From ‘scary-bright’ pupil to world-class mayor

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland (right) enjoys a light moment before speaking at the 10th annual Global Honors Colloquium at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland (right) enjoys a light moment before speaking at the 10th annual Global Honors Colloquium at the University of Washington Tacoma. News Tribune file photo, 2016

Marilyn Strickland is, in my opinion, Tacoma’s most influential mayor of the modern era. Here is my reasoning:

She was the first mayor with a strong international focus and adopted an expansive world view. She was not provincial like most mayors before her (myself included).

She instinctively knew Tacoma must be promoted as a vital deep water port city known for its stunning natural setting and role in international trade.

She led economic development missions to Shanghai, Wuhan, Hanoi and other major Asian port cities where she became known and respected.

Marilyn had the advantage of being born in Seoul to a Korean mother and African-American father serving in the U.S. Army. We all have benefited from the mayor’s Asian roots, her multicultural background and her parents’ devotion to her.

Or maybe, it was her natural curiosity, education studying abroad and experience in the private sector.

Whatever the reason, Marilyn’s world view and big-picture thinking served Tacomans very well for the past eight years.

The outcomes are impressive. China’s President Xi Jinping visited Tacoma’s Lincoln High School in 2015 thanks to the mayor’s invitation and behind-the-scenes work. A year later, 100 students had the experience of a lifetime visiting China as Xi’s VIP guests.

Both visits were advantageous for Tacoma. From an economic development perspective, Marilyn’s diplomacy will result in more than $350 million worth of international investment in Tacoma over the next five years. Tacoma now has sister cities in France, Mexico and the Ukraine.

On the national stage, Marilyn is a well known and highly regarded mayor. She served as a trustee with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where she helped enhance the image of Tacoma.

Regionally, she understood Tacoma needs to identify with the greater Puget Sound metropolitan area - not to try and emulate Seattle but to be another major player in this beautiful region with a strong identity that is uniquely Tacoma.

Now if I may share a few personal reflections about Marilyn.

I have known her for more than 40 years. In the 1970s, I was a guidance counselor at Gray Junior High in South Tacoma, and she was an honor student. Then as now, she was exceptional. She was scary-bright, studious, effervescent and very popular with students and staff.

Her star shined brightly. She was kind and thoughtful. She went on to graduate from Mount Tahoma High School and the University of Washington in Seattle. Next came an MBA and a private sector career in business.

In the 1990s when I was mayor, I remembered this young person of strong character and goodwill. I recruited her to serve on the Tacoma Library Board. She said yes, joined civic life and public service, and the rest is history.

As Mayor, Marilyn has remained determined, decisive, focused in turmoil, strong in the face of criticism. She reaches out to others, and builds consensus where possible.

Most important, she maintains her sense of humor. Her biggest fan lives in South Tacoma: her 88-year-old mother, a woman of strength and courage. Marilyn’s husband, Patrick Erwin, is a graduate of Bellarmine Preparatory School and the accomplished principal of Lincoln High School.

Trust me on this, we have not heard the last of Marilyn Strickland. She will continue to make Tacoma look good in her new endeavors and she will keep making us all proud.

I predict holding elected office is now in her past, but connecting us regionally, nationally and globally will remain her focus. And we are all the better for her work.

We wish you all the best, mayor.

Brian Ebersole is a former Tacoma mayor (1996-2000), state legislator and House speaker. He also served as president of Bates Technical College.