Politics & Government

New Tacoma city councilmen prepare to prove themselves

New Tacoma City Council members Keith Blocker, left, and Conor McCarthy at Tacoma City Hall.
New Tacoma City Council members Keith Blocker, left, and Conor McCarthy at Tacoma City Hall. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Keith Blocker and Conor McCarthy both feel their family history weighing on them as they prepare to take seats on the Tacoma City Council dais for the first time next week.

McCarthy is looking to prove that he’s not there because of whose kid he is. Blocker wants to show that he belongs among city leaders despite an impoverished upbringing.

Voters elected them last month, McCarthy to replace David Boe in a citywide seat, and Blocker to replace the term-limited Lauren Walker in District 3.

Many expected McCarthy, 38, to run for office someday. His family name has been on the ballot in Pierce County for decades.

His mother, Pat McCarthy, is the Pierce County executive and a former Pierce County auditor and Tacoma Public Schools board member. His father is John McCarthy, who recently retired from two decades as a Pierce County Superior Court judge. Conor McCarthy remembers working on his parents’ campaigns as a boy — an “involuntary volunteer” nailing campaign signs together.

“They were involved in their community, and their friends were involved in their community, and they knew and I learned that, guess what? You can’t make any impact in this community if you don’t have friends who will help you, and if you don’t help your friends,” said McCarthy, an attorney who used to work for the city.

Conor McCarthy lives in Tacoma’s North End with his wife, Kathryn, and two sons, age 7 and 4.

For Blocker, the win is still sinking in. The 34-year-old grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a woman who battled a crack addiction, domestic violence and homelessness but nonetheless raised three now-college graduates. He moved to Tacoma to start fresh more than nine years ago. Since then, he’s become active in the Pierce County Black Collective, whose members mentored his political ascent. He’s also become legally blind due to macular degeneration.

Blocker and his wife, Christina, are expecting their first child, a son, in April. He works for Peace Community Center as the director of middle school programs.

“I just saw the movie ‘Creed’ the other day. One line brought me to tears. Rocky asked, ‘Why are you doing this, why are you fighting?’ And he said, ‘To prove that I’m not a mistake,’ ” Blocker said. “And I just started holding my wife’s hand. I’m supposed to be here. I’m not a mistake.”

McCarthy and Blocker gathered at the city municipal building this month to talk with The News Tribune's Kate Martin. The following are excerpts of their conversation.

Q: “Who are your political mentors? What’s some of the best advice either of you have received from your mentors?”

Blocker: “Harold Moss to start with. I’ve spent a lot of time with Mr. Moss in the past nine years. Working with him on the Black Collective’s political strategy committee, we were able to vet candidates who were seeking out the organization's endorsement. …

“I met a lot of candidates who eventually became elected officials over the past five years or so. That was a really good experience; one, getting to know who people are and having them get to know who I am. Mr. Moss was a great mentor. No one is harder on me than he is. Having someone who is going to keep you disciplined and make sure you’re dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s, and putting your best self forward at all times.”

Q: “What about you, Conor? Who are your mentors and what’s the best advice that you received?”

Blocker: “Your mom, your dad.”

(Laughter.)

McCarthy: “Pat McCarthy, John McCarthy. … Mine has been more through observation. There’s no real preaching going on. It’s watching how people I love conduct themselves. What I found pretty incredible is the fact that if you can operate with a sense of integrity and love and win, even when people around you aren’t necessarily doing the same thing. …

“When you’re related to someone, especially if it’s your mom … You’re very emotional and protective about people you care about. We had campaigns where people did really mean or nasty things to you and/or printed mean or nasty things about you in a newspaper. For me it’s really just been watching, what’s the proper response to that? Do you lash out and exert your revenge? No. That’s not your job.”

Q: “I’m curious if there’s one past decision you wish you’d been on the council for and why.”

McCarthy: “Ooh, that’s tough.”

Blocker: “I never thought about that.”

McCarthy: “Taking trolley cars out of the roads? Now we’re putting them back in. …

“When the mall moved. Maybe there would’ve been a way to get retail downtown?”

Blocker: “Yeah, the mall! Why didn’t they put it in the center of the city instead of on the outskirts? That seems to be causing a lot of problems. Do you know about the lease that says you can’t have a JC Penney within five miles of the mall? And that’s why you can’t have one downtown. …”

Q: “What kind of Tacoma do you want your children to grow up in?”

Blocker: “I want my children to grow up in a neighborhood where they can play in the streets. That’s how I grew up. It wasn’t always safe, but I’m used to hearing children playing in the summertime. … I want to see safe neighborhoods.

“If my son grows up and wants to stay in Tacoma, that will be the tell-all for me. ‘You want to stay here?’ Most young people want to get out of town no matter what city they’re in. …

That will say a lot about what the work that we will be able to do now to create a city where young people are moving to the city of Tacoma and finding jobs and living in nice neighborhoods and obviously that’s going to take some more density and I’m OK with density. I think that’s in terms of creating affordable housing, I want my son, perhaps children at some point, to be able to afford to live here.”

McCarthy: “It starts with really good schools in Tacoma. We have our first-grader going to public school. Tacoma Public Schools is getting better and better and better. I’d love to see Tacoma Public Schools to be able to say someday, ‘We’re the best school in the state. We are the best school district in the nation.’ I think that the pride, the recognition, that goes along with that, but more importantly the reasons you would earn that by providing a quality education for every kid in every neighborhood despite who they are or the economic background. …

“My biggest concern for my kids is what’s happening in this nation with violence against innocent people, which is probably a symptom of, for lack of a better word, mental health. … I want my kids to live in a city and grow up and don’t fear that someone’s going to walk into a store and shoot them.”

Q: “When you are referring to violence and anger, are you referring more to mass shootings, or police issues?”

McCarthy: “They all fall into the same category to me. I have tremendous respect for police officers. We hold them to the highest pedigree possible. You have to be strong. You have to take charge of the situation. You have to be able to mediate every situation. You have to make the right decision in a split second. …

“When you see that trust violated, that’s wrong and a community should address it. For me it’s the same when you have people who just decided they were going to shoot a bunch of kids in a school because for whatever reason they have mental health issues. They’re mad at the world, they, whatever the reason is. … I don't know how you as a community take on those kinds of acts and address it.”

Blocker: “Those are concerns … It’s almost every day you hear something about a male of color being shot by police. It’s all over social media these days. It’s bringing it more to the forefront. … I will have a black boy for a son and I want him to be comfortable with talking to and approaching police officers and recognizing that, ‘Hey they are here to serve you, and they are not here to harm you.’

“That’s something that I have to instill as a father, but it’s also something that law enforcement has to address on their end in terms of regaining trust and rebuilding trust and taking full accountability for their own actions and the actions of their fellow officers.”

Q: “Conor, as the father of two young children, what unsolicited advice do you have for Keith as he’s having his first child?”

McCarthy: “We talked about this. No. 1: Just keep them alive.”

Blocker: (laughs) “Priorities.”

McCarthy: “No. 2: It’s good to collect a lot of different opinions from people, but at the end of the day, you’re just going to do it the way that’s best for your family and your child, and that’s OK. Your son is going to be a little person. I always think people without children think, ‘Oh, you can just tell your kid what to do.’ … This is a little person who has a mind and opinions and decision-making abilities..”

McCarthy: “Weren’t you going to ask about the coolest thing we’ve ever done?”

Q: “You want to talk about that?”

McCarthy: “I got to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail over a decade ago. It was one of the coolest things I ever did. … I had a great mentor, who has now passed away, who helped me hike … The goal was to get as far as I could during the summer. I hiked 600 miles through the desert, and then 500 up in the Sierras.”

Q: “Can you top him, Keith?”

Blocker: “I don’t know. … The coolest is getting elected to the City Council. That is like, over the top. I went back to Philadelphia and got to hang out with some high school buddies, and they’re like, ‘What?’

“People were blown away — people from high school, the high school football coach. People were just like, ‘We never knew you were interested in politics.’ I don’t know. For me this is the most coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

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