Victoria Woodards and Jim Merritt both grew up in Pierce County, but the mayoral candidates’ background and experiences almost couldn’t be more diverse.
Woodards, 52, served in the military after high school and has spent the ensuing years mostly in the public sector, including as a city councilwoman. Merritt, 70, has spent decades running his own architecture firm and has never held elected office.
But on many issues, they’re not far apart.
Both have preached the need for investing in public safety in Tacoma to cut back on fire- and police-response times. Each wants to find ways to ease the impacts of homelessness, both on the people living outside and those who are not. Both speak often of bringing family-wage jobs to Tacoma, so its residents can afford to keep living here. Each also supports a Click municipal broadband network that’s kept in public hands.
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Both also have dealt with controversy in the campaign.
Woodards was criticized for claiming an associate’s degree from Pierce College on an application for a Metro Parks Tacoma appointment in 2004 when she didn’t have one. She still doesn’t and has said she’d like to finish her degree as mayor.
Merritt was sent a cease-and-desist letter from Point Ruston developer Loren Cohen, who accused him of repeatedly overstating his role in the prominent waterfront development during the campaign. Merritt contends his statements regarding his part in paving the way for Point Ruston are accurate.
But there are differences to distinguish them.
If elected, Woodards would rejoin many of her former fellow council members, all of whom have endorsed her mayoral run. She’s also endorsed by current Mayor Marilyn Strickland. For voters who like the tenor and direction of the current City Council, a vote for Woodards might make sense.
Merritt would be a fresh face on the council.
He has repeatedly talked about his concern with the climate at City Hall, where he says decisions are often made “behind closed doors.” For voters who don’t like what they’ve been seeing out of City Council chambers, a vote for Merritt might make sense.
The issue that divides them most sharply is one that’s been at the forefront this election season: the liquefied natural gas plant being built by Puget Sound Energy on Tacoma’s Tideflats.
Here are a few key issues in the upcoming election, and the candidates’ perspectives.
Woodards says this is one area where she and Merritt are “polar opposite.”
The 8-million gallon plant, expected to be operational in 2019, will pipe in natural gas and chill it into a denser liquid form. The $275 million facility will produce 250,000 gallons of LNG a day, about 90 million gallons a year.
About 45 percent of the plant’s production capacity would fuel two Totem Ocean Trailer Express ships that are being converted to LNG to cut pollution. The ships now run on marine bunker fuel, a diesel-based mix considered a heavy pollutant.
Utility customers would use another 6 million gallons a year. The rest of the product, about 45 percent of the plant’s output, is expected to be sold to trucks and ships that convert from diesel and marine bunker fuel to run on LNG. The Port of Tacoma approved Puget Sound Energy’s lease for the plant in 2014.
The plant has been highly controversial, generating sustained protest from environmentalists, members of the Puyallup Tribe, and Northeast Tacoma residents who live near the facility. While both mayoral candidates said it’s a subject that hasn’t come up much when they doorbell voters, it’s been a prominent feature of candidate forums and debates.
Woodards supports the plant and was on the council when Puget Sound Energy first proposed the project for Tacoma. Like many who support it, she said she believes it’s a cleaner-burning fuel than the bunker fuel TOTE Maritime is currently using to fuel its ships, and she sees it as a transitional fuel.
She also said in a recent interview she doesn’t understand claims that PSE has hidden information from the public about the safety and science behind the plant.
“They stand ready to answer any question I’ve ever had,” Woodards said in a recent joint interview with both candidates.
Woodards is supported by several companies and unions with business on the Tideflats. She has received campaign contributions from TOTE Maritime, Westrock, Schnitzer Steel, the Tacoma Longshoremen Credit Union, the Tacoma Pierce County Business Alliance, Weyerhaeuser, and others. A political committee that said it supports Woodards received a $2,000 donation from Puget Sound Energy on Oct. 16, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.
Merritt is against the LNG plant. He says on his website that it was permitted “behind the backs of our community with no regard for the environment or the safety of our workers” and that it “has no business in Tacoma.”
In a recent interview, he said there still are questions that have been unanswered by PSE regarding the safety of the plant, and he remains unconvinced about whether liquified natural gas as a transitional fuel is actually a step toward a more environmentally friendly future.
“Is this a transitional fuel or not?” he asked in the interview. “Is it adding more to carbon problems and climate change, or not?”
Woodards and Merritt both said they support a subarea plan process to create a detailed road map for future land use on the Tideflats, but Merritt said that plan should include the city’s other industrial districts, such as Frederickson and the Nalley Valley.
They also differ on their approaches to keeping housing affordable in Tacoma.
Merritt has emphasized the need to increase home ownership in Tacoma and has said that areas like the Hilltop would benefit from more residents owning their homes.
He has also floated the idea of a municipal bank, which he said would offer income-based mortgages as a way to “get our community out of rentals and into affordable home ownership,” according to his campaign website. “This also creates important opportunities for individuals and their families to build a better future with home equity.”
When asked by The News Tribune how the bank would be funded, Merritt offered the following Friday:
“The first step to funding any new project in Tacoma is getting serious about encouraging investment in our city. If we continue down our current path, jobs will continue to leave and the tax base will shrink, making it harder to fund our most basic services. That’s why my number one priority is getting Tacomans into good paying jobs that stay in Tacoma.”
Woodards has made affordability a main campaign issue and has said she would work with regional partners to invest in long-term affordable housing options in Tacoma.
More housing needs to be built in mixed-use centers, so people are close to public transportation or can walk to where they’re going, she said. That way they won’t need to shoulder the additional expense of having a car, she added. Woodards said she also would look at offering more incentives for developers to build affordable housing to make it more attractive to do so.
She also has focused on the need for reinvesting in Tacoma’s “social safety net,” saying she would work to restore funding for programs to address homelessness, substance abuse and mental health treatment, especially as the city rebuilds after cuts made during the recession. She pushed back on Merritt’s calls for higher levels of home ownership in the recent joint interview.
“Certainly home ownership is really important, but I think more than a down payment, there are lots of other barriers we have to remove if we’re going to talk about home ownership in Tacoma,” she said.
There are hidden costs to home ownership for people with lower incomes, she said, including the costs to heat drafty houses or paying for repairs when a roof leaks or plumbing goes haywire.
Transit and public safety
Tacoma’s mayor sits on the Sound Transit board, and Merritt has said he would push to improve Tacoma’s “return on investment” on Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion taxing package approved by voters in the three-county Sound Transit taxing district last year. Merritt has also said he would aim to bring light rail to Tacoma within five years (Sound Transit has said that time line is not possible or realistic).
Merritt didn’t back down from the five-year claim in a recent interview and said he would “keep their feet to the fire” on Sound Transit 3, which was approved by voters in Snohomish and King counties but voted down in Pierce.
“I think there are ways to get it down,” he said. “Can we get to five as a goal? It depends on route selection and bonding and sale of bonds. There are a lot of factors, but I want to be challenging, respectfully, on a regular basis.”
Woodards said bringing a more robust public transportation network to Tacoma is vital to making the city more affordable for residents, many of whom can’t get to work or around town without a car. She said Tacoma needs to work with the region as a whole to get the light-rail spine built down south faster but added that it has to be built in cities to the north before it comes here. A five-year time line is “something that’s probably not possible,” she said.
Both have said they want to invest in public safety, reduce fire- and police-response times and fight a crime scourge residents have complained about.
During her time on the council, Woodards led the Project Peace initiative to increase communication and understanding between the police department and Tacoma residents, especially those in under-served areas. She said she would continue her work on police reform and emphasize community-oriented policing.
Merritt, who is endorsed by the rank-and-file local police union, criticized the city for “potentially balancing” the fire and police department budgets with the use of federal grants in the years since the recession, when the city made huge cuts to both departments. He has said he would make public-safety funding a priority, cut response times and reopen fire stations in the port (the City Council this summer approved funding for a round-the-clock firefighting operation in the port, after years of having no working fire station down there.)
Background: Lives in the North End. He grew up in Fife, went to Fife High School and graduated from the University of Washington. Merritt is a longtime architect and business owner who has been involved in many iconic Tacoma projects, including the design of Union Station.
Money raised of Oct. 27: $120,957.91
Top contributors: Anthony Carino; Randal Cook; Pierce County Affordable Housing Council; Kim Nakamura; Frye Building Group LLC; Scott Carino; Frye Building Group LLC; Washington Association of Realtors; Roger Lilley; Helix Design Group, Inc.; Quincy Cook; Randy Rushforth; Action Business Furniture (Note: Every contributor listed gave an aggregate total of $2,000 in cash and in-kind contributions.)
Sources: News Tribune staff research and the Public Disclosure Commission
Background: lives in the South End. She grew up in Tacoma, graduated from Lincoln High School and served in the U.S. Army. She has served on the Metro Parks Tacoma board of commissioners and on the City Council. She is the former president of the Tacoma Urban League.
Money raised as of Oct 27: $165,622.47
Top contributors: IBEW Local 483 PAC; Holland Cohen; Loren Cohen; Mikal Thomsen; Tim Thompson; Westrock; Tacoma Pierce County Business Alliance; UFCW Local 21; Washington Beverage Association; Leonard Simon; Denny Eliason (Note: Every contributor listed here gave an aggregate total of $2,000 in cash and in-kind contributions.)
Sources: News Tribune staff research and the Public Disclosure Commission