Much debate has swirled this year over how to preserve Tacoma’s legacy as a working waterfront while being more attentive to the groundswell of safety and health concerns bubbling up in surrounding neighborhoods.
Nowhere does that debate have greater impact than in City Council District 2, which encompasses Northeast Tacoma, the Tideflats and downtown. The District 2 seat is on the ballot this year, along with three other council positions plus the mayor’s post.
The only at-large seat up for grabs is Council Position 6. Its city-wide portfolio covers the waterfront, literally, so candidates have faced questions about how they’d balance economic and quality-of-life interests in and around the Port of Tacoma.
Voters are fortunate to have a choice of good candidates running for District 2 and the open Position 6 slot. The News Tribune Editorial Board endorses incumbent Robert Thoms for the former, and longtime Tacoma educator Lillian Hunter for the latter.
Thoms, a Navy Reserve commander who owns a small public-affairs business, is finishing his first full term after being appointed to the council in 2013. By his own admission, he’s “a little intense” and not a warm-fuzzy politician. He’s also a tough grader; he says the council has earned “less than a C” on key issues such as reducing crime and fixing roads.
As for his views on the $3 billion-a-year Port economy, Thoms raised some eyebrows last year when he wrote a TNT op-ed declaring his vision of a city “that is less industrial than its past.” But the methodical sub-area planning process he laid out is the best available option to bring diverse stakeholders to the table and have what he calls “an adult conversation” about the waterfront’s future. It sure beats the interim regulations some council members are currently fast-tracking, which have put Port businesses on the defensive.
Thoms, 47, was the point person this year on banning encampments and chronic car camping, a necessary step to redirect homeless people to the city’s new shelter sites. He’s also one of the council’s loudest advocates for public safety funding and pushed to add 19 cops to the budget last year.
Challenger Philip Cowan, 51, brings an appealing resume to the District 2 contest. His financial analyst background would be useful to any public agency, and in 11 years as executive director of the Grand Cinema, he’s overseen a golden age for Tacoma’s nonprofit indie movie house.
But on some issues, including homelessness and fossil-fuel-related businesses at the Port, Cowan gravitates to a safe, middle-of-the-road stance and is hard to pin down. He makes vague claims that Thoms is inconsistent and chides him for missing meetings. But Cowan, who lives near the Proctor District, didn’t persuade us that the outspoken incumbent deserves a pink slip.
For Position 6, South End resident Hunter has her work cut out against Proctor resident Meredith Neal. Both support an LNG plant at the Port, albeit cautiously. Both prioritize affordable housing initiatives in a city where rent is skyrocketing and homelessness too common. Neither has held elected office, though both have served in other ways: Hunter on the library board and as a Bates Technical College trustee; Neal on the planning commission and YMCA board.
Hunter, 62, is the product of a working-class family that emigrated to Tacoma from Denmark a half century ago. She recently retired from a distinguished public education career. Having lived in all five council districts and administered high schools in different parts of the city, she enjoys strong credibility as an at-large candidate. Her 20-year employment at a local medical clinic gave her a solid private-sector grounding.
Hunter’s passion for student rights translates neatly into an empathy for the rights of all Tacomans. The ex-wife of former Tacoma Mayor Brian Ebersole is well prepared for a new chapter of public service.
Neal, 39, is similarly tough to pigeonhole. She has an urban planning degree, calls herself an environmentalist and espouses progressive values already dominant on the council, but she’s employed as a construction firm project manager and is versed in “end user” concerns such as government permit bureaucracy. The Washington D.C. transplant would bring the perspective of a working mother, and knows the importance of a working waterfront.
While we give the edge to Hunter in this race because of the depth and breadth of her Tacoma roots, voters can’t go wrong with either of these polished candidates.
Checking their records
The TNT Editorial Board is partnering with CandidateVerification as part of our endorsement process this year. The Bellevue-based nonprofit watchdog coordinates background and resume screenings with the candidates’ consent.
For Tacoma City Council District 2 and at-large Position 6, all four candidates signed up for a background check and no red flags came up.
To see the full database, go online to Candidate