Tom McCarthy and Keith Blocker, candidates for Tacoma City Council’s District 3, have a few things in common.
They both moved around a lot as children — McCarthy because of the Army and Blocker because of an unstable home life. Both have settled on Tacoma’s Hilltop and are passionate about the neighborhood and its residents. Both are first-time council candidates who say that Tacoma needs to focus on attracting family wage jobs and protecting public safety.
But listen to people who know each of them, and contrasts emerge.
Blocker is the introspective advocate with a background that gives him an innate understanding of the struggles of the disadvantaged. Inexperience leaves him less adept at navigating the political process.
McCarthy is the hard-charging activist who has championed a number of high-profile causes. He’s shown results, but some say his abrasive and at times combative style is hard to handle and counterproductive.
McCarthy and Blocker emerged from a seven-way August primary as the top two candidates for the post. Whoever wins will replace Lauren Walker, who is leaving the council due to term limits, and will represent the district’s Hilltop, Central Tacoma and Tacoma Mall areas.
AN ‘UNDERDOG IN LIFE’
Blocker and his two younger sisters were raised by a single mother in Philadelphia. As a result of an unstable home life and occasional homelessness, he attended five different schools by the time he was in middle school.
By age 22, Blocker was either homeless or sleeping on couches with friends or family. Around that time, he met Noah Prince, who had been raised in Seattle and was in Philadelphia attending Temple University. The men became friends, and when Prince moved back to the Pacific Northwest to Tacoma, Blocker followed a few months later.
“I wanted a better life for myself and didn’t see how I was going to be able to accomplish my goals in Philadelphia,” Blocker said.
Soon after he moved to Washington in 2006, Blocker was diagnosed with macular degeneration — a disease that causes loss of vision. Despite the setback, he enrolled at Tacoma Community College in 2007 and later at the University of Puget Sound.
While attending UPS, Blocker helped organize a fall festival called So’Just — short for “social justice.” In 2009, Blocker was awarded Tacoma City Club’s Dennis Seinfeld Emerging Leader award. The club recognized him for his contribution to The Conversation, which hosts occasional events on social justice issues, and to UPS’s Race and Pedagogy Initiative that challenges students to think critically about issues of race.
In 2012, he graduated from UPS with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Now 34, Blocker lives on the Hilltop with his wife, who helps him doorbell because he is legally blind. He is the director of middle school programs for Peace Community Center, a Hilltop nonprofit. He leads a team that provides academic coaching for students during and after school.
Terrance Hamilton, 25, met Blocker when Hamilton was a student at Mount Tahoma High School. As Blocker mentored him, the two grew to become friends. Hamilton said Blocker makes himself accessible.
“People want to know why a lot of people don’t vote? It’s because we don’t know these candidates. The average candidate is not going to come to our neighborhoods — I’m saying ’hoods,” said Hamilton, who lives in District 3, near South 56th and South Orchard streets. “… Keith goes out on a limb.”
Mona Baghdadi, a domestic violence advocate who met Blocker shortly after he arrived in Tacoma, said he can de-escalate tense situations and work with people who have views significantly different from his.
“He went through a lot as a young man. This is not a man who has lived a privileged life and has never been tested,” Baghdadi said. “That sets himself apart because he’s worked very, very hard, and he cares about his community.”
Prince, who worked with Blocker at the College Success Foundation after they both moved to Tacoma, said Blocker is reflective when faced with opposition, but doesn’t back down.
“I know when he speaks up that he’s serious,” Prince said. “If he does move forward, it won’t be in a passive-aggressive way. He has a very direct communication style.”
Pastor Gregory Christopher of Shiloh Baptist Church on the Hilltop said if Blocker has a weakness, it’s that he’s “not a politician.” He also doesn’t see Blocker caving to the majority if he sees himself as representing the residents’ best interest.
“(Blocker) probably would struggle to figure that whole process out, trying to still represent his constituents and understand the politics,” Christopher said. “I don’t see him as a politician. He will figure out a way to articulate his position.”
Councilwoman Victoria Woodards said Blocker’s upbringing in an impoverished household makes him well-suited to represent a district that has some of Tacoma’s poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods.
“Keith has been the underdog in life,” Woodards said. “Everything has not been handed to him, so he knows what it takes to be an advocate for people who don’t get everything they need.”
If he’s elected, Blocker said he would spend his initial few weeks sussing out his colleagues’ positions on issues. Six of the nine sitting council members, including Walker, have supported his campaign.
“My approach would be to seek understanding and see how people operate, what motivates them, what makes them tick and really spend time learning,” Blocker said.
A HISTORY OF MAKING WAVES
Tom McCarthy, 40, was born at Fort Lewis to an Army doctor and a teacher. His family moved to Germany when he was 5. Like most military families, they moved around, often back to the Puget Sound area.
But each time he left, whether for his undergraduate degree at University of Oregon or later a master’s degree at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, McCarthy always found himself back in the Tacoma area.
Now a part-time English teacher at Pierce College, McCarthy said he works at the community college partly because it gives him the flexibility to do work in the community. He said his run for council is “an extension of the work I’ve done for the last 10 years.”
That work, he said, is to amplify the community’s voice.
In the mid-2000s, he organized demonstrations against the Iraq War, the Northwest Detention Center and “job killing” free trade agreements, after which he sometimes landed in jail. Charges in his arrests were eventually dropped. He also unsuccessfully sued the city of Tacoma alleging improper police conduct during the arrest.
In 2006, McCarthy helped organize a peace march on the Hilltop that drew around 1,000 people. McCarthy is a co-founder of the Hilltop Street Fair, which drew 10,000 people in its second year this summer.
“The strategic goal was to get people up to the business district, have them look around. ‘Hey, no gang warfare. It’s not that bad,’ ” McCarthy said. “(The street fair) is really helping to change how people view the Hilltop.”
He spent about a year as a board member on the Hilltop Action Coalition. Though some HAC members say McCarthy did good work, his time there was sometimes rocky, minutes from the meetings and interviews with former members show.
Michelle Franklin-Wilson said she joined the coalition as board secretary around the time McCarthy started. She said McCarthy, the treasurer, regularly failed to pay the nonprofit’s monthly cellphone bill.
She said McCarthy also had to be asked to stop interfering with or talking to the part-time paid community coordinator. Franklin-Wilson said McCarthy was upset he was not chosen for the post.
“He failed to pay her first paycheck,” she said.
McCarthy would not respond directly to questions about his duties as treasurer. After this story was published online he called to give explanations that could not be confirmed Tuesday night. He previously said the accusations against him have been stirred up by a small minority.
“There are three haters in this campaign,” he said, referring to Franklin-Wilson, her husband and the former HAC staffer. “What I mean by that is individuals who are not rational in their representation of the facts.”
Minutes show concerns about McCarthy mounted until the executive board told him in September 2013 that he needed to formally apologize for his behavior or be asked to leave.
The board moved to write a letter to remove McCarthy for a litany of complaints, from causing “discord among board members” and community partners to creating a hostile work environment. Before the board could carry out McCarthy’s removal, he resigned.
McCarthy would not comment on the action taken at the board meeting, which minutes say he did not attend. He is not related to Conor McCarthy, who seeks an at-large council seat.
Not all Hilltop coalition members think the organization’s problems back then make McCarthy ill-suited for council. One current and two former HAC members who voted at the time to oust McCarthy are now listed among the people endorsing him.
Fletcher Jenkins, the former vice president of the Hilltop Action Coalition, voted in favor of removing McCarthy but says now that he was only seeking an end to the drama created by a personality clash among members. He says McCarthy did an “outstanding job” during his time at the organization.
“Anything we felt would better our community, Tom was right there,” Jenkins said.
McCarthy calls his time on the HAC board useful.
“It taught me that sometimes needed change is not possible, and it’s better to put your energy somewhere else,” he said.
The News Tribune reached out to or received emails from about a dozen people, including former HAC board members, neighbors and others who know or have worked with McCarthy as volunteers. Many refused to speak on the record, saying they are worried about retaliation if McCarthy is elected.
The News Tribune told McCarthy about the complaints people wouldn’t air publicly.
“That’s slander,” he said in response, calling the HAC a “dysfunctional group with a dysfunctional leadership.”
Pastor Christopher worked with McCarthy as they both advanced a paid sick leave law for Tacoma. Christopher said he understands many people’s reluctance to talk about the candidate.
“He can be aggressive. He has a sense of arrogance. That’s probably why people are hesitant on going on-record,” he said.
Mario Lorenz, who helped McCarthy start the Hilltop Street Fair, said McCarthy has matured in the last two or three years from someone who was “more ego involved” to one who has a “service-oriented attitude.”
Over time, Lorenz said, McCarthy’s at times undiplomatic methods might have earned him undeserved criticism.
Blocker has declined to comment about McCarthy.
John Messina, a Tacoma attorney, endorsed McCarthy because McCarthy favors changing the city’s form of government to install a strong mayor to lead the city. Messina also lauds McCarthy’s history as a protester.
“He’s going to think outside the box and not be afraid of offending people,” Messina said. “… I think Tom will make waves as he has in the past. I think he’s capable, and I know he’s bright, and I know he loves Tacoma.”
For the past several months, McCarthy has also spoken at council meetings for a higher minimum wage. He said he’s also helped organize unions for community college administrative workers who were exempt from overtime provisions.
His list of endorsements includes a number of unions. It does not include a single sitting City Council member, and that’s OK with him.
“Tacoma has a lot of potential,” he said, “but it’s been stagnant for a long time, and the politics-as-usual that is supporting my opponent is not going to realize the 21st century Tacoma that we need.”
Money raised: $43,855 as of Oct. 20. His contributors include temporary labor company True Blue, the union that represents employees at MultiCare and CHI Franciscan, and the political arms of the Master Builders Association of Pierce County and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.
Money raised: $36,235 as of Oct. 20. His contributors include the Pierce County Central Labor Council, political arms of labor unions that represent Tacoma city workers and a union that represents community college instructors.
Sources: Washington state Public Disclosure Commission, campaigns