The festivities had subsided. The room had emptied. The Lincoln High School drum line, which, as has become customary, opened Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s final State of the City address, had left the building.
At a table at the front of the room, near a stage that now displayed an empty podium, the mayor was finally able to enjoy her lunch.
Strickland worked on her salmon, which, along with the vegetarian option, the rest of the sellout crowd of 240 attendees had had the pleasure of consuming while it was still warm.
Inconveniences — like eating your cold lunch at an empty table — come with the territory. No one said being the mayor of the state’s third most populous city would be all glamour.
Outside, a small handful of protesters, largely voicing opposition to Puget Sound Energy’s planned LNG plant and aggrieved by the event’s chamber of commerce sponsorship and $40 ticket price, only confirmed that the job has its drawbacks.
Inconveniences — like eating your cold lunch at an empty table — come with the territory for an elected official like Strickland. No one said being the mayor of the state’s third most populous city would be all glamour, after all. Outside, a small handful of protesters, largely voicing opposition to Puget Sound Energy’s planned LNG plant and aggrieved by the event’s chamber of commerce sponsorship and $40 general admission ticket price, only confirmed that the job has its drawbacks.
It would be premature to use the mayor’s final State of the City address as an excuse to write her send-off. As she noted in this year’s speech, she’s still got 11 months ahead of her and accomplishments she still hopes to see.
Perhaps most interesting, Strickland intends to spend many of her remaining days in office seeking a way to help ensure that Tacoma’s workforce benefits from the thousands of jobs — she called a figure of “220,000 direct and indirect jobs” a conservative estimate — that will arrive in our region over the coming years as a result of investments in roads, housing and mass transit.
Strickland is calling the initiative “Tacoma Works.” She told me she came up with the name Monday, two days before her speech. I told her all that’s missing now is a hashtag.
The key to making Tacoma Works work, Strickland believes, will be fostering new partnerships and connections. To the mayor, that means bringing together established organizations like the Pierce County Workforce Development Council, organized labor, local contractors and local technical education providers, at the college and high school levels — with the explicit intention of “getting people employed who come from all backgrounds.”
“We have a lot of different entities working on these issues, but I don’t know that I’ve seen us all come together,” Strickland said.
The mayor stressed the need to identify the barriers that Tacomans in need of family wage jobs face in their search, and that employers face when trying to find qualified employees.
“It’s a very tall order,” the mayor acknowledged. “This will not be resolved after I perform my last council meeting.”
Strickland’s time in office has been full of challenges, and she’s got some scars to prove it. In his introduction, Tacoma Pierce County Chamber President and CEO Tom Pierson told the crowd that he’d seen Tacoma’s mayor grapple with tough issues, including some he knew “she didn’t want to take on.”
So, a day later, I asked Strickland about the challenges of being Tacoma’s mayor over the past seven years, leading a city out of the Great Recession, and often bearing the brunt of harsh criticisms and increasingly hostile political rhetoric.
The mayor listed the decision to fire City Manager Eric Anderson and replace him with T.C. Broadnax, the city budget crisis that defined her first years in office and led to 230 employees being let go, the minimum wage battle that the city was forced to reluctantly take up despite the desire from most council members to see it tackled on a state level, and “the bruising rejection of our first attempt to pass a measure to fix Tacoma’s streets” as instances that tested her resolve.
I can offer at least two more trying moments.
There was the paid sick-leave battle of 2015, which plenty of critics said didn’t go far enough. And let us not forget the Great Methanol Debate of 2016, a contentious saga that Strickland instructed the council to stay neutral on.
Later, it was revealed that she’d participated in a promotional video touting the since-scrapped project and the Chinese company behind it — a decision she described as an error, admitting that it contradicted “exactly what I’ve been saying.”
Local government is the one place where government is accessible now. We’re the one place where (people) have a chance to express their frustrations and anger.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
When it comes to criticism, the mayor has heard plenty of it. She told me it comes with the job — now more than ever.
“Local government is the one place where government is accessible now,” Strickland said. “We’re the one place where (people) have a chance to express their frustrations and anger.”
All in all, it’s enough to make cold salmon lunch sound pretty darn good.
Still, as she did in her speech, Strickland was determined to end our conversation on a high note.
“I believe we have made a lot of progress,” Strickland said, reminding me that when she graduated from Mount Tahoma High School in 1980, Tacoma was “a dilapidated mess.”
“Progress takes time, it takes decades. But we are going in the right direction.”