Matt Driscoll

Joe Lonergan could have been much more than just a dissenting voice on the City Council

Joe Lonergan, seen here in 2016, is leaving the Tacoma City Council after eight years in office. New Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll gives Lonergan mixed reviews.
Joe Lonergan, seen here in 2016, is leaving the Tacoma City Council after eight years in office. New Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll gives Lonergan mixed reviews. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

I’d been on the job only a few weeks when Joe Lonergan suggested we meet at Stewart Heights Park, just off East 56th Street, in the northeast corner of District 5.

Lonergan wanted to talk about his idea for a sanctioned graffiti wall at Stewart Heights. The project would have created, with a relatively small investment, a space for local kids and artists to congregate safely and adorn a surface with spray paint that wouldn’t create headaches for others.

It was a very Lonergan proposal — simple, straightforward and with the people of District 5 in mind.

It was also an idea that never came to fruition, which is unfortunate.

This week marks Lonergan’s last on the job. Term-limited, Lonergan will now return to private life.

For some in Tacoma, this will be a reason for celebration. On some issues, I’d consider myself among those looking forward to new leadership from his seat.

On the other hand, with a City Council that sometimes feels like it’s shifting leftward — a shift that perhaps doesn’t always reflect the varied political leanings of all corners of the city — it seems at least worth pausing to consider the value of dissenting voices in a democracy.

For all the times I disagreed with him, and for all the times I said as much in print, it was that voice that Lonergan often provided.

There’s something to be said for that.

Just how much is open for debate.

“There are times that even as a body, we don’t agree with each other. But that’s what makes democracy real,” outgoing Mayor Marilyn Strickland offered last week. “It’s diversity of thought. It’s diversity of experience. It’s diversity of perspective. That’s how you get to good policy.”

For the last eight years, representing District 5 has been Lonergan’s elected duty. It’s one he undertook with a clear sense of responsibility, even if political skill was sometimes lacking. It’s one he clocked in for every day, even if some of his more conservative stances chaffed progressive onlookers and a few of his fellow council members, at least behind closed doors.

It also was Lonergan’s dream, which he addressed during his final City Council meeting last week.

“I want to thank the community, who’s certainly been supportive of me and given me the honor to serve in a way I only dreamt of since I was 7 years old,” said Lonergan, whose father, Mike, held down an at-large seat on the City Council prior to his son’s political ascension.

Lonergan then launched into a story of watching his father run for office, waving from the back of a convertible during a parade on Hilltop.

“That’s where that seed was planted,” Lonergan said of his desire to one day hold elected office in Tacoma. “A heart of service began to grow in me.”

Heart of service aside, the task — which included accomplishments like work to redevelop property near Blueberry Park and problematic motels along Pacific Avenue boarded up — has not been without its challenges.

Lonergan’s detractors, this columnist often included, will surely note how he benefited from his family name. They’ll also point to his opposition to progressive achievements over the last eight years, like being the lone vote against the successfully instituted plastic-bag ban, as just one small example.

Often, with items of far greater consequence — like social issues or matters of immigration — the position Lonergan staked out was a more grating one. It largely surfaced through meandering devil’s advocate style rebuttals from the dais before falling in line with the majority on the council.

Still, for all the valid critiques one can levy at his views, his policy proposals, or political wherewithal, you can’t argue that Lonergan cared about Tacoma.

“I know that anyone who runs for this office, whether we agree or disagree, has a huge heart for this city,” Lonergan said. “Because you don’t sit up here if you don’t. You won’t last up here if you don’t.”

That’s true.

Looking back on that first meeting with Lonergan, I can’t help but recall how our conversation, like nearly every one I ever had with him, stretched on. Before long, we were traipsing through the nearby neighborhood, discussing everything from prostitution in his district to the values to be had at the used building-materials store up the street.

It was clear how much Lonergan cared about his district. He knew it nearly block by block.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether a savvier political leader would have gotten that graffiti wall built for the people he served.

There’s value in a dissenting voice, and Lonergan regularly provided one.

Still, without the occasional ability to achieve more, that only goes so far.

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