Interview: Marilyn Strickland

The Politician

Marilyn Strickland has been mayor of Tacoma for the past five years. A Tacoma-born graduate of Mount Tahoma High School, she earned degrees from the University of Washington and Clark Atlanta University. Strickland discussed the future, past, and present of the city of Tacoma through her eyes.

Q: In your five years as mayor, how has the role changed and grown?
A: I would say the biggest change I’ve noticed, just being an elected official in general, has been social media. When I first started in politics, social media was pretty new, and it was mostly college students on Facebook. Back in the day, a news cycle consisted of a daily paper or the news in the evening … I think there are pluses and minuses to it. On the one hand it gives us the chance to disseminate information very quickly, and the downside is a lot of bad information gets out there very quickly. So how does that change the way you govern? You have to be transparent, you have to be factual, and you can’t just let lies sit there.

Q: What are your favorite things to do in the city?
A: My husband and I, we live downtown. We’re both very, very busy people with large responsibilities, so we tend to like to relax. We’re nesters. But at the same time we like to go out to local restaurants, places like Top of Tacoma, Hilltop Kitchen, and places downtown. Just spending time supporting local businesses is really important to us.

Q: How does the future look for Tacoma?
A: I think the future of Tacoma is very bright and full of opportunity. I believe that we’ve finally turned a corner where there are more of us who have a positive image of Tacoma, and a high self-esteem. You know, the recession hit us pretty hard in 2008 but I think we’ve recovered nicely. We’ve seen a lot of progress, a lot of housing being built, and businesses opening, and I think Tacoma’s reputation is becoming more positive over time and you see more people choosing to live here.

Q: What improvements do you think are still coming for Tacoma?
A: We’re finally investing in infrastructure, so that means we’re finally going to fix our roads, our bridges, and our streets. That’s not a very sexy thing to talk about, but it’s important because it’s a quality of life issue, and it creates jobs that pay well. I think another thing happening for Tacoma is how we are really becoming a center for innovative education. So much of a city’s reputation is based on the quality of its public school system.

Q: Share your thoughts on being a female person of color in this role.
A: I think, generally speaking, when you have the privilege of governing a city like Tacoma you have to be conversant in a lot of different disciplines, and you have to understand that your represent everyone, even the people that you disagree with. Being a person of color, woman of color, as mayor is no different than being a woman of color if I was in the corporate sector or small business or working in an academy or university — it’s part of your identity. It’s who you are, and you leverage it to make it work best for you.

Q. Tacoma is a city with a complicated past. How is that to navigate as a representative?
A: I think our history is one of our biggest assets because we are proud of our history. It has not always been the best of us, when you think about the Chinese Expulsion and the internment of Japanese Americans, but at the same time we now have the Chinese Reconciliation Park, which is a landmark on our waterfront, and we have a beautiful piece of art at the University of Washington Tacoma recognizing the Japanese school. I think there are ways in contemporary times to recognize the wrongs, but to say “these types of things will never happen again.” History, in many ways, is what makes us unique in the Pacific Northwest. We have a proud history, a proud maritime history, a proud blue-collar history, and we have these amazing historic neighborhoods and buildings.

Q: Would you ever live anywhere else? 
A: Well, I’ve had the chance to live other places. When I returned here to the region from Atlanta, I was actually working in Seattle and I lived in Seattle before I moved to Georgia. I chose to live in Tacoma and I just saw something happening downtown; it was the very beginning of something, it was probably the mid-90s at the time. I tell people, “you have a lot of different opportunities to choose careers or to do jobs” and no matter what I end up doing in the future I guarantee you I will never love a job more than I love being mayor of my hometown.

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is a staff writer at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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