Matt Driscoll

Has Keith Blocker worn out his welcome? In four years, he’s gone from an outsider to ‘status quo’

There is palpable frustration on Hilltop.

On a recent morning, business owners and employees up and down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard expressed a desire for change.

The issues they listed were predictable and nearly unanimous.

The neighborhood is transforming — or gentrifying — and longtime residents are being displaced.

Homelessness feels like it’s a crisis level, with people living on the edges of People’s Park and parking strips beyond.

A slew of orange-vested workers have the street torn up, disrupting parking and profits, while paving the way for Link light rail and all the uncertainty some say it will bring with it.

“I want a lot of changes. That’s kind of a long list, isn’t it?” said Charles Smith from behind the counter at Hilltop Loans, the well-known pawn shop at the corner of South 11th Street and MLK.

For Smith, the desire for change includes backing a local T-shirt maker and political unknown, David Combs, in his long-shot attempt to oust District 3 incumbent Keith Blocker.

At Hilltop Loans, like a handful of other businesses along the stretch, a Combs sign hangs in the window.

There’s a reason for that. Smith says Combs is someone who’s “here” — meaning on Hilltop — and “actually trying to do things in the area.”

“As opposed to Blocker,” is the subtext that goes without saying.

“I feel like everybody is doing what they can, but it seems like we’re always having the same conversations,” Smith replied when asked about his frustrations with Tacoma’s current elected leadership, including Blocker.

“For the most part, some change is necessary every now and then,” he added. “It kind of helps pump a little bit of new blood, and more blood into something that might be kind of stagnant otherwise.”

It’s one man’s opinion but also a familiar refrain in these parts.

For Blocker, the big question is what to make of this — if anything.

It’s politics, meaning criticism comes with the territory. Blocker knows that. But it’s also frustrating, he acknowledges, because many of the issues he’s taking heat on — whether it’s the city’s response to homelessness, the lack of affordable housing or a perceived lack of support for small local businesses — are things he’s focused significant attention on since he was elected in 2015.

During that time, while much of Blocker’s work has been in the background and away from the spotlight, his council colleagues credit him with being a thoughtful, deliberate leader with a number of accomplishments.

Blocker helped lead the charge to make it easier for faith-based organizations and nonprofits to offer temporary homeless shelters.

He worked to facilitate the purchase and eventual redevelopment of the long-vacant Hilltop Rite Aid.

He helped establish Tacoma’s immigrant legal defense fund.

Blocker also championed the recently completed, year-long disparity study — which analyzed barriers for small, minority- or women-owned business when contracting with the city. With the study in mind, the city is now working to address these disparities.

All of these are improvements that were possible, Blocker said, because he’s learned to work within the system.

“I’ve done my homework. I’ve studied how government works, learned how to navigate and collaborate, and I’ve built meaningful relationships so I can be effective. I’ve built a tremendous amount of political capital,” Blocker said of his four years in office.

“Some of the things I’ve been working on won’t bear fruit ... until maybe even after I’m done,” he added.

Blocker has a point. Like with so many things, the perspective provided by hindsight will likely provide the most accurate assessment of his tenure in office.

At the same time, Blocker’s tendency to “tell the truth,” as he’d describe it — meaning often leveling with voters about the snail’s pace of local government and the constraints he says the city faces — is likely a contributing factor in the criticism he receives.

For his part, Combs said he was inspired to jump into the race because he’s tired of seeing the city “spin its wheels” on issues like homelessness and tired of hearing what he considers excuses about what can and can’t be accomplished from Blocker.

“Even when you reach a barrier or you reach a speed bump that might hinder you, people don’t want to hear those things are stopping you from doing what’s right. People want to hear you’re going to overcome those barriers,” Combs said.

Combs said Blocker suffers from a “disconnect with the community” and represents “the status quo.”

“I think that the City Council member should be someone who’s of the community, for the community and, most importantly, accessible to the community,” Combs said. “When you think about history and how all the social justice issues that have been solved, it’s because people have pushed back against the status quo.”

Now for the caveat. When it comes time to tally the votes, it’s uncertain how much impact the frustrations voiced on Hilltop will impact the results in District 3, which also includes Central Tacoma and parts of South Tacoma. In big cities like Seattle, polling is often available. In Tacoma, we’re left trying to read the tea leaves.

Nic Van Putten is a political consultant for Progressive Strategies NW. He also lives on Hilltop, and while — like any political consultant worth his salt he’s hesitant to assign much significance in yard signs and Facebook posts — he said he’s seen a “surprising” amount of support for Combs in his neighborhood.

Van Putten also notes that while Hilltop has a history of backing anti-establishment candidates — like, most recently, Courtney Love, who during this year’s August primary garnered roughly 40-percent of Hilltop votes compared to just over 23-percent citywide — that doesn’t necessarily translate throughout the district.

All told, Hilltop makes up only 30 percent of District 3 voters, Van Putten noted.

Van Putten also offered two potential explanations for the visible level of support for Combs.

He said Blocker’s opposition is likely “driven by (or at least occurring among) those who are already most likely to be in opposition to whomever the current council member is.”

“Hilltop in particular is experiencing the brunt of some of Tacoma’s hot-button issues, which may be driving even more voters into the anti-establishment camp,” Van Putten said. “What I can’t validate — either logically or with the data — is that any of this is being driven by the two real people in the race and their positions on the issues.

“If that were the case, I would expect to see better alignment between support for Keith Blocker and support for the issues he’s been working and running on since taking office.”

For Blocker, that seems to be the confounding crux of the situation. Asked about this year’s election, Blocker couldn’t help but offer a slightly exhausted chuckle when thinking about how times have changed.

Four years ago, he, too, was a relative unknown. A young, legally blind black man who experienced homelessness growing up in Philadelphia, Blocker was hardly a status quo candidate. His ascension to office was aided by the support of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective and the counsel of Harold Moss, Tacoma’s first black city councilman and mayor.

Now? With a sizable fundraising advantage and a host of high profile endorsements — from Congressman Derek Kilmer to the Tacoma Pierce County Business Alliance — at least within some Hilltop businesses and some pockets of District 3, he’s seen as the establishment candidate.

That makes him ripe for the ripping.

Defiantly pragmatic, Blocker said he has no plans to change.

“What I’ve found is the truth doesn’t always work. I’m not that kind of politician. I’m not going to grandstand or sell people dreams or sell people hope. I’m going to tell people how it actually works and help people figure out how to navigate the system as it is,” Blocker said.

“Should it be different? Sure. But as a young black man in America, I’ve learned to understand that some things you can change, some things you can’t,” he continued. “I’m going to continue to figure out how to be strategic and navigate through these systems that haven’t always done me well or done other people well.

“That’s the challenge I face in life and that’s the challenge I face as a council member.”

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Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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