Candidates for at-large Tacoma council position focus on low-income residents

A local attorney and a nonprofit worker are vying for one of Tacoma’s at-large City Council seats. Both are concerned for the welfare of Tacoma’s low-income residents, but have vastly different approaches to the problem.

Former assistant city attorney Conor McCarthy, 38, said he wants to boost Tacoma’s attractiveness to businesses that would bring well-paying jobs.

His opponent, Suzanne Skaar, is the operations manager for the nonprofit Orphans Africa and is on Tacoma’s Human Rights Commission. She wants to be a voice for low-income Tacomans and would support policies to increase wages and provide universal child care.

Both seek the seat of one-term councilman David Boe, who decided to not seek re-election.

Skaar, 36, just returned from more than two weeks in rural Tanzania, delivering feminine hygiene kits to orphans, interviewing teachers and figuring out how to get electricity and running water to several schools there.

Skaar has reported $150 in campaign donations. She said raising money for a campaign is unethical when it can do good elsewhere. Also, people are tired of money’s role in politics, she said.

“I have a real problem with spending money on anything that is not going to help others,” Skaar said. “How much money do you want to waste on yard signs verses issues that matter?”

She’s been to several community events and presented at some candidate forums, including one with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, where she was the only candidate supporting an increase to the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, which she calls a good start.

Child care is expensive — more than in-state tuition at a public college in 33 states, some analysts say. Skaar said women are disproportionately affected by the high price and by having to take uncompensated time off to care for children.

“I would love to see universal child care implemented in Tacoma,” she said. “I would love to lay the groundwork.” When asked, she did not identify a funding source for her proposal.

McCarthy, who is not related to District 3 council candidate Tom McCarthy, said poverty, unemployment and homelessness are problems in Tacoma.

He pointed to Tacoma Public Schools’ high number of students — nearly two thirds — who receive free or reduced-price lunch as one measure of poverty.

McCarthy said he favors increasing the minimum wage gradually to $12 per hour, but says an increase won’t solve everything. City leadership needs to do its part and attract more companies that can provide residents with living-wage jobs.

“If the city really wants to catalyze (business growth) it has to invest,” McCarthy said. Improving sidewalks, utilities and other necessities before a business develops a parcel could entice more to move to Tacoma.

One such example, he said, is the Thea Foss Waterway, a formerly polluted area of Tacoma until the city acquired it and scrubbed it of much of its toxic legacy. Today, apartments, condos, shops and a museum sit along its once-polluted banks.

McCarthy says the city can enact policies to improve quality of life for all residents, regardless of the income people earn or the neighborhoods they live in.

He also worries about those who struggle with homelessness or mental health challenges. McCarthy called both a “countywide problem.”

“The county doesn’t have a one-tenth of a cent tax” to pay for mental health services but it should, McCarthy said. He is the son of Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542