It’s the elephant in the room, or rather, in Tacoma’s first council district.
Seven of Tacoma’s nine council members have not endorsed incumbent Anders Ibsen.
Instead, they say Ibsen’s opponent, high school teacher John Hines, has “excellent qualifications,” will be a “good fit” with the rest of the council and bring a “different perspective” to the seat.
Ibsen, 29, dismisses their concerns, saying voters don’t care what the rest of the council wants.
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“At the end of the day, what voters really care about is results,” Ibsen said. “They care about who is going to fill their potholes and who is going to fix their streetlights, not which political clique you are part of. This is not high school.”
HINES SAYS HE CAN BUILD BETTER RELATIONSHIPS
Hines initially filed to run as an at-large candidate earlier this year. Having lived in several areas of the city throughout his life, he thought he could easily represent a citywide seat.
But Hines, 33, was still a political unknown. Council members urged him to reconsider his strategy, he said.
“They told me to start knocking on doors” in his district. He said many residents told him they wanted a choice in the District 1 race. He believes the August primary election results confirmed his decision: Ibsen earned 47 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Hines received 29 percent of votes. He said he expects to boost his general election showing by picking up former supporters of his primary opponent, Tara Doyle-Enneking, who received 24 percent of the vote.
Hines said he can represent the district better than Ibsen because he knows the value of building relationships. Hines is a teacher at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way and is an assistant football coach at Foss High School.
If you can build relationships away from the council chambers, then you can build relationships inside the council chambers.
“Relationships are the coin of the realm, and being able to build relationships with a very diverse group of people is what’s going to move the city forward,” Hines said.
Building ties with council members in his first days and weeks will be key. Opportunities to do so might include golfing or watching Seahawks games together, he said.
“If you can build relationships away from the council chambers, then you can build relationships inside the council chambers,” Hines said.
He’s passionate about student success and worries that lower-income students move too often to excel in class. The Tacoma School District counted 1,764 homeless students in the 2013-14 school year — an entire school of students with no stable place to live, Hines said.
City policies can work in tandem with school district initiatives to improve student outcomes, he said. One such policy the City Council could tackle is an affordable housing trust fund that developers could tap into to build units, he said.
COUNCILMEMBERS SAY IBSEN UNDERMINES HIS CAUSES
But the election appears to have become less of a test of Hines’ candidacy and more of a referendum on Ibsen. Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Councilmen Marty Campbell, David Boe and Joe Lonergan said in separate interviews that Ibsen is not willing to listen to perspectives different from his own.
Councilwoman Victoria Woodards said, “from a policy perspective, he can be difficult to work with.”
Ibsen often takes strong ideological stances. While not in itself a problem, his positions and his unyielding commitment to them can lead him to be dismissive and at times demeaning to others, some said.
“This isn’t Congress,” Campbell said, comparing Tacoma’s relatively collegial elected body with a fractious one in the other Washington. “Every vote is not a win-lose vote. We need to make sure all points of view are represented in a policy.”
Ibsen’s differences with colleagues could eventually be a liability to any issue he might champion, said Councilwoman Lauren Walker.
“In his inability to listen to his colleagues and engage in dialogue, he is not able to be persuasive,” Walker said. “ … If you can’t get along with your colleagues, it makes it hard to get things done.”
Two issues that Ibsen championed have already suffered because of his influence: sick leave and minimum wage, said Councilman Robert Thoms.
In January, the council voted to require employers to provide at least three paid sick days a year to employees. Ibsen argued for more days — and might have won them had he been willing to negotiate, Thoms said.
“He’s more of an activist than a collaborator,” Thoms said.
Thoms also says that Ibsen could have done more to head off the two-part minimum wage question on the Nov. 3 ballot. In an attempt to provide an alternative to 15 Now Tacoma’s initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 immediately, the council drafted a measure that asks voters if they want to increase the minimum wage and if so whether the wage should be $15 per hour now or $12 per hour by 2018.
Some worry that voters will be confused by the structure of the proposal. If the minimum wage issue fails, Thoms said it will be Ibsen’s fault. He should have done more to broker a compromise so that only one option would have gone to voters, Thoms said
“A true legislator would’ve figured out how to get it done through the council, but he couldn’t bridge (15 Now and the council) because he’s not smart enough,” Thoms said.
Hines said he is an advocate for incremental changes, rather than the big leaps Ibsen takes. He said he would not start a conversation with council colleagues with a specific outcome in mind, preferring a more open-minded approach. Ibsen “has made bigger statements that have turned people off,” Hines said.
IBSEN: ‘I LIKE MESSY DEMOCRACY’
Ibsen, a real estate appraiser, said he’s not running to please the council.
He said voters’ perception is that council members negotiate behind closed doors.
“There’s a real prevailing culture in city hall that prioritizes coming to a consensus before the vote, and before the public process,” Ibsen said.
“Getting people involved in the front end is messier. It’s longer. It’s harder work, and you don’t necessarily get what you want as an elected official,” Ibsen said. “… I like messy democracy.”
Ibsen points out that despite not earning the support of most of the council, his endorsers do include several federal, state and local lawmakers.
Councilman Ryan Mello, who is Ibsen’s lone supporter on the council, said constituents in the District 1 appreciate Ibsen’s approach.
“Also, Anders has taken on some of the most difficult work in non-Seattle local government, that of ensuring there are enough resources to pay for basic services and addressing income inequality,” Mello wrote in an email because he was out of town. “These are contentious and difficult issues because it stirs up the status quo in a big way.”
Ibsen said he has worked with other council members to co-sponsor legislation, contrary to his reputation as a lone ranger.
Such items include the council’s look at starting a health clinic for city workers, an initiative that the council could examine in more depth next year. Ibsen’s 2014 proposal says Yakima saved $800,000 in the first year its clinic operated. Ibsen also worked to pass a prohibition on the sale of high-octane fortified beers in Tacoma’s West and North ends.
Getting people involved in the front end is messier. It’s longer. It’s harder work and you don’t necessarily get what you want as an elected official.
But Ibsen counts among his biggest accomplishments the personal touch he employs when helping District 1 residents.
He lists more than a dozen examples of small things he’s done: helping residents with things like problem neighbors and a blocked stormwater drain, and interceding on the behalf of parents who felt betrayed by the Tacoma school district’s decision to not extend Geiger Montesorri to eighth grade.
“I have a record of being very accessible,” Ibsen said recently. “I have a deliberately fast turnaround time for folks’ emails and calls. I prioritize that, and I think people appreciate getting a speedy turnaround time.”
Karl Anderson, owner of Concrete Technology, said he disagrees with Ibsen’s politics: “But if I have a problem, I know I can call him, and I know he’s going to try to help me out.”
Case in point: Anderson said he called and left a message with the city about a traffic light at Sixth and Jackson streets that wasn’t working. Nobody got back to him or fixed the light — until he asked Ibsen for help.
“He speaks his mind, and I like having a politician that stands his ground, even if I don’t agree with him,” said Anderson, who donated $250 to Ibsen’s campaign.
Gail Ristvet, a lifelong Proctor resident and Ibsen supporter, said Hines’ decision to switch races in the middle of filing week doesn’t sit well with her. “That showed that he definitely decided he was going to take maybe the simpler race, the easier race (to win),” she said. She said she also has heard him waffle on some issues at neighborhood meetings.
Ibsen, on the other hand, said criticisms about his strong stances boil down to communication differences.
“I make no secret about my core values,” he said. “You owe it to your constituents to be direct and let them know how you feel about things.”