Tacoma voters sent a message in the Nov. 7 election: We like the direction the City Council is headed and want that work to continue.
Oh, and taking the city toward a progressive agenda is OK, too.
Those are the conclusions of a number of local political observers and policymakers interviewed by The News Tribune in the wake of the election.
While the results have not yet been certified, as of Friday voters appeared to be choosing more established candidates over relative political newcomers who might shake things up.
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That includes Victoria Woodards in the race for mayor, and Robert Thoms, Catherine Ushka, Chris Beale and Lillian Hunter in the races for the City Council.
All the vote leaders have ties to Tacoma’s political establishment. Woodards is a two-term councilwoman. Thoms is the incumbent. Ushka is the elected president of the Tacoma School Board. Beale is a former chairman of the Tacoma Planning Commission. Hunter served on the board of trustees for the Tacoma Public Library and once was married to former Tacoma Mayor Brian Ebersole.
That voters chose that slate of candidates was, some analysts said, an affirmation of the council’s direction.
Woodards’ opponent Jim Merritt’s oft-repeated notion that the culture needs to change at City Hall, where he claimed decisions are routinely made via back room deals and not out in the open, was seemingly rejected by voters.
The desire for a more progressive, left-leaning agenda was nowhere more evident than in District 5 in South Tacoma. That’s where Beale’s opponent, Brian Arnold, spoke of keeping Tacoma’s blue collar, working-class roots intact with an emphasis on family wage jobs. Beale, a young progressive who some saw as representing “New Tacoma,” spoke of high-level needs for the city, such as urban density and transit-oriented development.
I think it’s going to be a more progressive council. Chris Beale is the clearest indication of that — replacing Joe Lonergan with Chris Beale is clearly a turn to a more progressive council, that’s a flip of a conservative to a progressive
Councilman Ryan Mello
“I think it’s going to be a more progressive council,” Councilman Ryan Mello, himself in the progressive camp, told The News Tribune. “Chris Beale is the clearest indication of that — replacing Joe Lonergan with Chris Beale is clearly a turn to a more progressive council. That’s a flip of a conservative to a progressive.”
Former mayor and Tacoma historian Bill Baarsma said he could see a progressive coalition forming with the new members of the council, particularly with Woodards replacing Marilyn Strickland as mayor and Beale potentially taking the seat once held by Lonergan, who is seen as a conservative voice.
“I think there is a real working majority for progressives,” Baarsma said. “I think that Marilyn is more of a centrist, business Democrat, and certainly was extremely smart and able to mold the majorities on the council. We have a real possibility of a more progressive council on some issues, and it’ll be interesting to see how the mayor evolves as a leader.”
Mello said that progressive tenor could become most apparent as the city tackles issues like housing affordability, development and transportation in coming years as growth continues in the South Sound. The current council, he said, has been hesitant to impose regulations and has largely let the market dictate what is built in Tacoma and where.
Look for that to change with this new council, Mello said. He foresees a council that will be more urban-focused, more aggressive on public transit and transportation solutions and more willing to directly tackle affordable housing through policy.
“I don’t want to convey there is going to be a huge pendulum shift,” he said. “I do think you will see a shift, though.”
I don’t think we got anybody elected who is likely to kind of break the cooperative equilibrium that is currently going on the council — we don’t, I think, have any firestarters
Ben Anderstone, political consultant at Progressive Strategies NW
Those potential shifts might not be met with much resistance.
That’s because the results seem to have lined up a slate of candidates that will work collaboratively together, said Ben Anderstone of Progressive Strategies NW. This cycle, Anderstone’s firm represented Hunter, Thoms, Ushka and successful Port of Tacoma commission incumbent Dick Marzano.
The current council is known — and has sometimes been criticized — for often voting as a bloc, recording 9-0 votes even when there were disagreements simmering on certain policy issues. While Anderstone said several of the newcomers have strong positions and specific interests they’ll want to pursue, he doesn’t see the potential for too much boat-rocking.
“The new folks come with strong perspectives in some cases: Lillian is clearly someone who is interested in the blue-collar heritage of Tacoma and the more working-class parts and a citywide vision. Catherine Ushka is clearly someone who is like (current Councilman) Marty Campbell, someone who is going to be a strong advocate for the East Side and South End, and make sure they get an equitable share,” Anderstone said.
“But I don’t think we got anybody elected who is likely to kind of break the cooperative equilibrium that is currently going on the council — we don’t, I think, have any firestarters.”
Dorian Waller, a partner in Archway Consulting, said voters opted for experience, even if it came with flaws.
Waller — whose firm worked with Beale, at-large candidate Meredith Neal, port commission candidate Eric Holdeman and District 4 candidate Kevin Grossman — also agreed with Mello about some of the biggest issues facing the new group. Neal, Holdeman and Grossman all were trailing as of Friday.
The new council will probably be faced with addressing the rising cost of living here in town, and also Tacoma’s ongoing economic development issues that despite new things coming to town, it is still a struggle here overall with economic development
Dorian Waller, political consultant and partner at Archway Consulting
“The new council will probably be faced with addressing the rising cost of living here in town, and also Tacoma’s ongoing economic-development issues that despite new things coming to town, it is still a struggle here overall with economic development,” Waller said. “For every new restaurant I hear open up off of Sixth Avenue if not downtown or whatever, there are another one or two that are closing.”
He sees different coalitions lining up when the new group takes office, including a progressive bloc made up of Beale, Mello, and Councilman Anders Ibsen.
Waller said he also could see a more centrist coalition forming with Hunter, Thoms and Councilman Conor McCarthy, all three of whom have preached the need for more police, more firefighters and more public-safety funding overall.
In Tacoma, coalitions on the City Council are more often grouped together by issue than by platform. Council members might team up to push for certain issues together and then strongly disagree on others. So without a voting record on local policy, it’s hard to know where some of the newcomers will land.
Ushka and Councilman Keith Blocker could potentially serve as tie-breakers on the new council, Waller said.
Baarsma said he sees both a progressive coalition and a smaller conservative one forming, but that it’s unclear where some of the newcomers — specifically Hunter and Ushka — will fall on the spectrum when it comes to voting on policy.
Hunter has “progressive instincts,” Baarsma said, but “it will be interesting to see where she goes on issues.”
“It’s going to be an interesting process,” he said. “You have people on the council who are pretty progressive, some who are conservative and some who are kind of unknowns.”