Politics & Government

How Mayor Marilyn Strickland put Tacoma – and herself – on the map

When Mayor Marilyn Strickland learned Chinese President Xi Jinping would pass through Seattle on his way to the White House last year, she crafted a pitch to make sure one of the world’s most powerful leaders stopped in Tacoma.

Bring him to a diverse, working-class school, she suggested to Xi’s representatives at a West Coast consulate. Get him away from King County’s “titans of industry” so Chinese residents back home see Xi spending time with someone other than “Bill Gates’ kids,” said a friend of the mayor who was familiar with her outreach.

Strickland’s suggestion paid off last September when Xi traveled to Tacoma for a rally at Lincoln High School, delivering a marquee moment for the school, the city and the mayor that generated headlines all over the world.

“It was a human interest story, and Marilyn had the advertising and public relations expertise to make that pitch to (Xi’s) people,” said former Tacoma Mayor Brian Ebersole, a supporter of Strickland’s.

The mayor had not publicly disclosed her role in proposing Xi’s Tacoma itinerary until sources in City Hall recently described her advocacy to The News Tribune. They say her behind-the-scenes effort to lock in Xi’s visit put an exclamation point on Strickland’s campaign over the past six years to “to raise Tacoma’s profile” as a Pacific Rim city with global aspirations.

That’s been one of her goals since her first run for office. She has pursued it with several international trips as well as with a number of leadership positions in national organizations that occasionally give her a line to the White House, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Her busy schedule has her frequently on the road. In 2015, the city spent $12,900 on nine of her trips over 29 days. This year, the city spent $10,200 on expenses for her and two city employees on a recent trip to China and Vietnam.

Hers is a more assertive approach to promoting the city at a national level than her predecessors carried out as mayor. It reflects her belief that Tacoma has to try harder to lure the kind of attention and investment that cities like Seattle and Bellevue can take for granted because of the major corporations in their backyards.

“We’re a little different because we’re isolated from Bellevue and Seattle by 30 miserable miles of freeway, but also, I don’t think we have historically imagined ourselves as an international player. We are, because we have the diverse population, we have the port, we have the proximity (to Seattle), so there’s really no reason for us to sit on the sidelines,” she said.

With less than two years to go in Strickland’s final term as mayor, voters and political allies are taking stock of whether her national exposure has yielded tangible improvements for the city or just for her own reputation.

Her supporters say her connections produced results for Tacoma in the hard times of the recession with federal grants that rounded out city services and tens of millions of dollars in real estate projects backed by Chinese investors.

Her calendar over the past two years — obtained by The News Tribune with a public disclosure request — shows her reaching for national influence with events such as campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, discussions with senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and frequent contacts with the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. She’s a booster for free trade agreements, and has argued for them on behalf of the mayors conference.

This year, she’s likely to make three overseas visits to Asia, counting her latest trip in early April. She’s been a speaker at South by Southwest in Austin in March and again at a New York summit in April, sponsored by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s What Works Cities initiative.

“Through her leadership, she has positioned us for more resources,” Councilman Ryan Mello said. “She learns of more opportunities because of her presence (on the national stage).”

But her critics are quick to point to Strickland’s outside-Tacoma network when they accuse her of putting her interests ahead of her constituents.

“A contact sport”

In April, after Strickland returned from her trip to China and Vietnam, several residents at a City Council meeting blasted her for cozying up to foreign investors. They connected her trip to the unpopular and now-canceled proposal that would have brought the world’s largest methanol plant to the Port of Tacoma.

Strickland maintained she was neutral on the proposal and asked her colleagues on the council to take the same stance, but she appeared in a promotional video for the Chinese company behind it that touted the plan’s potential environmental and economic benefits. She did not have any meetings in China regarding the methanol proposal, according to documents The News Tribune obtained through a public disclosure request.

“There’s obviously something in it for you,” resident Roxy Murray said to Strickland in one of several sharply worded critiques of the mayor’s travel.

“If you were at all in touch with the community, you would know the visceral reaction people are experiencing” because of the methanol proposal, resident Melissa Hubbard added.

Council members also seemed to chafe at Strickland’s request for public neutrality on the proposal. Councilman Marty Campbell, for instance, wore a red sweater to a council meeting in such a way that he seemed to support the anti-methanol protesters in Red Line Tacoma. He and Councilwoman Victoria Woodards, as members of the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health, also called for a comprehensive study on the proposal’s health effects, an effort that would have added another layer of scrutiny beyond the project’s environmental review.

“I think there were enough public statements that indicated (council members) wanted to say more but couldn’t out of respect for (Mayor Strickland) and her desire not to create an unfortunate conflict of interest. I think she laid out some good issues for that, and by and large they tried to live within her idea, and then it backfired,” said state Sen. Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma.

Strickland leads council meetings with a fairly disciplined approach. Council members tend to work out their differences on contentious issues at public but less visible daytime study sessions and committee meetings.

By the time resolutions appear before the council at televised and well-attended evening council meetings, there’s little left to say. Residents attending the meetings have many opportunities to speak, but they would not get a sense of the differences council members express at their daytime meetings.

Strickland said that style gives council members time to air the opinions publicly without getting into “tits for tats at the dais.”

“We have study sessions. We have committee meetings. We have time alone to do that,” she said.

“I know some people like the political theater of politicians fighting, but I think it’s important for us to show a certain decorum and respect, and really model the behavior we want other people to exhibit,” she said.

Lately, she’s angered the union that represents Tacoma police officers. It has backed her in her elections, but has grown frustrated with staff reductions in the Police Department and with comments Strickland has made that seem to favor spending on social issues over law enforcement. They’re also upset that the city is moving forward with a potentially pricey plan to compel officers to wear body cameras before restoring positions lost in recession budget cuts.

“Those resources are better spent providing more officers, more staffing to give the citizens what they want,” said union President J.D. Barrett.

Strickland says she doesn’t expect to make everyone happy.

“If you want a job that is free of critics and always fair to you, don’t become mayor. This is part of the job. It’s a contact sport, and you have to stay focused on what you’re trying to do,” she said.

Grew up in South Tacoma

Strickland, 53, rose quickly in Tacoma politics. Ebersole appointed her to a seat on the city’s library board of trustees. He’d known her since she was a student at Mount Tahoma High School and saw potential in a bicultural woman from South Tacoma who built a career with management jobs at Starbucks and JayRay Communications.

Born to a black soldier and a Korean mother in South Korea, Strickland today identifies as an immigrant. Her mother spoke limited English when they moved to Tacoma in 1967, and the family followed some Korean customs in their home.

“When you’re in my position you want to find ways to relate to people,” she said. “I have a parent who didn’t come here speaking the language. When I was at home, many times I felt like I was straddling two cultures: my Korean heritage, my African-American heritage.”

She won a City Council seat in 2007. Two years later, she defeated architect Jim Merritt to win the race for mayor, succeeding Bill Baarsma.

The mayor’s job, which pays $96,000, is largely defined by priorities of the person in it. An appointed manager runs city government’s day-to-day business, making the mayor a mostly ceremonial leader.

Once in office, Strickland said she immediately took to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, finding hundreds of colleagues who shared similar experiences advocating for their cities. That exposure turned her attention to drumming up investment in Tacoma from outside the Northwest.

By then, she said, local and state agencies had poured millions of dollars into reinvigorating Tacoma’s downtown over the decades. The trick for her term would be attracting private investors to build on publicly funded redevelopment efforts.

“That’s a much harder problem to solve than investing your own public money,” Strickland said. “So I started looking around at the assets we had, and I thought, ‘OK, who’s investing?’ 

Looking north to Bellevue and Seattle, Strickland noticed Asian investors putting money into King County real estate developments through a program that promises a speedy visa to foreign investors.

With city staff and consultants at World Trade Center Tacoma, Strickland began looking for ways to pull more of those investors to Tacoma.

In 2014, Strickland launched her own international affairs committee. It draws on representatives from the port, Tacoma Public Schools, Travel Tacoma, a couple of private developers, the World Trade Center Tacoma and the World Affairs Council Tacoma. They meet quarterly to talk about different ways they’re engaging in business, education or with sister cities.

That year, Strickland traveled to China, her second trip as mayor to an Asian nation. Her itinerary from that trip shows she met with officials from Tacoma’s sister city in Fuzhou, but also connected with Shanghai investors who later would commit to a $150 million project that aims to build a new hotel in downtown Tacoma.

Her latest trip, in April, brought her back to those investors, as well as to another group developing a $125 million project near the University of Washington Tacoma.

“This is business,” said Mike Fowler, a consultant who advises the city on international issues through World Trade Center Tacoma. “The mayor doesn’t want to go unless it’s business. She said, ‘Look, if I’m going to have a meeting, I want to something to come of it. I don’t want to just shake hands.’ 

Strickland’s approach of courting business is a contrast to the overseas trips Tacoma mayors have taken dating back to the 1970s. Those visits tended to focus on building ties with sister cities or delivering assistance to developing countries, said former Mayor Baarsma.

Strickland’s pitch to Xi

Strickland’s recent background — visiting China and advocating for free trade policies on behalf of the Obama administration — prepared her well for when she first heard that President Xi would spend time in the Puget Sound region. She knew that Xi had an affinity for visiting working people and that he had traveled to Tacoma in 1993 on a sister city delegation when he was an official in Fuzhou.

Still, she thought Tacoma could be left off an itinerary that naturally would take him to Boeing and Seattle’s tech cluster.

For Tacoma to stay on the agenda Strickland offered a different kind of visit, which she pitched as a representation of international “soft power.” She suggested to Xi’s advance team that a visit to a school would get people thinking about how to build relationships in an interconnected world. She hoped it could lead to more frequent student exchanges.

She recommended Lincoln, the city’s most diverse school and also the one her husband, Patrick Erwin, leads as principal. In late July, Xi’s advance team loved the idea and was drawn to the fact that the school was named after one of America’s most famous presidents, Strickland said.

“We wanted to try to find something compelling. Once we shared that idea with the advance team, it really started to gain traction,” Strickland said.

In September, her efforts paid off. Xi’s visit thrilled students, and apparently the Chinese president. He’s bringing 100 Lincoln High students to China later this year.

Erwin, the principal, joined her during the last leg of her most recent trip to China. He had been attending a training event in Beijing at the same time as the city-led excursion. The two parties met in Shanghai, and then in Beijing.

“Whenever we went to a school and met with some folks, Mr. Erwin was the star of the show because people were aware of the visit of President Xi, and they were all excited to meet him,” Strickland said.

What’s next for the mayor?

She says she hasn’t decided what she wants to do after leaving office, although she admits she’s thinking about possibilities.

“I’m not one of those people who just runs for office because it’s the only thing that’s open. I definitely love public service, and there are many ways you can serve,” she said. “I can work for someone, or I can go back to the private sector, or I can go into the nonprofit sector. I’m very open.”

Her one-time mentor Ebersole doesn’t see her running for an elected position, but he thinks she won’t fade from public view.

“She is more sought-after as a speaker than I ever was. She has hit stardom on the national level,” he said.

State Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, similarly does not see an obvious next political office for Strickland. He noted that being mayor of Tacoma tends to be a politician’s last elected job.

He also thought she had a blind spot on methanol that could hinder her career, one that other Democratic politicians in the Puget Sound region might have seen coming.

“She’s not a seasoned political operative, I’ll put it at that. I don’t know that she’s done things that help her. It’s really hard to jump off mayor of Tacoma to something else,” he said.

Her strength, he said, has been elevating the city’s image.

“She makes us look good everywhere she goes,” he said.

Darneille thinks Strickland’s future lies in working for the executive branch of the federal government.

“She’s been a rising star, and I expect she’ll go on to bigger things in the future,” Darneille said. “I have no idea where she’s going. It’s largely perceived that she’s going somewhere. She hasn’t played her hand in public. I’ll be as surprised as anyone.”

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646, @TNTMilitary

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune