Matt Driscoll

Vialle had the sharp elbows it took to break barriers: ‘It’s never easy to be first’

Driven. Intense. Passionate. “Smart as the dickens,” in the words of former mayor Bill Baarsma.

A hard-charging policy wonk with sharp elbows.

The woman who shattered the glass ceiling at Tacoma City Hall.

In the hours that have passed since Karen Vialle, Tacoma’s first woman mayor and its current school board president, passed away at the age of 76 on Sunday after a battle with cancer, the heartfelt tributes and memorials have flowed.

All of the descriptions mentioned above, and then some, have rightfully been used to sum up Vialle, and her lasting legacy on the city she loved more than any other.

Vialle was tough, often uncompromising. She ruffled feathers, all traits that helped her have a hand in re-imagining a city marred by decades of environmental missteps and plagued by gangs and violence.

Vialle did all of this her way, notching hard-fought victories, while also shouldering plenty of criticism in the process.

Always unflinching, Vialle was up for all of it. As she told Tacoma’s current mayor, Victoria Woodards, Vialle wanted to be remembered for two traits: “vision and guts.”

That much seems certain.

Word of Vialle’s death first reached me Sunday afternoon, via a text from Marilyn Strickland, Tacoma’s second woman mayor.

Strickland said the unprecedented path Vialle cut to the mayor’s office helped pave the way for her own. But along with breaking through an unspoken but entrenched gender barrier, Vialle’s ascension to mayor helped set the stage for diverse candidates of all kinds in the future, Strickland said.

Strickland — the daughter of a Korean mother and African-American father — said that Vialle’s time as mayor helped prove to many who have come since that “it can be done.”

“She was very instrumental in helping people see that having diverse candidates from diverse backgrounds is a good thing for a city,” Strickland said. “It’s always hard to be the first, and she was mayor during a time when there weren’t that many (female mayors).”

Looking back on Vialle’s accomplishments, many of which were notched during a “very challenging time for Tacoma,” Strickland described the story of the city’s first woman mayor as “fascinating.” She noted the role Vialle played in purchasing and cleaning up the Foss Waterway, as well as helping to usher in downtown Tacoma’s urban renewal and championing mass transit.

“In many ways she was the trailblazer. She wanted to prove herself,” Strickland said. “Her legacy is felt today.”

At the same time, any retrospective of Vialle’s legacy must include the prickly parts.

A long strike by the city’s clerical workers over pay equity during her four-year tenure soured the city’s union base against her. Meanwhile, the Tacoma mayoral contest of 1993, which Vialle would ultimately lose to challenger Jack Hyde (who died shortly after being sworn in), is still widely considered to be one of the ugliest in the city’s history.

“The political high road leading to the mayor’s office in Tacoma was finally closed this week, due to an overabundance of mud that began flowing long before the rains of election night,” opined The News Tribune’s C.R. Roberts at the time.

Vialle also had a reputation for burning hot. Her tongue could be sharp, as those who have found themselves on the wrong end of it can attest to, and it wasn’t unheard of for Vialle to walk out of a meeting in ideological protest.

Of course, these traits in Tacoma’s first woman mayor were sometimes used against her. It’s fair to wonder if a man with a comparable fire would have been judged similarly.

(Spoiler: Almost certainly not.)

In typical Vialle fashion, her 1993 ouster from the mayor’s office was only a setback, not a deterrent to civic service. Vialle maintained an active role in the community, including as a teacher, and in 2011 was elected to Tacoma’s school board, helping guide the district to one of the highest graduation rates in the state.

Baarsma remembers crossing paths with Vialle back at the University of Puget Sound in the early 1960s. In 1960, Baarsma graduated from Stadium High School. A year later, Vialle from Wilson. The two emerged with degrees from UPS the same year, 1964, meaning, in Baarsma’s words, that Vialle “crammed four years into three.”

During their time at UPS, Vialle and Baarsma were both enrolled in a municipal government class, Baarsma recalled on Monday, remarking that, at the time, it would have been difficult to predict that two of the city’s future mayors were taking notes in the front row.

“She was an incredible student, very smart, and really studied hard,” Baarsma said, while acknowledging that Vialle’s eventual decision to enter politics surprised him because she seemed well-suited for academia.

As it turns out, Vialle would prove Baarsma’s initial assessment dead wrong — a fact I can only assume she delighted in.

A historian as well as a former mayor, Baarsma looks back on the transformatonal era of Tacoma politics Vialle oversaw — including the environmental cleanup, the empowerment of neighborhoods, the seeds planted in the reemergence of downtown, and the efforts to finally get a handle on gangs and crime — and called it a “turning point” for the city.

“She made her mark. There’s no question,” Baarsma said of Vialle.

“The history books will reflect that.”