Former Tacoma council candidate’s racial comments disrupt mayoral campaign

Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy File photo, The News Tribune

Racial comments made on Facebook by Tom McCarthy, a former Tacoma City Council candidate and Pierce College instructor, have torn through social media in the last week, disrupting the mayoral campaign in the 11th hour and adding more divisiveness to the vitriolic nature of the race.

The controversial comment by McCarthy, formerly a volunteer with Jim Merritt’s mayoral campaign, referred to “house” and “field” slaves, saying he had friends “in the field. The house ones not so much.”

McCarthy said Tuesday it was “an off-the-cuff comment, and I regret that folks have taken offense to it.”

He said he can understand why people would be offended by the comment, but that was not his intention.

The comment, made Oct. 23, sparked an online furor, with several Tacomans calling on Pierce College to respond to their employee’s remark.

Brian Benedetti, a spokesman for the community college where McCarthy teaches three English composition courses, said the college “takes this seriously and we’re looking into it as far as discipline.” The college does not publicly disclose information on personnel discipline, Benedetti said.

When asked about the posting, Merritt said he wasn’t aware of any comments McCarthy had made on social media. He said McCarthy was a campaign volunteer who resigned Oct. 20, three days before the controversial comment was made.

On Tuesday, McCarthy said he left to become involved with an independent expenditure campaign, called Integrity Matters.

The Facebook comment came after McCarthy and other Merritt supporters began a social-media blitz and, through Integrity Matters, paid for a campaign mailer to discredit former City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards, Merritt’s opponent.

They said she lied about having an associate college degree on a 2004 application to join the Metro Parks Tacoma board of commissioners. They also contended she claimed to have a bachelor’s degree on subsequent voter’s guide information when she ran for the parks board in 2005.

Woodards told The News Tribune she took courses at Pierce College in the 1980s and ’90s and left the school about seven credits short of the 90 needed for a degree. She subsequently took courses through City University that she said she incorrectly believed fulfilled her graduation requirement.

McCarthy is listed as one of the top contributors for the campaign mailer, which says in part: “Claiming degrees never earned is lying. Character counts! Vote no on Woodards!”

Woodards said Tuesday she is disappointed about the level of negative campaigning in the mayoral race.

“It’s really sad,” she said, “that this kind of negative campaigning takes us away from really focusing on the issues that are important to Tacoma, like good jobs, like public safety, like homelessness and affordability, and it’s even sadder that this kind of negative campaigning has been taken to a whole other level in our community.”

With regards to her educational background, she said her experience is what matters.

“I think I’m not unlike a lot of people who live in this city,” she said.

In a long Facebook thread Oct. 23, McCarthy and John Prosser, a social studies teacher at Jason Lee Middle School, went back and forth over Woodards’ education.

Prosser pushed back on McCarthy for alleging Woodards lied, because she has maintained she didn’t realize at the time she didn’t have the credits needed for an associate degree.

Prosser also criticized McCarthy, who is white, saying he was comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr., after McCarthy quoted an excerpt from King’s Letters From a Birmingham Jail. In the post, McCarthy said he was teaching the letter as part of his curriculum at Pierce College and not comparing himself to King.

“Tom’s argument is the academic equivalent of ‘but I have black friends,’” Prosser replied.

McCarthy wrote back: “Only those in the field. The house ones not so much.”

An uproar from community leaders who said the post was racist and offensive soon followed.

“To Tom McCarthy, my professional accomplishments and community involvement makes me a ‘house Negro’ and Tom McCarthy doesn’t get along with house Negros, only field Negros,” wrote Korbett Mosesly, a 15-year member of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, on Oct. 26.

“It was a racist statement. It is offensive to me, my family, and everyone who has been fighting for equity here in Tacoma. It has no place in our community.”

McCarthy said Tuesday there have been several complaints about racism from Merritt’s opposition during the campaign.

“There have been supporters of a certain mayoral candidate who have claimed that criticizing charter schools is racist, they’ve claimed that using an environmental term from the climate change agreement is racist,” he said. “They’ve claimed criticizing Victoria Woodards for falsely claiming degrees she’s never earned is racist, so there have been a lot of claims to racism in this election and I think that they’re crying wolf just a little too often.”

Four days after McCarthy’s Facebook remark, Pierce College posted a response on its own Twitter and Facebook pages, distancing itself from his political statements but not quite addressing the racial comments.

A spokesman also said this week that McCarthy had said he was a full-time professor at the college when he holds a non-tenured part-time position. He has taught there since July 2013, the spokesman said.

“Over the past week, an assistant adjunct (part-time) faculty member has been posting comments and opinions on social media that relate to the Tacoma mayoral campaign,” the post read. “This individual’s opinions in NO WAY represent those of Pierce College.

“Pierce College is a publicly supported institution, and as such, we do not get involved in political campaigns. We deeply regret any impression that this individual’s opinions might have any official connection with or sanction from Pierce College.”

McCarthy ran for City Council in 2015 and battled his way to the top two out of a seven-way primary. He lost in the general election to Councilman Keith Blocker, who Woodards, then a councilwoman, backed in the race.

McCarthy is a former board member of the Hilltop Action Coalition and is a co-founder of the Hilltop Street Fair.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud