How long has it been since the Tacoma mayor’s job mustered enough competition to force a primary election? Gary Locke was governor, George W. Bush was president and the 9-11 terror attacks were still raw.
On Sept. 18, 2001, five Tacomans faced off in a primary that eventually gave us Mayor Bill Baarsma.
Sixteen years is too long to wait for a diverse field of mayoral talent. It’s too long for Tacoma voters to be denied an extended dialogue with those who aspire to be the city’s No. 1 leader and champion.
Let’s rejoice, then, that the Aug. 1 ballot features a primary to choose mayor finalists for the November general election. Better yet, all three candidates have serious credentials; there are no blockheads or pretenders in the bunch.
But we reserve our endorsements in this preliminary round for Jim Merritt and Victoria Woodards.
Merritt, 70, is a respected businessman, consensus-builder and 2009 mayor runner up. He’s a homegrown architect who’s left his mark on iconic Tacoma projects including Union Station, Point Ruston and the Foss Waterway redevelopment. He lives in the North End.
Woodards, 52, is the child of a Fort Lewis airman, later a soldier herself, who’s walked the slow road of public service. She went from Pierce County Council aide to Metro Parks board member to a commendable eight-year tenure on the City Council. She lives in the South End.
The third candidate is Evelyn Lopez, 55, an accomplished government lawyer who rose through state management ranks working for attorneys general of both parties. She’s a Californian by upbringing but a Tacoman by choice, having settled here after law school. She lives in West Tacoma.
In a group interview, all three made cogent statements and gave thoughtful answers. On homelessness, each advocated a compassionate, multifaceted approach with regional partners and social service providers.
On public process, each called for more open government and criticized the precipitous promotion of longtime city attorney Elizabeth Pauli from interim to permanent city manager this spring. (Though none expressed concern about Pauli’s fitness for the job.)
On economic development, each talked up family-wage jobs and a vibrant Port of Tacoma, though Lopez takes a hard line against fossil-fuel projects such as the aborted methanol refinery and a planned liquefied-natural-gas plant. She proposes a 25-year port “revisioning.”
Our main concern about Lopez is that she would be making a big leap to the mayor’s office. She doesn’t have Woodards’ record in elected or appointed office, and she hasn’t resided as long or achieved as much in Tacoma as either Merritt or Woodards.
Lopez’ professional orbit largely revolves around Olympia, where she worked for the AG and recently as executive director of the Public Disclosure Commission.
We also have concerns about temperament and judgment after Lopez stirred controversy at the PDC last year; during the methanol plant debacle, she used social media to post strong opinions about Tacoma economic development officials while she led a state agency that’s supposed to be scrupulously impartial.
Merritt learned a lot from his first mayoral run and has earned another shot at it. He is more than an architect; the Fife High School alumnus is an urban visionary and a problem solver. Some may have forgotten that he once led the community brainstorming behind the plan to restore the polluted Asarco property in Ruston.
Not only does Merritt know elected officials around the region, he’s also built relations with department heads and staff in the 20 municipalities where he’s done projects. Those could prove useful to a new mayor.
Woodards is easy to root for, in part because she evokes a sense of hometown girl coming of age.
The Lincoln High alumna, who came to Tacoma at age 3, is right to claim some credit for a game-changing $84 million community parks bond approved by voters in 2005. She can be pleased with the work of a minimum wage task force she sat on last year, before she left the City Council in December to run for mayor.
And she should be proud of her long labor for racial justice, as president of the Tacoma Urban League and as a leader in the police department’s Project PEACE initiative.
The last time Tacoma voters had a choice for mayor was eight years ago, when Merritt lost to Marilyn Strickland, 48-to-51 percent, after a hard-fought general election campaign. (Strickland ran unopposed in 2012.)
If Merritt and Woodards advance to November, as we hope, voters will have another tough choice between high-caliber candidates.
Our other primary endorsements
Tacoma City Council District 4: Kevin Grossman, Shalisa Hayes.
Tacoma Council District 5: Chris Beale, Janis Clark.
Tacoma Council At-large Pos. 6: Gregory Christopher, Lillian Hunter, Meredith Neal.
Puyallup District 1: John Hopkins, Jim Kastama.
Puyallup District 2: Heather Shadko.