about the event than she lets on but has faith voters who will take her actions into account this fall.

"It's not just, 'Here's a difference in policy perspectives.' Shea is calling for armed insurrection [against] people who have a different perspective than he does," Brown said. "It's inexcusable to be associated with him in any way at any time."

"I think one would have to be very much out of touch to not understand what was happening at the time it was happening," she continued. "That is beyond my belief, that she didn't know what was going on."

Mayor Woodward has not released any other statements about the event or her connections to Shea since he claimed that she was not as ignorant about it as she suggests. Instead, she continues to focus her energy on the upcoming election.