A few days before Christmas, a large, empty trash bin sat outside the corner office Mayor Marilyn Strickland has held for eight years on the 12th floor of the Tacoma Municipal Building.
As she prepared to take down and box up artifacts of her two terms in office — framed photos with President Barack Obama, gleaming glass awards and a French Bulldog-themed coffee mug among them — Strickland reflected on her tenure, what she’s proud of, and the changes Tacoma has been through.
She also looked to the future. Though she won’t be leading the city anymore, she has strong feelings about how some issues should play out.
Ruston should be annexed into Tacoma, she said in an interview. Browns Point, too.
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“It is time to annex Ruston and to have a really thoughtful conversation with the residents of Ruston and the government officials to really communicate how that would benefit them in the long run,” Strickland said. “We provide a lot of services for them anyway, and this bizarre impasse at Point Ruston that is keeping everyone from enjoying this huge investment is just not productive.”
It was classic Strickland: Straightforward and to the point, a potentially controversial statement delivered without equivocating and backed by logic.
Elevating Tacoma’s reputation
In eight years, Strickland has been credited with raising the city’s national and international profile in a way that none of her predecessors even attempted. She was extremely active in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is a trustee of that group. During her tenure, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to Tacoma.
She’s also been cheered for leading a movement to keep the city’s Click Cable TV network in public hands instead of leasing it to a private company. She’s also proud of the significant investment in downtown Tacoma that’s slated to come online in the next several years, including the new hotel by the convention center.
Strickland was mayor when the council fired former city manager Eric Anderson, who was blamed for digging the city into a deep financial hole during the recession, resulting in cuts to services and hundreds of city employees being let go. And she was credited with leading the effort to hire former city manager T.C. Broadnax, who righted Tacoma’s finances and helped restore its bond ratings.
Her proudest achievement, she admits, is not the sexiest: In 2015, Tacoma voters approved two ballot measures to pay for maintenance and improvements for Tacoma’s streets, which were sorely in need of it. Potholes were an issue Strickland talked about during her first run for City Council in 2007, and as mayor she shepherded the 10-year, $175 million tax package to the ballot.
The first time the package went before voters, it failed.
That it passed the second time was impressive, said former mayor and Tacoma history buff Bill Baarsma, who was mayor before Strickland and served on the council with her for two years.
“It was one of the more significant achievements — you have to go back decades to find something comparable ...,” Baarsma said.
Strickland faced her share of criticism.
In 2016, she appeared in a video in which she offered support for the hugely controversial methanol plant that was proposed for the Tideflats. In 2011, she was dinged by Tacoma’s citizen Board of Ethics for using a Lakewood businessman’s frequent flier miles to pay for a business trip to Asia. Some have bristled at her sometimes unapologetic approach to achieving policy goals.
Strickland also leaves office with unfinished business.
The city’s three-phased approach to combating a homelessness crisis hasn’t reached its final phase, and the future of the Click Cable TV and broadband network is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit.
While Strickland said she wishes she could see those things and others through, she’s closing this chapter without regrets.
“Given where Tacoma was when I took office and where we are now, I think we’ve had a good run. We weathered a recession that was deeper and more severe than anyone imagined, we’ve had to make hard decisions as far as letting staff go,” said Strickland, whose tenure as mayor was subjected to term limits.
“Comparing where we were then to where we are now, we are more financially stable, we’re in the process of restoring services … we’re in a much better place.”
‘Tough, shrewd and smart’
Baarsma called her tough, shrewd and smart, someone who “really doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
In a council-manager form of government where the mayor is elected but doesn’t run the city’s day-to-day operations, her reign seemed more powerful than many that preceded her. Baarsma said that is partly because Broadnax was a quiet, behind-the-scenes city manager who wasn’t interested in the limelight.
“It’s not the power you have, it’s the power people perceive you having that is important,” Baarsma said. “And she, I think, understands that principle and was able to utilize it to great effect.”
Those who have bumped heads with her on policy still had good things to say about her leadership.
Tom Pierson, president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, said she pivoted smartly when a group of Tacomans wanted a proposed $15 minimum wage that would have been instated abruptly. Realizing the potential chilling effect that might have had on the city’s small businesses, Strickland helped craft a proposal for a phased-in $12 minimum wage, which ultimately won with voters.
“To me it really illustrated her leadership with her stepping forward and saying we need to do what’s best for Tacoma,” Pierson said. “I’ve seen her get criticized from all sides, which usually means you’re doing a good job. She was the right person. I loved her leadership. She embodied Tacoma and she grew into that.”
Her embodiment of Tacoma was vital, because she didn’t try to get Tacoma to be Seattle, said Alex Hays, a Republican political strategist.
“I think she was very good at letting Tacoma be Tacoma, instead of being a radicalized copy cat of Seattle. It has a very different story and history than Seattle,” Hays said.
While Strickland has taken many progressive stands, she was often a centrist voice at City Hall, Hays said.
“She took the edge off a lot of policies that might have hurt our city as a place to work, so I kind of viewed her as a consensus builder,” he said. “We didn’t end up with a policy that had more costs than benefits. Minimum wage reform, that’s an obvious one, the tension between the port and the city.
“There were angry and radical options, and then there were more reasonable, centrist options, and she was always the engineer of the centrist outcome, and I admire that.”
A recent example was during the fight for the future of land use on the Tideflats. This fall, the council was considering banning all new heavy industry there and preventing existing heavy industry from expanding.
Strickland and Councilwoman Lauren Walker Lee offered an amendment that would allow existing uses to expand, which riled environmentalists but allayed the fears of many longtime port businesses. The amendment passed.
Outgoing Port of Tacoma commissioner Connie Bacon, who served in that role for 20 years, said Strickland was good at melding the needs of the port and the city.
“She’s been a tremendous leader and a great partner for the port,” Bacon said. “She has done an admirable job. She’s very assertive and aggressive and she’s done some new things and good things for the city.”
A milestone mayor
Strickland, whose mother is Korean, was the first African American woman to be mayor of Tacoma. She was also Tacoma’s first elected African American mayor and the first female mayor to win two terms. In an interview, she said it’s important to acknowledge that path was paved for her by Tacoma’s first African American mayor, Harold Moss, and its first female mayor, Karen Vialle.
Strickland graduated from Mount Tahoma High School, majored in sociology at the University of Washington and later earned her MBA. It’s served her well, she said: Sociologists like people and data. And her business background was easy to spot during her time on the council.
After serving on the Tacoma Public Library board and working as the development officer for the city library system, she ran for an at-large position on the City Council in 2007 and won. She went for the mayor’s seat two years later and beat Jim Merritt, who ran against mayor-elect Victoria Woodards earlier this year.
Strickland was elected mayor the same year Woodards won her first term as an at-large councilwoman. Among the personal items on Strickland’s desk: A frame with photos of Strickland campaigning for Woodards this fall. In a photo taken on election night, the women embrace, their eyes locked.
It is a powerful image of an emotional moment, she said. Strickland noted that election saw women elected as mayors up and down the Interstate 5 corridor.
“This is a great time to be a woman in politics,” she said. “It’s not just a big deal because more female leadership, but also just an opportunity to recognize there are too few of us in elected office. So the more women we have running for office, the more successful we are, the more the balance of power will be more reflective of who we are as a community and as a nation.”
At this point, Strickland said she doesn’t know what she’ll do next but running for public office again is probably not in the cards.
“One of the things I always wanted to do was to improve our reputation as a city,” she said. “And I think when you travel outside of Tacoma and people come here who aren’t from here who see our assets and they look at the community, they’re usually pretty impressed.”