Victoria Woodards is running for mayor of Tacoma. She doesn’t have a college degree.
Those two things are indisputably true.
And yet, during an election season, even simple facts aren’t always so simple. And they aren’t always newsworthy.
Part of a newspaper’s job is to help voters make informed choices. We run down a lot of leads and ultimately make editorial judgments about what best informs readers.
In Woodards’ case, our reporting this summer turned up that she not only doesn’t have a college degree but that she also once stated she did — an associate’s degree from Pierce College — on an application for a Metro Parks Tacoma appointment in 2004. (She was chosen to fill a vacant seat on the parks board in the spring of 2004.)
In recent interviews with our reporters and during a session with the editorial board last week, she said her claim about having a Pierce College degree was not accurate. She took courses there in the 1980s and ‘90s and left the school seven credits short of the 90 needed for a degree. She subsequently took some courses through City University that she incorrectly believed fulfilled her graduation requirement.
We’re unaware of her making the degree claim publicly in the 13 years since. In voter-guide information for election campaigns for the parks board (2005), the Tacoma City Council (2009 and 2013) and for mayor (this year), she has not claimed a Pierce College degree. Or any college degree.
The closest she came was in the 2005 guide, where she indicated she would have a City University bachelor’s degree in June 2006. She did not get that degree. The guides for her two city council campaigns list only “Lincoln High School Graduate.”
Until this moment we’ve chosen not to publish a story on the degree misrepresentation, viewing it as minor and not significant enough for a standalone story. Some of Woodards’ political opponents on social media view her Pierce College claim as a “lie” and believe we’ve been withholding important information.
In the interest of transparency, here’s some of the thinking that went into our decision-making:
▪ We can’t say for certain that she lied. A lie is an intentionally false statement. She said she made a mistake. In the worst possible light, this is not a wholesale fabrication of academic credentials. She did attend Pierce College and she walked in its graduation ceremony. She’s since been honored by the college as a distinguished alumna. So it’s not as if Pierce College has never heard of her, or she didn’t complete some college work there.
▪ This particular claim has not been a central part of her public life and was not an apparent factor or campaign issue in her being twice elected to the city council. It’s not a credential she’s touting in the race for mayor.
▪ It’s information a voter ought to know, but it doesn’t make for a story on its own. It will be part of a biographical profile in a package next week looking at the candidates and the issues.
▪ Unlike what one of Woodards’ social media critics contends, her situation is nothing like the revelations about former Pierce County Auditor Cathy Pearsall-Stipek in 1998.
For decades, Pearsall-Stipek claimed in campaign literature that she studied home economics and business administration at the University of Washington. She told The News Tribune she had double-majored in home ec and business. She later admitted she had no degree and was found to have lied about her educational background while testifying in a lawsuit in 1996.
▪ Not having a college degree is not unusual or disqualifying. About 42 percent of Americans 25 years and older have an associate’s degree or more. There is no requirement to have a degree in order to run for public office.
The bottom line is that voters have a lot of factors to weigh in choosing Tacoma’s next mayor. Woodards’ academic record is perhaps one of of them, but we believe items such as homelessness, taxes, business regulation, streets, Click and LNG are more worthy of attention in 2017 than a minor resume discrepancy from a decade and a half ago.
As for her college background, now you know.