Editorials

Karen Vialle, former Tacoma mayor, had no quit

‘There’s not a person in this city who doesn’t love you’

Friends and colleagues of Karen Vialle, Tacoma's first woman mayor and school board member, recorded video tributes that were shared on her Facebook page before she died on Sunday, July 22, 2019.
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Friends and colleagues of Karen Vialle, Tacoma's first woman mayor and school board member, recorded video tributes that were shared on her Facebook page before she died on Sunday, July 22, 2019.

Karen Vialle, who died Sunday at age 76 after a battle with lung cancer, has been fondly remembered throughout the week, and many reflections have centered on the Type A personality of Tacoma’s first female mayor.

Gutsy. Combative. Uncompromising. Unwilling to suffer fools. A woman who brought strong-mayor tendencies to a city-manager form of government.

Vialle was all those things and more in her single term as mayor (1990-93). Her no-nonsense demeanor had as much to do with her impressive list of achievements (Foss Waterway cleanup, Puyallup Tribe Land Claims Settlement, Union Station renovation, UWT development) as it did why she lost her bid for reelection.

After Vialle, Tacoma settled into a pattern of moderate leadership — efficient, steady but rather boring by comparison. The city wanted a clean break from the colorful days of Vialle and A.L. “Slim” Rasmussen, the never-a-dull-moment former mayor and cantankerous political legend.

Let’s face it, smart female leaders with sharp edges were less likely to have staying power in that era, and even today. (See: Hillary Clinton.)

It’s tempting to compare Vialle to Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, another female Washington political trailblazer who was a strong character in her own right and who also lost her bid for a second term.

But there’s one key difference: Ray retired to private life on Fox Island. Vialle bounced back quickly, taking the executive director job at Centro Latino, where she fought for children and families. The fifth-generation Tacoman kept contributing to the betterment of her beloved city, sometimes behind the scenes, including years as a substitute teacher.

Months before her death, Vialle still served as Tacoma School Board president, driven as ever to tackle problems like budget cuts and the aftermath of a bitter teachers strike. That she won a second board term in 2017 speaks to her growth as a leader, or Tacoma’s evolution as a community, or both.

Mayor Victoria Woodards led a moment of silence for Vialle at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “As a woman mayor, I am especially grateful that she laid the foundation for me to sit here this evening. And we stand on her shoulders.”

Yes, Vialle’s personality was strong. But her shoulders were stronger.

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